Paul Watson, Sunderland City Council leader and chair of the North East Combined Authority, has died.
Cllr Watson, aged 63, had previously been diagnosed with cancer.
A former shipwright, Cllr Watson was first elected on a Labour ticket in 1997 before rising up the ranks to become Sunderland’s leader in 2008. He became chair of NECA, which is made up of Durham CC, Gateshead Council, Newcastle City Council, Northumberland CC, North Tyneside Council, South Tyneside Council, and Sunderland, in 2016.
In 2013, Cllr Watson helped found the Key Cities group, which now has a membership of 22 cross-party medium-sized UK cities. He was chair of the group for four years.
Sunderland’s deputy leader Harry Trueman (Lab), who assumes council leadership responsibilities until further notice, 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.”
Among many other roles, Cllr Watson was chair of the UK delegation to the Committee of the Regions in Europe. A staunch ‘remainer’, he had fears over what leaving the European Union could mean for Sunderland and the North East.
Following criticism of Sunderland’s social services in 2015, Cllr Watson oversaw the creation of the Together for Children company which now looks after education, social services and all safeguarding in the city.
Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes (Lab) said Cllr Watson “was a driving force in our region’s politics for more than a decade” and “commanded respect from all parts of the political spectrum”. He said Cllr Watson “always had Sunderland’s best interests at heart” and “was a fighter to the end”.
Cllr Forbes, who said he had “the deepest respect” for Cllr Watson, added: “Paul was one of a kind; he always spoke his mind and I will miss his forthright contributions as well as his thoughtful analysis of politics.”