A LABOUR candidate launched a stinging attack last night on the regional development agency for its failure to push the North-East's cause.

Kevan Jones, who is bidding to retain his Durham North seat, was speaking at a hustings meeting organised by the North East Chamber of Commerce and The Northern Echo.

In response to a question from PD Ports about whether the Government should develop a ports strategy to assist development in the region, Mr Jones said: "The RDA is a good vehicle for pushing this forward, but it has been a wasted five years because One NorthEast (ONE) hasn't taken the strategic decisions.

"It tried not to upset anyone and spread the jam thinly. On ports, should we be supporting Teesport as the major gateway to the region? Of course we should, but then we upset Tyneside and Blyth.

"The extension of a port on Teesside will benefit not only Teesside but the region as a whole. This is one of the annoying things and failings of ONE that it hasn't been strong enough to turn round and say to Government that this is our priority."

Mr Jones was joined on the platform at the Tall Trees Hotel, in Yarm, by the Liberal Democrats' Hartlepool candidate Jody Dunn and the Conservatives' Stockton North candidate Harriett Baldwin.

Ms Baldwin said there should be investment in freight transport links in the North-East to ease the pressure on southern ports.

Ms Dunn said the Government's lack of a national ports strategy was symptomatic of its handling of the Ghost Ships - ageing US warships sent to Hartlepool for scraping.

"There's potential for an industry which would create thousands of jobs but the ships were sent over without planning permission," she said. "They've been there 18 months and nothing has happened. It's a terrible shame because we don't seem to have a strategy for looking at dry dock facilities."

The hustings was chaired by The Northern Echo's editor Peter Barron and the candidates were questioned about pensions, bureaucracy and the regional economy.

Ms Baldwin said: "It is business leaders that make an economy successful and Government is there to facilitate them rather than direct absolutely everything.

"It is easy to grow employment when the Government is doing all the hiring. There have been 500,000 jobs created in the public sector since 1997 - 68,000 in the North-East."

Ms Dunn spoke of the need for the RDAs to work more closely with local councils. "They know the state of local industry and can say what we need our young people to do, and can then encourage the right training programmes to be set up."

Mr Jones said the North-East had to end its "begging bowl mentality" and be clear about the areas in which it required public investment. "It should be to raise our training levels and transport links," he said. "And then we shout from the rooftops, not just down to London, but north to Scotland and over to Europe, about what we are good at."

For more news on the election log on to www.thisisthenortheast.co.uk/election