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Great British Railways Headquarters: Swindon’s Bid

Volume 715: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2022

I will call Sir Robert Buckland to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Swindon’s bid to host Great British Railways’ headquarters.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark, and to see the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), in her place. I am grateful to the House for allowing me the opportunity to address it on a matter of significant importance to the town I have the honour of representing. I speak today as the Member for South Swindon. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) is on paternity leave—he recently had the good news of a second daughter, so he is well and truly outnumbered in his house. He strongly supports not only this debate but the bid that Swindon has made to be the headquarters of Great British Railways. I am grateful that the bid is also supported by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), in her constituency capacity, and by my hon. Friends the Members for North Wiltshire (James Gray) and for Devizes (Danny Kruger)—all constituencies near to or bordering Swindon.

My hon. Friend the Minister will have spent the past several months fielding increasingly plaintive and perhaps strident requests from a large number of parliamentary colleagues and others, extolling the relative virtues of their local bids. I thought I would start not with the merits of Swindon’s bid, but with what it is that we are bidding for. For me and those who think like me, this is more than just an argument about where to cite a cadre of civil servants. It is more than deciding which building to use or what configuration things will take. It is more than something that looks little different from the existing Network Rail. In short, this is not Network Rail with a rebranding. The business model that governs railway service delivery is—I think by common consent—a flawed one.

We are at 72% of pre-covid passenger levels, but something has changed forever. Saturday is now the busiest passenger travel day, followed by Sunday and then Friday. Commuters are still travelling for business purposes, but the era of the annual season ticket is almost completely dead. Why, in the light of this newly acquired knowledge, do we persist with engineering works on weekends and holidays? That is one question that the new body will have to answer. It will also have to build on the work of the Williams-Shapps report. In my strong opinion, a complete and fair review is needed.

A system where the rest of the country, including Swindon, subsidises fares in the south-east is neither fair nor sustainable. A system where a peak-hour ticket from Swindon to London is one of the most expensive tickets in Europe is certainly not fair or sustainable. That is why we need not just a building, but a hothouse of innovation, designing the railway network of tomorrow: its installations, equipment, people, systems and structures. That is the very first of the core goals set out by the Secretary of State in the Department for Transport’s framework document: changing the culture of the railways, rather than merely replicating Network Rail. I put it firmly on the record that we in Swindon understand that better than anybody.

The second core goal is to think like customers and put them first. With thousands of rail users coming through Swindon every day, that is frankly our default position. We have no choice but to think like them and think as them. The third goal is to grow the network and get more people travelling, and the fourth goal is to make the railways easier to use, and I will go on to address those issues.

The fifth goal—an important one—is to have greater accountability, to drive down costs and to increase efficiency. No. 6 is to have a can-do, not a can’t do, culture—again, something that is in the blood of what we are about in Swindon. Then, there is harnessing the best of the private sector, and I will enlarge on that. Finally, there is the critical role to be played in the shift to net zero. In summary, it is Swindon that encapsulates all those core goals.

Let us take the private sector. For a long period now, we have enjoyed the presence of major engineering firms, such as Atkins, Amey and Hochtief, all of which are based in our town. That immediately provides the potential headquarters with excellent proximity to partnership opportunities that will not exist elsewhere.

The net zero commitment has been exemplified by the electrification project that has transformed the Great Western Railway in our region and seen Swindon play a key role not only in the construction of that new electrified railway but in training—through the training centre that we have—to ensure that electrification was a success, and it is a success, with rail journeys to London now being reduced by an average of five to 10 minutes.

As I have said, in everything we do in Swindon we are a can-do economy. We find solutions to problems, we get on with the job and we often work so hard that we do not really signal our own qualities as well as we might do. Well, today, and in this bid, there is a chance for those qualities to be recognised.

Let me turn to the six selection criteria set out by the Government. I would argue that Swindon matches up magnificently to them all. First, there is:

“Alignment to Levelling Up objectives”.

Levelling up is not about simple geography; it is not about north, south, east and west. It is about disparities of income, disparities of opportunity and disparities in the quality of life. The Government have already acknowledged, through the towns fund initiative and the future high street initiative, which is benefiting Swindon, that the regeneration of our town centre is a key national priority. Siting the new Great British Railways headquarters right in the heart of the town, next to the railway and in buildings owned by Network Rail or the local authority, would entirely align with that objective. Moreover, it would align with the skills objective that is a key part of levelling up.

Recently, the Government made Swindon an education investment area, which means that we will get extra support to address the skills gap and the need to equip our young people for the jobs of the future. We are addressing those challenges by really focusing on science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM subjects—and technical education. The £21 million Swindon Institute of Technology, based in the town, provides technical qualifications and now offers higher apprenticeships for technical and digital roles. Right next to where the new headquarters could be is a university technical college, which was set up 10 years ago to provide youngsters from 14 to 19 with STEM skills and which provides particular apprenticeships to Network Rail. That is already happening, so we have a supply line of the talented young people that GBR will need if it is to survive.

I have mentioned training. We already have the £10 million state-of-the-art Network Rail Electrification Training Centre right next to the station in Swindon. There is so much going on—so much potential—and so much more to be done.

I apologise to my right hon. and learned Friend and to the House for being a few minutes late at the beginning of the debate. I am very sorry. May I assure him that the talent that will be required for this great new headquarters could come from not only Swindon but the rest of the county of Wiltshire as well? May I also assure him that he has strong support not only from myself and the people of North Wiltshire but from our hon. Friends the Members for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), for Salisbury (John Glen) and for Devizes (Danny Kruger), and our right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan)? Indeed, he has the unanimous support of all the Wiltshire MPs for his bid, and we very much hope it is successful.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend; with his powerful words, he has exemplified the point that boundaries are not important here; it is the talent that we want to encourage. As a hub of excellence and economic activity, Swindon is so important to the regional economy and—I would say—the national economy as well.

The second criterion for a successful bid is connectivity. It must be:

“Connected and easy to get to”.

Swindon’s key position on the Great Western Railway is self-explanatory; we are an hour from London, Cardiff, Birmingham and Southampton. We have the M4 corridor, and the A34 is nearby. We have the A419 and A417 corridor —soon to be further improved by Government investment. All those make our connectivity in Swindon second to none.

The third criterion is about the opportunities for Great British Railways and how the location can enhance engagement with customers, the private sector and the wider rail industry. I have already outlined some of the outstanding engineering firms that are based in Swindon, but the proposal set out in the document that has been lodged by the bid outlines a very exciting opportunity for the new headquarters to be located in a railway works building right at the heart of the Swindon railway conservation area. This building—what we call the Workshed—is already a seedbed of innovation and new technologies. It is an incubator of new ideas.

Frankly, I cannot think of anywhere better for Great British Railways’ headquarters to be sited than in an historic environment with strong links to Brunel’s wonderful railway and with all that potential for the future. The situation in Swindon will not require complicated land acquisitions. As I have alluded to, the land is already either in the possession or ownership of Network Rail or the local authority, Swindon Borough Council, which wants to work constructively with Network Rail to provide a complete package. We already have an almost tailor-made site for the headquarters.

The fourth criterion is about railway heritage and links to the network. Where do I begin? We have the outstanding STEAM museum—the Museum of the Great Western Railway. It is a shrine to Isambard Kingdom Brunel and, most importantly, the great locomotives of the past and the history of the railways in Swindon. Some supporters, in particular the Alfred Williams Heritage Society, have described the railways as being as important to Swindon as, for example, shipbuilding was to Belfast. They were the reason the small market town of Swindon grew in the 19th century to become the major centre that it is now. Without the railways, Swindon would be a very different place. It would have a completely different quality. I believe it would have been diminished, because the railways made Swindon the powerhouse that it is today. We are all proud of that connection and continuing link.

The network does not just go from east to west. The Kemble line, dualled by this Government some 10 years ago as a result of a campaign by me, my hon. Friends the Members for North Wiltshire (James Gray) and for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) and others demonstrates the importance of north-south links as well as the links down to Chippenham and the south of the county. These links make Swindon an important and integral part of the railway network.

The fifth criterion is value for money. As I have already said, there is no need for difficult land acquisitions that cause delay to major projects. There is no need for negotiations with rapacious land agents. This is an opportunity that will provide outstanding value for money for the Government.

The final criterion is public support. The Swindon community enthusiastically backs this bid.

There has been mass activity on social media and from a wide range of major local organisations, including Wiltshire Council and Cotswold District Council, as well as major private and public sector organisations within the local area. Some 30 or 31 major local organisations—I will not list them here—have all signalled their support in writing. That support is backed up by a letter signed today by hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, which will be sent immediately to the Secretary of State.

The online survey launched by Swindon Borough Council in March has received nearly 3,000 responses. Just under 95% of those respondents have shown their support for the bid, and there have been some excellent comments of support. One reads:

“My grandparents and great-grandparents worked on the railway. There is a historic passion that has been passed down through the generations”.

Another said:

“Swindon is a dynamic, forward-thinking place with a rich railway heritage”.

One respondent said:

“Swindon is the home of the Great Western Railway. It was Brunel’s choice. If it was good enough for him, it is good enough…plain and simple.”

Another respondent wrote that Swindon is:

“The Railway Town! Without the railway, there would be no Swindon.”

Finally, one person wrote:

“What better place to be situated than in the town that was once home to one of the largest railway engineering complexes in the world.”

It employs tens of thousands of people creating the completed article: locomotive, right through to carriage and beyond.

I do not stand here today in dreamy nostalgia but am hard-headed and clear-eyed about the future. Inevitably, Brunel’s name will come up many times, but as I have said, it was no accident that the greatest engineer and innovator of his age chose Swindon to be the home, heart and hub of the Great Western Railway 180 years ago. He was not wrong then and this bid is not wrong now. Swindon is the railways, past, present and future, and that future must, I strongly submit, include the headquarters of Great British Railways.

It is a privilege and honour to be in Westminster Hall today. I want to start by thanking my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) for securing the debate. I note the support from my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), who has also reiterated the point that this particular bid, like so many, comes with the support of many neighbours and colleagues. In this instance, we have my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) and my hon. Friends the Members for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), for Devizes (Danny Kruger) and for Salisbury (John Glen). I think they were the ones mentioned.

I thank my hon. Friend for that correction. Just last month, I was here in Westminster Hall to debate the merits of Derby as a potential location for the Great British Railways headquarters. Indeed, this is the sixth debate on the subject, with the previous ones for Crewe, Darlington, York and Carnforth. Not only has it been heartening to see how hon. Members up and down the country have engaged on this important conversation about the future of our railways, and in doing so been able to highlight and support their bids for their towns and cities, it has also felt like we have had a tour of a little of the heritage of the railways across this country.

As I have said on previous occasions, and at the risk of repeating myself, the railways are close to my heart. Both my paternal grandfathers worked on the railways, one in Wensleydale and the other in County Durham. Not long after I had been appointed as the Minister for rail, I discovered that my dad was born in a railway cottage, so I would like to think I have a little railway stock and heritage in my blood. I certainly understand the importance of the industry and this country’s amazing heritage.

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon has set out, Swindon has a proud rail heritage. When Great Western Railway transformed a greenfield site into one of the largest railway engineering complexes in the world in the 1840s, Swindon’s railway heritage was solidified. Swindon became one of the most important manufacturing centres for the railways through the famous Swindon works, which we heard about this afternoon. Like many other historical railway sites, the influence of the works has not been lost, with it becoming the home of STEAM, the museum of the Great Western Railway, in 2000. From the earliest days of the railways to the modern day, Swindon has played and will continue to play an important role and, no doubt, continue to have an impact on rail innovation.

My mailbox provides great evidence that there are many other towns and cities across the country that have played an important part in our proud rail heritage and I know hon. Members are proud to represent them. The response to the competition has been positive and I am pleased to say that, by the time it closed on 16 March, we had received an amazing 42 applications.

Hon. Members will be well aware that the Williams-Shapps plan for rail, which was published in May 2021, set 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 and accessible network. Central to the Williams-Shapps plan for rail is the establishment of the new rail body, Great British Railways, to which my right hon. and learned Friend referred. It will provide a single familiar brand and strong unified leadership right across the network. It will be responsible for delivering better value and flexible fares, and the punctual and reliable services that passengers want and deserve. It will bring ownership of the infrastructure, fares, timetables and network planning under one roof, and will bring today’s fragmented railways under a single point of operational accountability. It will ensure the focus is on delivering for passengers and freight customers.

Great British Railways will be a new organisation with a commercial mindset and a strong customer focus. It will have a different culture from that of the current infrastructure owner, Network Rail, and very different incentives from the beginning. It will have responsibility for the whole railway system, with a modest national headquarters and several regional divisions. The national headquarters will be based outside London, and will bring the railway closer to the people and communities it serves, ensuring that skilled jobs and economic benefits are focused beyond the capital, in line with the Government’s commitment to levelling up.

The Secretary of State launched the competition for the headquarters on 5 February 2022, and it closed for applications on 16 March. The GBR transition team has analysed the 42 submissions we received from towns and cities across Great Britain against a set of criteria for the national headquarters. As my right hon. and learned Friend said—he has clearly been doing his research, but I would expect nothing less—the criteria are: alignment to levelling-up objectives; connected and easy to get to; opportunities for GBR; railway heritage and links to the network; value for money; and public support. The GBR transition team will recommend a shortlist of the most suitable locations, which will go forward to a consultative public vote. Ministers will make a final decision on the headquarters’ location based on all the information gathered.

I have been so pleased by the number and high quality of the bids we received. I am sure that, wherever we choose, the headquarters will go somewhere truly deserving. We will announce the shortlist early next month, so Members will have to wait just a little longer to find out who has been successful.

Alongside a new national headquarters, GBR will have regional divisions that are responsible and accountable for the railway in local areas, ensuring that decisions about the railway are brought closer to the passengers and communities they serve. GBR will be made up of powerful regional divisions and will be organised in line with the regions established in Network Rail’s “Putting passengers first” programme, which reflects how passengers and freight move across the network today.

Cities and regions in England will have greater influence over local ticketing, services and stations through new partnerships between regional divisions and local and regional government. Initial conversations are starting with local stakeholders about how those partnerships can best work together.

The reforms proposed under the Williams-Shapps plan for rail will transform the railways for the better and strengthen and secure them for the next generation. They will make the sector more accountable to taxpayers and the Government. They will provide a bold new offer to passengers and freight customers of punctual and reliable services, simpler tickets, and a modern, green and innovative railway that meets the needs of the nation. Although transformation on that scale cannot happen overnight, the Government and the sector are committed to ensuring the benefits for passengers and freight customers are brought forward as quickly as possible. We have already sold over 250,000 of our new national flexi season tickets, offering commuters savings as they return to the railways, and to help passengers facing the rising cost of living, our Great British rail sale offered up to 50% off more than 1 million tickets on journeys across Britain. It is the biggest sale of its kind, with over 1.3 million tickets being sold—added together, that is equivalent to 128 million miles of journey, which I am reliably told would get a passenger all the way to the sun and beyond.

The transition from the emergency recovery measures agreements to national rail contracts is also under way, providing more flexible contracts that incentivise operators to deliver for passengers. GBR will be an organisation that works alongside the local communities it serves. Integrated teams within GBR’s regional divisions will push forward design and delivery for their partners, supported by new incentives that encourage innovation, partnership and collaboration. It will be designed as, and will have the structure to become, yet another example of this Government’s historic commitment to levelling up the regions across the nation. We have often talked about the heritage of the railways; we often talk about the future of the railways, too.

Both the Government and the GBR transition team welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s interest and his advocacy of his city and area, and welcome his participation in the competition for GBR’s headquarters, so that together we can deliver the change that is required. We look forward to building this new vision for Britain’s railways in collaboration with the sector and communities, and the GBR headquarters is one of many steps we are taking to achieve that.

To conclude, I again thank my right hon. Friend for having secured this afternoon’s debate.

Question put and agreed to.