Yorkshire is at the forefront of driving change once more

Credit: Abbie Hartley

Secretary of State – 16th March 2022

In six months’ time, Yorkshire will celebrate the 150th anniversary of a little-known event that was pivotal in shaping our modern democracy. In August 1872, voters at the Pontefract by-election became the first in British parliamentary history to cast their ballots in secret, in a bid to stamp out the the intimidation and bribery that had become prevalent under the previous open voting system. The experiment was judged a success, and Pontefract changed polling forever.

A century and a half later, Yorkshire is once again at the forefront of democratic change, as we decentralise government and give more decision-making powers to the North. Following last year’s devolution deal, which paved the way for a new West Yorkshire mayor and Combined Authority, we are now moving thousands of civil servants out of London to new locations, and one of the biggest beneficiaries is Leeds.

Alongside the opening of the new National Infrastructure Bank near Leeds rail station, seven government departments and agencies have moved operations to the city over the past year. I’m particularly proud that the Department for Transport has helped lead that migration into the new hub at Wellington Place, Leeds.

These are not mere outposts for Whitehall departments. They are tangible evidence that government is no longer a London-centric organisation, but a truly national one. Not only will they bring the business of government closer to Northern communities and businesses; they will help government better understand the issues and opportunities the North faces.

From senior civil servants and apprentices to ex-private-sector staff and recent graduates, there’s a diverse range of officials based at the site, with the vast majority living in or near Leeds. As well as housing civil servants, ministers will also use the office. Indeed, my colleague Andrew Stephenson, Minister of State at the DfT, spent a week working from the Leeds premises at the end of February.

Despite the best efforts of Storm Franklin, which not only affected transport across Yorkshire, but also prevented some DfT staff from getting into the Leeds office, Andrew’s week was a great success. In fact it began with a trip to Kirkstall to see how the rail network was coping with the bad weather.

During the week, Minister Stephenson confirmed the Government’s determination to bring HS2 trains to Leeds, and link with a new mass transit system for the region. We’ve committed £100 million to fund work on the best solution for Leeds and Yorkshire, and we’ll have more details to announce soon.

Among the many transport schemes he visited across the region, he saw how £317 million from the Transforming Cities Fund is being used to provide greener alternatives to car journeys in the Leeds City Region. He visited the Hope Valley Line running between Manchester and Sheffield, which will be transformed by our Integrated Rail Plan, announced late last year. His morning commute took him through Skipton station, which is benefitting from a £7.8 million upgrade. And he met with several businesses helping to deliver HS2, taking the opportunity to present one employee with the “Driller of the Year Award” for his work on the new high speed railway.

With so much infrastructure work underway or planned for the future, we need a new generation of engineers, designers and technicians to help us deliver the improvements that transport users need. So Minister Stephenson also paid a visit to Leeds College of Building South Bank Campus, to see the excellent work going on to prepare students at all levels for careers in construction and built environment, including apprenticeships.

The Yorkshire Post was right to describe Andrew Stephenson’s Leeds week as “symbolic” in a comment piece on February 23rd. As the first such visit by a transport minister, it was an important statement of intent. But it’s only the start. Soon, it will be seen as perfectly normal for ministers to work from offices around the country, and become better representatives of the people we serve as a result. I can only hope that it is the beginning of a trend that proves to be permanent, and as enduringly successful as that first secret ballot in Pontefract all those decades ago.