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Great British Railways Headquarters: Stockton Bid

Volume 715: debated on Tuesday 7 June 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Alan Mak.)

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to have the debate this evening. I have the huge honour of representing Stockton South: a place to be proud of with a great past and an even greater future ahead of it. Stockton has been the home to many great people and many great ideas, from Harold Macmillan to Brass Crosby and from the invention of the friction match to the creation of the world’s first public passenger railway. Two centuries ago, the House adopted two separate Acts to enable the creation of the Stockton to Darlington railway. I am now asking the House to support me in my mission to bring the headquarters of Great British Railways to Stockton.

For me, there are several classic, immutable pairings of things that are existentially tied together: cream and jam; Batman and Robin; Britain and democracy; the Prime Minister and Peppa Pig; and, far more importantly, Stockton and the railways, which is the most quintessential pairing of them all. Stockton could not have played a more central role in the history of the railways. The first discussions about the potential creation of that very first passenger railway were had in Stockton town hall. The first track of that railway line was laid in Stockton, and the first ticket was sold to a passenger in Stockton.

It is all too easy to forget how important a role railways have had in our history and developing our international economic might. It is even easier to forget where they came from and how proud Stockton should be of playing its role therein. Sadly, this achievement has never been celebrated in Stockton as fully as it should have been, but I am delighted that, as we prepare to mark the bicentenary of this incredible innovation, we are righting that wrong. The amazing Friends of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, who are determined to treasure our heritage, are working to ensure that we celebrate this momentous occasion. The national lottery, local authorities and the Government are all supporting plans to mark the occasion, and even private enterprise is playing its part.

They say that the best ideas are the ones that you come up with in the pub. Well, my friend Jim, the landlord of the Locomotion pub, has done just that. For any railway enthusiasts out there, Locomotion is a must: it has a collection of memorabilia that rivals the National Railway Museum. Jim came up with the idea of a run along the route of the original line that has gone down a storm and raised huge amounts of money for local good causes. I am particularly delighted that, thanks to the Government’s levelling-up fund, we are working on plans to create a permanent tribute to our railway heritage at Preston Park, where the original track ran. Plans may include a miniature steam railway. If the Minister is kind enough to grant Stockton’s wish today, I would be delighted to take her for a ride on said steam train.

Railways are in Stockton’s DNA, and even the king of railways himself, Michael Portillo, is backing the bid to make Stockton the home of Great British Railways. The chief chino-wearing, track-touring fab controller said:

“You couldn’t have a more iconic place for a railway’s headquarters than Stockton, it’s simply a name that resonates through the history of railways”.

I understand Thomas the Tank and even the Fat Controller himself may also be endorsing Stockton’s bid.

Aside from our fantastic railway heritage and the incredible endorsements received by our bid, there are many other reasons why the Great British Railways headquarters should come to Stockton. We are connected up and getting more so by the day. Much-awaited improvements to the local road network are taking place on the A66 and the A19. Local train stations in Eaglescliffe, Billingham, Middlesbrough and Darlington are benefiting from a multimillion-pound overhaul. We recently got our first direct train from Thornaby to London. Our new cycle lane network will stretch across my constituency to provide a healthier means of transport and hopefully reduce congestion. And thanks to the work of our amazing Tees Valley Mayor, our airport has been reborn. Moreover, the most amazing, enthusiastic, talented, hard-working and skilled people live in Teesside, and Great British Railways would be very lucky to employ them.

Important to my case is the fact that the Government have a commitment to levelling up. For me, levelling up is not about moving jobs from one big city to another, or from one place to another super campus; it is about spreading opportunities the length and breadth of the country. The placing of Great British Railways in Stockton would complement the many other great things going on in my part of the world. Teesside is on the up: our airport is reborn; we are leading the green energy revolution; and we are home to some of the brightest and best entrepreneurs. The new Treasury campus is allowing people from my area to get top-level civil service jobs and we are home to the UK’s first and biggest freeport, creating 18,000 jobs. As we prepare to mark 200 years since the first passenger railway rolled along the track in Stockton, will the Department for Transport bring the railway home to where it all began and—choo, choo!—choose Stockton as the home for Great British Railways?

Well, if there is ever a pub quiz on the subject of Stockton, I feel very equipped to take part after that. I am sure Stockton can look forward to an extremely vibrant visitor economy after that wonderful rendition of all the many reasons to visit Stockton. Before I respond to the various points he made, I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for securing the debate.

It is wonderful that so many Members across the House have debated the Great British Railways headquarters. We have had previous debates on the merits of Swindon, Derby, Crewe, York and Carnforth. My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), who is also in his place, has also been a superb advocate. It is really wonderful and fantastic to see such support for our railways, and to see Members up and down the country engaging in this important conversation about the future of our railways and doing outstanding work supporting bids for their towns and cities. The Government understand the importance of the rail industry and the incredible rail heritage across this country, something my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South set out so well. One thing we can be really sure of is that wherever the headquarters is ultimately located, it will be in a very deserving place.

As my hon. Friend set out, Stockton has a proud and storied rail heritage, as has County Durham. We are all aware of the famous Stockton and Darlington Railway, the world’s first public railway to run steam locomotives. Indeed, when, in September 1825, George Stephenson manned the Locomotion No. 1, it was for the Stockton and Darlington Railway, so how appropriate to have my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton South and for Darlington in their rightful place, sitting side by side in this very Chamber. Heralding the beginning of a new era of transportation in this country, County Durham is truly deserving of the name, “Cradle of the Railways”. A place as steeped in the history of the railways in this country, and, indeed, the world, as Stockton and County Durham is will always have an important part to play.

The inbox of the rail Minister—my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton)—provides great evidence of the fact that the innovation that started in Stockton spread rapidly across the country. Many other towns and cities have played an important part in our proud railway heritage and hon. Members are equally proud to represent them. The response to the competition has been incredibly positive. I am pleased to say that, by the time the competition had closed on 16 March, we had received 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 towards a truly passenger-focused railway, underpinned by new contracts that prioritised punctual and reliable services, the rapid delivery of a ticketing revolution, with new flexible and convenient tickets, and a modern and accessible network that meets the future needs of its customers.

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. Great British Railways will be responsible for delivering better value and flexible fares and the punctual and reliable services that passengers absolutely deserve, bringing ownership of the infrastructure, fares, timetables and planning of the network under one roof. It will bring today’s fragmented railways under a single point of operational accountability, ensuring that 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 the current infrastructure owner, Network Rail, and a very different incentive from the beginning.

Great British Railways will have responsibility for the whole railway system, with a modest national headquarters, as well as several regional headquarters. The national headquarters will be based outside London, with regional Great British Railways headquarters across Great Britain, bringing the railway closer to the people and communities it serves and ensuring that skilled jobs and economic benefits are focused beyond the capital, in line with the Government’s commitment to levelling up as well as with the priorities of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South.

The competition for the headquarters was launched by the Secretary of State on 5 February 2022 and closed for applications on 16 March. The Great British Railways transition team has analysed the 42 submissions that we received from towns and cities across Great Britain against a set of six criteria for the national headquarters. Those include an alignment to levelling-up objectives, and my hon. Friend has articulated the benefits of that. It must be connected and easy to get to, with opportunities for Great British Railways to thrive. The railway heritage and links to the network are also critical, as are value for money and public support. I commend my hon. Friend’s work in nudging, persuading, enthusing and influencing his constituents to support his bid for the Great British Railways headquarters to be in Stockton. I am particularly delighted to learn about the enthusiasm of Jim from the Locomotion pub—that really is superb.

The Great British Railways transition team will recommend a shortlist of the most suitable locations that will go forward to a consultative public vote, and Ministers will make a final decision on the headquarters’ locations based on all the information gathered. As I mentioned, we are so pleased by the number of high-quality bids received, and I am sure that, wherever is chosen, the future headquarters will go to somewhere truly deserving. We will soon announce a shortlist of locations that will go forward to an online consultative vote and will receive ministerial visits. The Secretary of State will make a final decision later this year, considering all elements of the process.

Alongside a new national headquarters, Great British Railways will have regional headquarters responsible and accountable for the railway in local areas, ensuring that decisions about the railway are brought closer to the passengers and communities that they serve. Cities and regions in England will be able to 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 on how those partnerships can best work together.

The reforms proposed in the Williams-Shapps plan for rail will transform the railways for the better, strengthening and securing them for the next generation. They will make the sector more accountable to taxpayers and to the Government. They will provide a bold new offer to passengers and freight customers: punctual and reliable services, simpler tickets and a modern, clean, green, innovative railway that meets the needs of the nation.

While transformation on that scale cannot happen overnight, the Government and the sector are committed to ensuring that the benefits for passengers and freight customers are brought forward as quickly as possible. We have already sold more than 250,000 of our new national flexi season tickets, offering commuters savings as they return to the railways. To help passengers facing rising costs of living, our great British rail sale offered up to 50% off more than a million tickets on journeys across Britain, saving passengers £7 million. I have every confidence that many of those passengers will now be heading to Stockton, or possibly between Stockton and Darlington, for a fantastic experience of the railway—and maybe to the Locomotion pub to learn more about railway heritage.

The transition from emergency recovery measures agreements to a new national rail contract is very much under way. We are providing more flexible contracts that incentivise operators to deliver for passengers. Great British Railways will be an organisation that works alongside the local communities that it serves.

The Government and the Great British Railways transition team welcome interest and advocacy for cities and towns. We welcome participation in the competition for the Great British Railways headquarters, so that together we can deliver the change that is absolutely required. We look forward to building this new vision for Britain’s railway in collaboration with the sector and communities. The Great British Railways headquarters is one of many steps that we are taking to achieve that.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.