Great British Railways Headquarters: Carnforth Bid

– in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 8 March 2022.

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Photo of David Morris David Morris Conservative, Morecambe and Lunesdale 4:00, 8 March 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Carnforth’s bid to become the headquarters for Great British Railways.

It is a pleasure to introduce this debate under your stewardship, Mr Efford. I have to swap my glasses because, sadly, I am at that age when I need readers. The debate is about Carnforth station becoming the new headquarters for Great British Railways. It is a national competition and I realise from the outset that the Minister cannot say, “Well, it should come to Carnforth.” This is a competition and, in that spirit, I want to put on the record why I think it should be Carnforth.

The location and geographical area of Carnforth means it is centrally placed in the UK, connecting north, south, east and west by rail. The community has facilities to host the new headquarters, such as hotels, and direct access to the city of Lancaster and to Morecambe, which is soon to be the home of the prestigious Eden Project. I am involved in developing this application with Carnforth Town Council, Lancaster City Council, Lancashire County Council, which is assisting with information, Carnforth & District chamber of trade, Lancaster Civic Vision, the whole community, cross-party, of the Lancaster district, and the great people of Carnforth and the surrounding area. A special mention must be given to David Morgan and his team at Lancaster Civic Vision for compiling a petition of more than 500 names so far from all over the Lancaster district. As I said, all the political parties endorse this and the campaign has unanimous support on Lancaster City Council. It was confirmed to me this morning that the council will submit a formal bid.

It is delightful to see Cat Smith here, also helping and assisting with this cross-party co-operation in trying to make Carnforth the headquarters of Great British Railways.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Labour, Lancaster and Fleetwood

I thank my hon. friend and neighbour for giving way. I want to put on the record how the bid by Lancaster City Council is cross-party and unanimous. We both represent parts of the Lancaster City Council district. The leader of that council is a Green party councillor and we have all come together to make a bid for the north of Lancashire. If levelling up is to mean anything, does he agree that we cannot just see bids to Government coming from the big cities; we also need them to come from towns such as Carnforth? If Lancashire were to get it, would it not be a shame if it were to go to Preston, for example, ahead of Carnforth? Does he agree that Carnforth has a much stronger bid in the county than Preston?

Photo of David Morris David Morris Conservative, Morecambe and Lunesdale

I totally agree with my hon. friend, in this context and in this Chamber. In short, the whole community in Lancaster and Morecambe, as we have seen, wants to see Carnforth succeed in the bid to become the national headquarters for Great British Railways. I must also pay homage to Councillor Peter Yates MBE for assisting me in writing this speech—what he does not know about railways and especially Carnforth is quite simply not worth knowing.

The projected area for the headquarters could be based near Carnforth railway station or the surrounding buildings, parking and land. There are plenty of sites nearby to build a new office block if needed. The benefits to be gained for local employees are the kudos, connectivity, quality employment and for families to occupy new homes already being constructed, developing more opportunities for young people, school places and excellent local tourism. We are also very well situated for the nearby Lake District and Yorkshire Dales; this will boost our local economy.

Carnforth is also a major crossroads in rail and road—via rail from all directions, north, east, south and west; and via road the M6 motorway has two slip roads, and other roads traverse east to west. The M6 is less than one mile from the rail connections, and I believe it is one of the quickest routes from the M6 motorway to the west coast main line in the country.

We have electric charging points in the surrounding area to promote low-carbon transport. Carnforth is the gateway to the coast, the Dales, the Lakes; it connects the east coast to the west coast by rail and road. It connects via Heysham Port to the Isle of Man and also Ireland. Carnforth has the world-famous tourist attraction, the home of “Brief Encounter”, the David Lean film from the 1940s. The Brief Encounter café is a replica, exactly as it was in the film. It is a fantastic experience. Carnforth has extensive rail heritage, with associated listed buildings left over from that criminal era in rail history: the scrapping of steam engines in the short-sighted Beeching era.

In the spirit of levelling up, new high-profile businesses are relocating to Carnforth. Businesses recently relocated—and some established—include Porsche South Lakes, Havwoods International, Strong Doors, Castle Packaging, Abacus Resources, Logs Direct, Rickerby International, LARS Communications, MasterCraft, DPD Logistics, Lake Coast and Dale, Plus Flooring, Barnfield Developments and Thomas Plant. We also have the Keerside and Bridgeside industrial parks. I hope I have not left anybody out; apologies in advance if I have done so. This gives a business snapshot of the opportunities that the Carnforth area has to offer—all recently completed as well.

Carnforth had thought to establish the footprint of levelling up before the term was even thought up, such is the ingenuity and aspiration of the community I have the honour to represent. The new headquarters will be the icing on the cake for Carnforth. Also underway is the construction of 214 new homes and planning for a further 500, as well as a proposal to develop a sports complex. Rail user groups and societies, of which there are many in Carnforth, promote battery electric locomotives to decarbonise our environment. Clean air is paramount in the ethos of our district.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Labour, Lancaster and Fleetwood

This is an opportunity for us both, as local MPs, to put on record our thanks to the Lancaster and Morecambe rail users group, which continues to champion rail travel in our area. The hon. Gentleman was making a point about Carnforth being the place where trains went to die. Would it not be so poetic if it was the place where Great British Railways headquarters was relocated?

Photo of David Morris David Morris Conservative, Morecambe and Lunesdale

That is a fantastic sentiment, and I will allude to that later in my speech. It is true that we have a lot of railway heritage in Carnforth, and I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention.

As I previously stated, we connect to all cardinal points via rail and road, but we must include connections to the Isle of Man and to Ireland via Heysham port. Carnforth has a direct rail link to Manchester airport. This demonstrates connectivity that is the envy of other applications. We also must not forget the disabled access by ramps, disabled changing facilities, cycle storage and routes, bus connections, and secure car parking. The community of Carnforth have raised £1.4 million for restoration and heritage, work closely with Rail Track, and later worked with Network Rail, creating in excess of 50,000 tourist visits annually. Pre-covid, that was 240,000 rail-ticket travellers using the station. Our unique location is key; all transport modes are catered for.

Many precision, high-tech skills are available in the area. We have universities and technical colleges on our doorstep. To our west, the Barrow submarine manufacturer; to the south, nuclear power with BAE systems. Our workforce is geared up to assist. We have links to the Lakes and Dales, which are a tourist hot spot; links to Manchester airport; and links for country walks, cycle tracks, costal bird sanctuaries, parkland and the great halls of national heritage in the Lune Valley. Carnforth is a quality area linking all of the best of the UK, as well as linking to the planned Eden North Project.

To conclude, Carnforth exists because of the railways. Carnforth is steeped in railway connectivity and heritage, and is known the world over as Steamtown. Carnforth hosts the last complete steam railway depot, which is crying out for new life to be injected into its many listed historic structures. The site is now occupied by West Coast Railways, one of the UK’s largest heritage rail operators. The love of rail is in the DNA of Carnforth. Network Rail have depots and offices located close by, showing an established rail expertise, and further personnel and workforces will enhance the community’s heritage. As the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood said, this is where the trains came to die, and it is now fitting that this regeneration scheme considers Carnforth as the place where the UK railway of the next century—at least—starts.

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Minister of State (Department for Transport) 4:10, 8 March 2022

Thank you, Mr Efford. First, I thank my hon. Friend David Morris for securing today’s debate. Although it is my first debate on the location of the Great British Railways headquarters, I am very aware that it is the third that has taken place in this Chamber, with previous ones on the merits of Darlington and York. It is really heartening to see hon. Members from up and down the country doing fantastic work supporting the bids of their towns and cities.

Railways are close to my heart. Both of my grandfathers worked on the railways—one in Wensleydale and the other in County Durham—and I found out only recently that my dad was actually born in a railway cottage. I do therefore have an understanding of the importance of the industry, and also of the amazing rail heritage across this country.

As my hon. Friend has set out, Carnforth has a significant rail heritage. At its peak, Carnforth was a meeting point between three major railways, and it grew into an important railway town. My hon. Friend touched on the film “Brief Encounter.” When the English film director Sir David Lean was looking for a railway station to film the 1945 classic, it was no coincidence that Carnforth station became the backdrop for such a romantic movie. Today, the film is one of many attractions at the Carnforth Station Heritage Centre. In addition, Carnforth is the headquarters of West Coast Railways, which operates several regular steam trains, most notably the Jacobite, giving passengers the opportunity to travel on historic steam locomotives. For that reason alone, I know that Carnforth will continue to have an important role to play in our railways.

My mailbox is great evidence of the fact that there are, of course, many other towns and cities across the country that have played an important part in our proud railway heritage and that hon. Members are very proud to represent. I look forward to seeing the many outstanding applications for the new GBR headquarters that we will receive before the competition closes on 16 March.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Labour, Lancaster and Fleetwood

I had not realised the Minister’s railway credentials in terms of her parentage—clearly, she was born to do the role that she does today. One of the restrictions that stops some towns bidding for the GBR headquarters is that towns that are not currently connected to the rail network are not eligible. I also represent Fleetwood, which is not on the rail network. It has now been about two years since the residents of Fleetwood were promised that the railway would be brought back to the town; I believe that the Prime Minister visited just ahead of the 2019 general election and promised us that. Can she give us any update on when we might see that?

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Minister of State (Department for Transport)

The hon. Lady is right to highlight Fleetwood, but I am sure that she understands that I am not in a position to give her an update today.

As hon. Members will be well aware, 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 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 a new rail body, GBR, which will provide a single familiar brand and a strong unified leadership across the network. It is worth noting that GBR will be responsible for delivering better value and flexible fares, and the punctual and reliable services that passengers deserve. Bringing ownership of the infrastructure, fares, timetables and planning of the network under one roof will bring today’s fragmented railways under a single point of operational accountability, ensuring the focus is delivering for passengers.

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

The competition was launched by the Secretary of State on 5 February 2022 and the GBR transition team are now welcoming submissions from towns and cities across Great Britain. Prospective local authorities are asked to submit a short expression of interest to the GBR transition team explaining why they are best suited to meet a set of six criteria for the national headquarters. These are: alignment to levelling-up objectives; connected and easy to get to; opportunities for GBR; rail heritage and links to the network; value for money; and public support.

The GBR transition team will then create a shortlist of the most suitable locations, which will go forward to a public consultation vote. Ministers will make a final decision on the headquarters’ location based on all the information we have gathered. Applications for the competition close on Wednesday 16 March, and I look forward to receiving lots of applications.

As I previously mentioned, alongside a new national headquarters, GBR will have regional divisions responsible and accountable for the railway in local areas, ensuring decisions about the railways are brought closer to the passengers and communities that they serve. The GBR regional divisions 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 be given greater influence over local ticketing, services and stations through new partnerships between regional divisions and local and regional government. Initial conversations have started with local stakeholders on how those partnerships can best work.

The new GBR HQ that we are talking about today is not the only way that the Government are focused on levelling up the railways. We published the integrated rail plan on 18 November 2021, which is an ambitious strategy setting out £96 billion of investment into the railways of the north and the midlands to be delivered over the next 30 years. The plan sets out how the Government will deliver real and meaningful improvements to communities in the north and the midlands, and support economic growth by transforming east-west and north-south links.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale and Cat Smith for sharing with me a little more insight into Carnforth and its railway heritage. I look forward to receiving their bids and all the other bids in due course.

In conclusion, the reforms proposed under the Williams-Shapps plan for rail will transform the railways for the better, strengthening and securing them for the next generation. The reforms will make the sector more accountable to taxpayers and Government. They will provide a bold new offer to passengers of punctual and reliable services, simpler tickets and a modern, green and innovative railway that meets the needs of the nation. While transformation on this scale cannot happen overnight, the Government and the sector are committed to ensuring the benefits for passengers are brought forward as quickly as possible. New national flexible season tickets are already on sale and the transition from the emergency recovery measures agreement to new rail contracts is under way.

GBR will be an organisation that works in tandem with the local communities that it serves. It will be designed to have the structure to become yet another example of this Government’s historic commitment to levelling up the regions across the nation. The Government and the GBR transition team welcome the interest of Members and their advocacy for their respective cities and towns, and welcome their participation in the competition for GBR’s headquarters. 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. The launch of the GBR headquarters is one of the many steps that we are taking to achieve that.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.