TRIBUTES poured in last night following the death of the man who helped sow the seeds for the economic renaissance of the North-East.

Joe Mills, former chairman of the Northern Regional Labour Party and regional secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, died yesterday, aged 68, after a long illness.

Sporting his famous moustache, he was known throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s as the face of the Labour Party and trade unions in the region.

He was a founder member of the Northern Development Company. A forerunner to the regional development agency One NorthEast, it was instrumental in bringing companies such as Nissan to the region. He was also a director of the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation.

He counted Tony Blair as a friend and was a key figure in the Prime Minister's early career, working behind the scenes to get him selected as the Labour candidate for Sedgefield in 1983.

Mr Blair's agent, John Burton, said the Prime Minister had been deeply saddened by the news.

"Joe was before his time - a moderniser and a great figure in the Labour Party in the North-East," said Mr Burton.

"He was an influential figure in the party and trade unions, and was a good friend to Tony Blair. Mr Blair is deeply saddened by this and will be writing to Joe's family."

Born in Newcastle, Mr Mills was a former pupil at Annfield Plain County Modern School, near Stanley, County Durham.

He joined the TGWU in 1963, aged 29, and swiftly rose through the ranks, holding the post of regional secretary from 1975 to 1993.

He was Northern Regional Labour Party chairman from 1978 to 1992 and was awarded an OBE in the New Year's Honours in 1994.

A strong advocate for regional government, he was chairman of the Social Issues Forum for the North-East Regional Assembly until last year.

He was also chairman of Sunderland Health Authority and the Tyne and Wear Health Action Zone.

Derek Foster, MP for Bishop Auckland, said: "He was well respected by business leaders and was known as a deliverer and a man of his word.

"We have lost a very colourful and influential friend - one of the most outstanding Labour politicians in the region in the past 30 years."