A DEFENCE company has withdrawn its sponsorship of the Great Exhibition of the North after concerns were raised by acts about their involvement. 

BAE Systems, which was one of the festival's major sponsors, announced it was withdrawing from the event yesterday.

It follows controversy over the arms company's involvement, with two acts due to perform pulling out last week as a result. 

A statement from BAE Systems said: “While BAE Systems remains supportive of the aims of the Great Exhibition we have decided to redirect our support to other initiatives better suited to both our skills and innovation objectives and in support of the industrial strategy of the North of England.”

A spokesperson for the event, which is still sponsored by Virgin Trains East Coast and management consultancy Accenture said: “We accept and respect BAE Systems’ decision. Working with all of our partners, funders, supporters and contributors, we remain focussed on delivering a successful event which will shine a spotlight on the North’s great art and culture, design and innovation. 

"It’s a significant opportunity to raise the profile of the North, change outdated perceptions and drive future growth and we are absolutely committed to achieving this success for the benefit of all of us who live, work and do business here.”

North-East singer songwriter Nadine Shah and Leeds-based Commoners Choir had both expressed concern but have now said they will be involved again.

Former Chumbawamba guitarist Boff Whalley, founder of the choir, said they would now be performing at the event in June.

He said: "It's a really great thing to be back in. It (the performance) is a collaboration with other choirs so it was disappointing not being able to get involved. 

"The whole idea of the festival is brilliant - it was just that one sticking point for us."

More than 2,300 people had signed a petition calling for organisers to refuse BAE's sponsorship.

The eleven-week festival, celebrating the pioneering spirit of the North of England, takes place in Newcastle and Gateshead from June.