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Great British Railways: Headquarters

Volume 704: debated on Wednesday 24 November 2021

I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Members are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate, either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the Chamber.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of York’s bid to host the headquarters of Great British Railways.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I thank the City of York Council for its time and effort in preparing York’s case and for providing me with the updated details in advance of the debate.

Earlier this year, following the Williams-Shapps rail review, the Government announced their intention to create the new public body, Great British Railways. Billed as a modern-day successor to British Rail, Great British Railways will take on the responsibilities covered by Network Rail, as well as further responsibilities from the Department for Transport and the Rail Delivery Group. The new body will bring the ownership and management of the railways under one structure, with the organisation responsible for collecting revenue, running and planning the network and setting most fares and timetables.

On 4 October, the Transport Secretary announced that he was looking for a town or city to host the new headquarters of Great British Railways and, in doing so, become the home of the railways. In the next 10 minutes, I hope to persuade you, Mr Efford, and the Minister that York has always been and should remain the home of the railways, a fact that should be recognised by locating the new headquarters of Great British Railways in our great city.

York was first connected to the railway network more than 180 years ago and quickly became one of the best-connected cities in the UK, having direct rail access to more than 150 towns, cities and villages, representing a third of the UK’s population. To accommodate that, at the time of its completion in 1877, York station was the largest in the world; to date, it remains one of the most impressive.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and I congratulate him on securing the debate. He has my full support. Does he agree that, with the National Railway Museum based in York, the city is already at the centre of our railway heritage, and that it therefore makes sense to make York the home of our railway future, as well as our past?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention, based on which I consider that he might have had sight of my speech, because I will come on to that point. He is absolutely right: we have to link the past with the future. York has an amazing rail heritage and the railway museum is at the heart of that. I will touch on that further. York has an amazing opportunity going forward and I want to touch on some of the sites—the York central site—that really can deliver for York, but also for our future rail centre.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way and for securing the debate. Does he agree that it is about not just the past, but the future? Indeed, York has the engineers, the operators and the skillset needed for advancing digital rail in the future—the very skills that are needed by Great British Railways.

I thank the hon. Member—I was going to call her my hon. Friend—and neighbour. I think she might have seen my speech as well, because I was going to touch on skills. She is absolutely right that the skills in York have been developed not only through the Network Rail centre, but through our colleges and universities, which are at the forefront of the future. That is why York, for me, is undoubtedly the first choice for the location of the headquarters of Great British Railways.

York has always been an important staging post for those travelling between London and Scotland, which is reflected in its prominence on the east coast mainline. It also has another role as the interchange between the east coast mainline and the trans-Pennine line, connecting northern industrial heartlands, such as Merseyside, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire with the east coast, the east of England and the north-east of England. If, as I believe to be the case, the Government are truly committed to levelling up and spreading prosperity to areas outside London and south-east, then they should look no further than York.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the headquarters of the Great British Railways needs to be at the centre of the country in order to be able to service the whole country? Does he agree that Derby is almost at the centre of the United Kingdom? It has 200 rail-related companies and the largest train manufacturer in the country. I have been campaigning, even before this competition starts, for Derby to be the centre for the Great British Railways headquarters.

It will come as no surprise to my hon. Friend that I am not going to agree with that, but I understand that she is putting her case forward, as she always does extremely well. I will continue to argue that York is at the centre of the country when we talk about the United Kingdom. If we are talking about connecting and keeping the United Kingdom together, then York plays a key role in delivering that and stands out as the perfect choice.

We are talking about the centre of the railway network in the north. If, as I believe, the Government are serious about strengthening the Union, through the creation of a Great British-wide body, then York, near to the geographic centre of Great Britain, is the perfect choice.

It is not just York’s rail connectivity that sets it apart, but its central role in the nation’s wider rail industry. In 1975, this was recognised by the opening of the National Railway Museum, as has been mentioned, at a site adjacent to York station. It is home to such iconic locomotives as the Mallard and the Flying Scotsman. The museum attracts over 700,000 visitors per year from around the world, with plans for further expansion in the coming years.

There is much more. York’s skills base in rail and connected industries is unrivalled. The industry employs 5,500 people in the city, some 10% of the national total and two thirds of all rail jobs in the Yorkshire and Humber region. It also lies at the centre of the UK’s largest rail cluster, being ideally located between Doncaster and Sheffield to the south, Leeds and Huddersfield to west and Durham and the Tees Valley to the north. Over 100 relevant companies, with 9,500 employees, are based within one hour of York.

My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case for York to host the Great British Railways headquarters and I strongly support his arguments. He is commenting on skills. For me, the reason why York is such a strong contender is the breadth of its skills base, whether it is in rolling stock, engineering, planning or, particularly, the digital future. That expertise will enable the Great British Railways to hit the ground running and be more effective as a result.

I could not have put it better myself. I completely agree with my hon. Friend: it is about the skill base and the digital future. We have that wider skill base, which I will elaborate on further, but it strengthens York’s case and makes it, for me, the only choice.

The region boasts no less than 13 leading rail education providers, including Selby College, which has partnered with Siemens to deliver apprenticeships for level 3 rail engineering technicians. York College is the home of the Yorkshire and Humber Institute of Technology, which delivers high-quality technical education with a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects.

York is also home to Network Rail’s training centre, which provides professional development for existing employees as well as training the engineers of the future, as was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones). Indeed, Network Rail already employs more than 1,000 people in York across every discipline. In 2014, it opened the country’s biggest rail control centre in the city, and I suggest that the same vote of confidence in York should be made by its successor organisation.

The home of the railways should have an eye to their future. That is where York stands out. The city and the wider region are home to a dynamic mix of businesses and academic institutions, working together on the latest innovations in rail. The University of York is a pioneer in the field of rail auto—I cannot say it.

Automation, yes. I thank my hon. Friend for putting me right on that. The University of Leeds is currently developing the new state-of-the-art Institute for High Speed Rail and Systems Integration. That work was enabled by collaboration between key sectors in the fields of railway engineering, signalling and software development, many of which are based in York or have major offices there. I hope I have persuaded you, Mr Efford, of York’s credentials as a railway city and perhaps the UK’s pre-eminent railway city.

There is another reason that York would be a sensible, if not the best, choice for locating a major public body in the form of the Great British Railways. As the Minister will know, York is currently home to one of the country’s largest brownfield sites, which is also a regeneration project. It covers some 45 hectares of disused track and railway depots, adjacent to York station and right in the heart of the city. York Central promises to be of a similar scale and ambition to the highly successful redevelopment of King’s Cross. The project promises to provide more than 2,500 new homes and, crucially, 112,000 square metres of high-quality commercial office space. Work has already started on clearing the site, following a successful bid for £77 million of Government funding for the enabling infrastructure.

As the Prime Minister would say, this is an oven-ready proposition for Great British Railways, providing a unique chance to build the new headquarters on a city-centre brownfield site in which Network Rail is a major partner and landowner. Surely there is a certain appeal about this: the new Great British Railways being based on a regenerated railway site. That the site happens to be located next to the National Railway Museum, one of the north’s major and main interchange stations, and the offices of several major players in the national rail industry makes it an option that is impossible for the Government to ignore.

The hon. Member makes a very powerful case for York. The location of Great British Railways would also be next to the rail operating centre, which is the flagship of digital signalling and contains advanced skills. Is that not why this particular location is so important for the future of our railways?

Absolutely. The location is perfect, with the brownfield regeneration site that interlinks with the Network Rail headquarters and all the skills around there, as we have touched on. Those new skills are so important to the future of our railways. That is what we, as well as the region, can deliver in York. The location is ideal, but this is also about the skills that the whole region can deliver. That is so important and it is what makes the case for York so strong.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Is there not another reason to consider York? In addition to its proud history, its strategic location and the concentration of the rail industry within the city, is not York simply a fantastic place to live for those who will relocate to wherever the headquarters of Great British Railways ends up?

I am bound to agree with that, as someone who lives and works on the edge of York, as many people in this debate do. We all know what a fantastic place York is to live and to work in, which is surely a huge attraction when we need to attract the right skills to this new headquarters. York provides that attraction; there is absolutely no doubt about that.

As we have touched on, there are also universities, including the University of York. The number of people who initially study at the University of York but ultimately stay to live and work in the city or just around the city tells its own story. Great British Railways will need to attract people with skills, and York has that attraction, without a shadow of a doubt.

My hon. Friend is indeed making a very strong case for York. Is there not also a precedent for moving a national headquarters to York? Was it not Edward I who, in 1298, moved the Treasury to York?

I bow to my right hon. Friend’s knowledge of history, but yes, absolutely—the precedent is there. This issue is also about the future, as we have said. Nevertheless, I entirely agree with him.

Despite York Central being an important and distinguishing feature of York’s bid, that bid is not dependent on an individual site. City of York Council has put forward several other existing city centre office buildings that it regards as viable options. Such is the compact nature of the city centre in York that Great British Railways can expect similar levels of connectivity and business engagement wherever it is ultimately located in our great city.

To sum up, York is most definitely the right choice for Great British Railways for four main reasons. First, there are the existing Network Rail facilities, the strong connectivity, the rail heritage and the availability of a range of convenient city centre sites. Secondly, it has a skilled workforce, accounting for over 10% of the workforce of the national rail industry, as it is located at the centre of the north-east Yorkshire rail cluster, which is the largest in the UK. Thirdly, it has a leading status in training and innovation, driven by local businesses, colleges and universities. Fourthly, York’s position at the heart of the UK rail network makes it an ideal national administrative base. However, even more than those reasons, there is York’s potential contribution to the Government’s goals of strengthening the Union and levelling up in the north of England, especially given its strong links to Scotland, the north-east of England, Manchester and all parts of Yorkshire.

I understand that this process will be a competitive one, and that other rail towns and cities are being quick to make clear their interests, and I will admit that I am probably biased, as many Members are about their constituencies. Nevertheless, I think that York’s case is extremely strong, and I know that it would be a source of great pride for our city, which has been so prominent in English and British history, if its next chapter could include the status that comes with being officially recognised as the home of the railways and of Great British Railways.

Thank you very much, Mr Efford, for calling me to speak. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford, especially in a debate on a subject that I know you will follow with great interest in the future.

I have learned a great deal today. Before I respond to the various points that my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) made, I thought that I should respond to a couple of other points. I have had a history lesson. I did not know that the Treasury was moved to York by Edward I. Obviously, this Government have moved part of the Treasury to Darlington, so it must have been a good idea then that we are repeating now.

I have also heard a great deal about the merits of Derby from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham). She says that it is in the centre of the country, but if you were to take England and put a pin in the middle, you would find that the best place to put Great British Railways would be the village of Hellidon in my constituency. I am not convinced that there will be a great campaign for such a development, but I thank my hon. Friends for their contributions so far. I know my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer is a tireless advocate for his city. He is to be commended for promoting an understanding of what a wonderful place it is.

I completely understand that York is a city famed for its rich railway heritage. The first direct train ran between York and London in 1840. By the 1850s, there were 13 trains a day between the two cities, carrying 341,000 passengers a year. As the centre of the railway network along the east coast, York played a major role in the management and development of Britain’s railway network. For more than 120 years, York was the base for the construction and servicing of steam locomotives and rolling stock.

Fast forward to today and some of the remaining buildings used during the construction and servicing of the locomotives and rolling stock have become part of the wonderful National Railway Museum, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight).

Today, York is home to Network Rail, LNER, Northern, Grand Central, the Siemens train servicing and cleaning depot, and many varied rail consultancy businesses, contractors and specialists, from signalling and electrification experts, to civil engineers and railway operatives, as the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) has told me a number of times and I am sure, based on this debate, will continue to do so for quite some time to come.

Since 1877, York railway station has helped to transform the city, connecting York to the rest of the United Kingdom and the wider world. At one time, the biggest railway station in the world, it remains today an important transport hub for the north and the United Kingdom as a whole. During the autumn of 2019, there were approximately 20,000 daily passengers on London to York services, and there were more than 10 million passenger journeys from York station over the course of that year. From the very earliest days of the railways, through to the modern day, York has played an important part in the history and future of the railway in this country, and it will continue to do so. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) and for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for their contributions today to emphasise the importance of this great city.

Of course, there are other towns and cities across the country that have played an important part in our proud railway heritage and that right hon. and hon. Members are proud to represent. It is good to see one of them, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire, here today.

The Government’s aim is to have a world-class railway, working seamlessly as part of the wider transport network and delivering opportunities across the nations and regions of Great Britain. The Williams-Shapps plan for rail, published in May this year, sets out the path to a truly passenger focused railway, underpinned by new contracts that prioritise punctual and reliable services; the rapid delivery of a ticketing revolution, with new flexible and convenient tickets; and long-term proposals to build a modern, greener, more accessible network that delivers the Government’s priorities to level up and decarbonise our transport system.

Central to the Williams-Shapps plan for rail is the establishment of a new rail body, Great British Railways, which will provide a single familiar brand and strong unified leadership across the rail network, as was described by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer. It will be responsible for delivering better value and flexible fares and the punctual and reliable services that passengers deserve, and it will bring the ownership of the infrastructure, fares, timetables and the planning of the network under one roof. It will bring today’s fragmented railways under a single point of operational accountability and ensure that its focus is to deliver for passengers and freight customers.

Great British Railways will be a new organisation with a commercial mindset and a strong customer focus, and it will have to have a different culture from the current infrastructure owner Network Rail and use very different incentives from the beginning. As we have heard, it will also have to have a new headquarters. Indeed, Great British Railways will have responsibility for the whole railway system, with a national headquarters as well as regional divisions. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer that the national headquarters will be based outside London, bringing the railway closer to the people and places it serves, and ensuring that the skilled jobs and economic benefits are focused way beyond this great capital city, in line with the Government’s commitment to levelling up.

The competition to find the national headquarters will recognise towns and cities with a rich railway history and that are strongly linked to the network, ensuring that the headquarters will take pride of place at the heart of a new era for British railways. The Great British Railways transition team is in the process of designing the selection process for the national headquarters, and the Secretary of State is setting up a panel of experts to assess the various locations. We are, therefore, right at the beginning of the process and I hope that Westminster Hall will continue to see celebrations of great cities and towns and their railway heritage as the bids develop.

The Minister clearly understands and appreciates the value of York and all that it will bring. Does he agree that the partners, including the business community, City of York Council and North Yorkshire County Council, will have an important role to play in signing off the bid?

It is vital that there is buy-in from all local stakeholders for such a big new headquarters. When I met the hon. Lady and City of York Council, railway skills were mentioned in passing. I completely understand and agree with her point.

I very much appreciate the Minister’s comments. Does he know how many people will be located at the Great British Railways headquarters?

I am afraid that I do not because it is an organisation that is yet to be set up. The legislation has not even gone through the House yet, so I am afraid that I cannot answer that question at this time. However, given that it will be a coming together of so many different parts of the railway, I would expect it to be a large number of people and for it to involve new jobs as well as existing ones being relocated. It will be a very important heart of our railways for the future.

The Minister has talked about the decision-making process, which is helpful. Could he talk a little more about the criteria for the location decision at this stage?

As I have said, we are at the very early stages. I can probably say that it will be outside London, but that is about as good as it gets at this point in time, I am afraid. However, the Secretary of State will detail the criteria in the not too distant future. We hope to set that out before the new year, if not first thing in the new year. Clearly, a number of strong candidates will come forward once the competition is launched, and I truly hope that this will be a moment when, through these bids, we can celebrate the rich railway heritage of our country, its towns and cities, and its rich railway future.

I feel that I should come to an end at some point quite soon—at least in the next 90 seconds—so I will finish by saying that I look forward to building this new vision for British railways and to collaborating with the sector and communities at the launch of the Great British Railways headquarters. That launch will be one of the many steps we are taking to achieve the transition from the existing mindset of the railways, which perhaps does not put passengers and freight customers first, to the new mindset that we want to instil. I know from my mailbox and from conversations in the House that a large number of towns and cities are eyeing up a bid to have the Great British Railways HQ in their area.

I very much welcome the interest expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer and his advocacy on behalf of his city. I thank him for his speech and his pitch, as it were. It is the first formal one I have received, and I know that it will have been listened to by all the partners involved. I will certainly make sure that it is made available to the panel when it is set up to assess the criteria.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.