On 4 October Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced he would be launching a competition to find a location for the offices of the new Great British Railways organisation. GBR will be the central player in the running of the network once rail reform is implemented, and Mr Shapps said the winning location would be ‘the future capital of our railway industry’.
Several cities had already staked a claim to host GBR’s offices, and Derby is set to be a prominent contender. The city council unveiled its bid on 17 September, with city leaders, politicians and a number of leading businesses and stakeholders writing to Mr Shapps setting out Derby’s case.
‘Derby is at the centre of the rail industry – we have 11,000 rail-related jobs here’ Derby City Council’s Chief Executive Paul Simpson tells Modern Railways. ‘There’s no better place to bring together the industry and Government to make decisions about the future of rail.’
The city already had one eye on the Government’s plans to relocate 20,000 civil service jobs away from London as part of the levelling up agenda, with new regional offices planned in Manchester, Darlington, Stoke-on-Trent and York. ‘Derby has one of the lowest concentrations of civil servants of any city of its size, so if the Government is serious about levelling up and relocating civil servants Derby has a very strong case’ says Mr Simpson. ‘When the creation of GBR was announced, the two themes came together well.’
Derby City Council subsequently commissioned research from Dragon Gate which highlight the potential benefit of such a relocation. ‘One of the key things we’re focused on is pushing forward Derby’s economic recovery’ says Mr Simpson. ‘While we have strong industries in the city such as rail, there are also wards with significant levels of deprivation. We need to diversify our economy – there’s very few white collar jobs in the city centre, so we want to bring the city back to life as part of our overall strategy to build back.’
Clearly Derby’s transport links, and rail in particular, are a significant feature of its bid. The city’s central location means it is widely accessible, and it has fast and frequent rail links to London, Birmingham and the North of England. Mr Simpson in particular notes that the city is only half an hour from Birmingham by rail, which provides a convenient connection with other Department for Transport offices already located there.
While proximity to Derby’s station would be important for a potential GBR office, Mr Simpson notes that Derby is a compact city and most places are easily accessible. For example, GBR could form part of the Becket Well development, one of the city’s flagship regeneration schemes. The first phase, comprising build to rent apartments, is nearing completion, and the second phase encompasses a £45 million council-funded performance venue. ‘The third phase is the development of a Grade A office block, and GBR would be an ideal anchor tenant’ says Mr Simpson.
The city has set about lobbying to make Derby’s case to host GBR. During the pandemic the council set up an economic recovery steering group, comprising representatives of major industries (including not just rail but also automotive and aviation), MPs and other political leaders, stakeholders, business improvement districts, retail and cultural organisations. The aim is to mobilise this group to make Derby’s case; businesses including major rail firm Alstom have submitted letters of support, and the campaign is supportive by both of Derby’s MPs. Sir John Peace, Chair of the Midlands Engine, has also lent his support to Derby’s campaign. Mr Simpson also pays tribute to the work of Local Enterprise Partnerships and the East Midlands Chamber of Commerce in helping make the case.
Decarbonisation is a key topic, not just for rail but for the economy at large, and Mr Simpson says Derby is looking to be at the centre of innovation. ‘We’re working with the University of Derby and have aspirations for the city to be a centre for future fuels’ he explains. ‘Our mobility app, with a focus on public transport, is the first of its kind in the UK. We’re also aiming to focus on hydrogen as part of decarbonising Derby’s economy – many of our major businesses are built on burning carbon, and sustainability is going to be really important for the future.’
Derby has long been described by many as ‘the heart of the rail industry’. Should it become the host city for GBR, that would be truer than ever.