AS he contemplates relaxing rounds of golf or lazy afternoons in the garden of his home near York, Mike Collier feels content that he has earned his retirement.

As chief executive of one of nine fledgling regional development agencies, he has had to contend with a monumental task since he started the job in January 1999.

Not only has he attempted to galvanize a vast, diverse region - stretching from the chemicals corridor on Teesside to the rural wilds of Northumberland - but he had also to find a conduit to drive the North-East forward.

The chosen path was fraught with danger, yet Mr Collier believes it is one that was ably negotiated. The proof, he said, was in this year's published revision of the 1999 regional economic strategy - the blueprint for how the North-East will move forward over a ten-year period.

"The most important thing was the creation of the regional economic strategy," he said. "I cannot overemphasise the importance of it. What was very reassuring was how relevant the 1999 strategy was seen to be (in the revision). That set a clear course and direction."

Consultation exercises fed into the development of the strategy.

"The region was saying to itself, we want to become a very successful region. We no longer want to have a dependency culture. We want more people working and more businesses created in the region."

At the heart of the drive for success has been the push to make the region a science and innovation hot-spot, driving the North-East workforce from low to high-skilled: "The best chance for us all to have a strong economy in the years to come," Mr Collier said.

Five centres of excellence were created in the core areas of digital technology, new and renewable energy, life sciences, nanotechnology and process industries, with a sixth company, NorthSTAR, set up to find funding for and provide a bridge between economic centres and commercial opportunity.

"I am very excited about this," said Mr Collier, who retires on May 31. "The Government is now saying to other regions, 'The North-East is getting it right. I would like you other regions to recycle what they are doing in the North-East'.

"I think this is about the fact we are creating a climate recognising that sustainable industry and sustainable jobs are rooted in a technology or science knowledge-based economy."

The question of whether the agency is delivering the goods is met with mixed reactions in the region.

When asked if One NorthEast has lived up to his expectations, Mr Collier said: "It is radically better. It has exceeded even what I dared hope we could achieve. The stuff we have done on the science side is absolutely breakthrough. It will have a profound impact on the future of the North-East. We have probably sold ourselves short."

But he acknowledges that not everybody sees it that way.

"Public perception of One NorthEast varies. I think we are better thought of outside the region than in the region. The closer you are to One NorthEast the more you appreciate it. The vast majority of people who are further removed probably do not have such a good appreciation of us."

Mr Collier's replacement, Northumberland County Council chief executive Alan Clarke, will have the task of furthering One NorthEast's work in conjunction with a new chairman to be appointed in the coming months.

Mr Collier said: "He is an excellent guy. The biggest challenge is that it is a harsh globally competitive world. There are no easy routes. The effort has got to be sustained."

'It has made a start but the jury is still out'

Ashok Kumar, MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, said: "I think that it has made a start but the jury is still out. We should have been leaps ahead of everybody else but nevertheless, we are where we are.

"I am slightly disappointed that we are not further ahead of other regions. We are not attracting enough inward investment compared to other regional development agencies.

"My expectations were high, though."

'Too much emphasis on Newcastle'

Gerry Steinberg, MP for Durham City, said: "I do not think that it has made an impact and I think that is because it is not accountable as an organisation.

"If there is regional government, the people of the North-East will become more aware of it, but at the moment, the vast majority of them do not know what it is or what it does."

Mr Steinberg said: "From what I have seen, it is not fulfilling its function to the whole of the region. It always seems to concentrate on Tyneside, while Durham is not regarded as being as important."

'I would give it seven out of ten'

Redcar MP Vera Baird said: "One NorthEast started ahead of the game in terms of its regional development strategy and structures, but I do not think it has maintained its momentum.

"Although it has not adopted new models of distributing resources, nevertheless it has put money into single pots in the sub-regions.

"At present, we have maybe three representatives on the board from Teesside which ensures we have a voice.

"A couple of the contenders for chairman are from Teesside and I hope one of them succeeds because it is important, as Newcastle makes progress in regeneration through the arts and there is such a threat to the steel industry, we have representation.

"I would give it seven out of ten."

Expectations were high, says MP

Bishop Auckland MP Derek Foster said: "I think there is a strong feeling that One NorthEast has not fulfilled expectations but that is maybe because our expectations have been so high.

"There is a perception among people on Teesside and in County Durham that there has been an over-emphasis on Tyne and Wear. That is maybe due to the Capital of Culture bid but that is the perception."

Mr Foster said "Where I feel it has fallen down is in failing to excite the region about the possibility of a new future. That is an enormous task for the new board."