Paul Watson is a name which raises controversy and polarized opinions in Sunderland, to put it mildly. Leader of the City Council from 2008 to 2017 before he lost his battle with bowel cancer, Watson’s legacy ruling the city is probably one of the most hotly contested and debated matters of recent times, even one which was lampooned by the Private Eye Magazine in 2012. Was he a hero? Or was he a villain? You’ll find voices for both. Here we dive into the life and legacy of this former politician, who gained a road named after him running up to the Northern Spire Bridge, also covering of course the infamous “incident” which his name would be associated with.
A Pennywell Lad
Despite what you think of him, it cannot be denied that Paul Watson stemmed from humble origins. He was born on Pennywell in 1954, and he’d root himself to that area for most of his adult life having lived out his final years in neighbouring South Hylton. Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, it was customary of course for Watson to take the path of the “working man” and he became a shipwright in Pallion. Of course early into his career the city would face a tumulus decline of its industry and by 1981 by the time he was only 27 years old, Watson found himself out of a job and posed to reinvent his life. He later took up owning a bar, before deciding to pursue further education and studying Law at Teesside University.
The club Watson came to run was known as the Ford and Hylton lane club. It was in 1993 that Watson received a tip off that the premises were to be burgled. According to Private Eye magazine “he armed himself with two knives, then he and two accomplices lay in wait”. Three burglars did indeed attack the property. One died with a knife wound to the heart, but what happened remains unclear. Watson and the two others were charged for murder, but were subsequently acquitted when the prosecution witnesses changed their stories, meaning nothing could be proven. Watson would later describe the ordeal as a horrible moment in his life. It has been a frequent avenue of attack against him by his critics, but as the facts are not clear one cannot jump to conclusions.
Four years after the social club incident, Paul Watson commenced his political career in the Labour Party becoming elected councillor for Pallion ward in 1997, a nod to his former shipbuilding career. It would be in 2008 that he would become the leader of Sunderland City Council and serve his 9 year tenure. His rule over the city was objectively a time of frustration for Sunderland precisely because the great recession undermined investment, seen many development projects get scrapped and intensified widespread political disillusionment of which he became the target of.
Supporters of Watson argue that he helped spearhead the city’s regeneration, and argue that he “stood up” for wearside in resisting the North East combined authority. Things completed under his tenure included the redevelopment of Sunniside, the Northern Spire Bridge and Keel Square. The first one never lived up to its potential however. Supporters also like to give him credit for helping wrestle Tesco away from the Vaux site, even if he did not live to see development there commence. It can be argued Graeme Miller “reaped” a lot of the groundwork he laid.
Still, a lot of Watson’s changes to Sunderland otherwise were arguably “cosmetic”- illustrating how difficult it was to transform the area’s fortunes or to uplift everything. Few would argue that despite things here and there, that the city changed dramatically or “for the better” during his tenure. He was not a miracle maker and nor was his rule particularly radical or revolutionary.
On the other hand, Watson’s tenure was also lampooned for his perceived cronyism, that is giving positions and roles to those who were his close friends, connections and family. Again this behaviour was covered by the satirical magazine Private Eye, who note that he ensured both his wife Susan Watson, his sister Celia Gofton and his former barmaid Amy Wilson were all elected as councillors, and were all subsequently appointed to the local police and crime panel! This has added a wider atmosphere of accusations against the council in general by Sunderland residence amidst deep political disillusionment, a sentiment which has accelerated a decline in the Labour Party’s vote share.
On November 7th 2017 Paul succumbed to the horrific experience of Bowel Cancer and died at his home in South Hylton next to the banks of the River which he had built his life around. His funeral was held at St. Bennet’s R C Church in Monkwearmouth. His passing seen him receive widespread tributes from fellow politicians in the Labour Party who expressed belief he had helped transform the city’s fortunes, but at the same time a lot of sour grapes from portions of Sunderland’s residents, who were less impressed.
A neutral view of his life one source told us that Watson was “incompetent” but “meant well” for the city and it is true to say that to turn Sunderland around is a challenging job and that what you have “to work with” is little. His critics will argue he effectively turned the council into his own “social club” so to speak, a chummy coalition of his friends, family and acquittances. But it should not be overlooked that Paul Watson for most part an ordinary man, from a humble background, attempting to run a city. He was of course not perfect, but perhaps far from the bogeyman some say he is too.
So this leaves it to you, was he a Sunderland hero or a villain? And with his name now immortalized in a Pallion road, how will history judge him?