TRIBUTES are being paid to Cllr Paul Watson, long-serving leader of Sunderland City Council, who has died at the age of 63.

Cllr Watson, who served as council leader since 2008 and chair of the North-East Combined Authority, had been suffering from cancer.

Colleagues paid tribute to the Labour politician, for his "tireless" work to improve the economy of his home city and "his passion for the North-East".

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The former Wearside shipyard worker was first elected as councillor in 1997 and represented the Pallion ward for 20 years.

He joined the council’s cabinet as member for regeneration before being elected Deputy Leader and then Leader.

He went on to become a major figure in North East regional politics, including Chair of the Association of North East Councils and Deputy Chair of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership.

During his time as council Leader, he oversaw the council taking ownership of the landmark Vaux site and in driving forward the city's plans for regeneration and growth.

This included working closely with major employers such as Nissan and taking a strategic lead on the £100m New Wear Crossing project.

He was also a proud advocate of the International Advanced Manufacturing Park project designed to attract 5,000 jobs and bring in more than £300m of private sector investment over the next ten years.

Sunderland Council's Deputy Leader Councillor Harry Trueman said: "Paul had many talents and among these were how, unlike some politicians, he could take a long-term view and see bigger and wider strategic points and issues.

"As a younger man he had known the difficult times that so many people had experienced in the 1970s and 1980s when he, like many thousands of others, had been made redundant from his job.

"He wanted to see Sunderland's economy grow, see more jobs created and see that people could fulfil more of their aspirations and have more choice.

"He, like many, could re-call when jobs, any jobs, were very, very scarce and when unemployment was far more common than now.

"We can never be complacent or stand still on these things and while Paul recognised that Sunderland's economy had re-invented itself, because all the jobs lost in shipbuilding and coalmining had been replaced, there was always more to do”.

Cllr Trueman assumes council leadership responsibilities until further notice.

North East LEP Chair, Andrew Hodgson, said: “Paul was a true advocate for the North East and it is with sadness and thoughts for his family that we pay tribute to the huge contribution he has made to the North East over his years in public service.

“Paul was committed to improving the social and economic wellbeing of the region, working tirelessly with the North East LEP to realise the ambitions within our Strategic Economic Plan and play his part in creating a better future for the people of the North East.

“He believed in creating opportunities for all, be it in accessing education to improve skills or focussing on job creation, particular in advanced manufacturing for the region. He wanted people to achieve their personal ambitions in life to support themselves, their families and future generations.

"He had a passion for the North East and the city of Sunderland, continually striving to improve the lives of the residents and conditions for businesses.

“Paul worked tirelessly throughout his illness and will be sadly missed by his fellow board members, the Executive Team at the North East LEP, and me on a personal level.

"Our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time.”