How Lancashire won the battle for cyber space

As befits the nature of the prize at stake, the battle for the headquarters of the UK’s National Cyber Force (NCF) was fought out under the radar, far from prying eyes.

The fact that Lancashire took on Manchester and won is also testament to the united approach taken by the countys big hitters to secure that victory for Samlesbury.

The village, home to defence giant BAE Systems and a growing enterprise zone (EZ), is understood to have seen off stiff competition from its big city rival, already home of GCHQ’s northern operation, to seal the deal.

It means around £5bn of investment and the creation of between 2,000 and 3,000 highly skilled jobs, according to insiders. Little wonder it has been hailed as a once in a generation opportunity for the county.

NCF has been set up to counter threats from criminals, terrorists and hostile states. Its existence was only formally made public last November.

Operating since April 2020, NCF is made up of officials from MI6, cyber-spy agency GCHQ and the military, all under a unified command with the mission to confront aggressive behaviour.

Operating in the shadows, its role is said to include conducting offensive cyber operations, interfering with terror groups mobile networks, monitoring cyber space for serious crimes, and keeping military aircraft safe from targeted weapon systems.

It is a real boost to the region, bringing in advanced capabilities and high-level digital skills

The exact location of the NCF operation is not being revealed, but the aerospace EZ is the likely site for the purpose-built HQ. Work on building it is set to get underway next year.

Along with its strong defence and aviation heritage, the quality of the countys universities, further education establishments and schools is understood to have played a large role in swinging the decision.

The greenfield site that Samlesbury, with its population of just over 1,000, can deliver was also seen as a plus point when it came to location. Ged unclear by what you mean here by population.

Add to that the fact the project is also seen to be a major levelling up lever for the government. Ministers have pointed to the positive economic impact that GCHQ has had on Cheltenham in Gloucester, where it is based.

The campaign to bring NCF to Lancashire was fought by a tight-knit team from Lancashire County Council, the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership (LEP), Lancaster University, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and BAE Systems.

The Lancashire bid also united politicians of all parties. Chorleys Labour MP and Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle joined forces with Ribble Valley Tory MP and deputy speaker Nigel Evans to put the countys case to ministers and the PM.

That lobbying work intensified in March this year when Boris Johnson officially announced that NCF would be located in a cyber corridor to be created in the North West of England.

Describing the decision to choose Samlesbury as the largest boost to the areas job opportunities since the arrival of BAE Systems decades ago, a delighted Nigel Evans acknowledges: “Everybody has played their part.

He adds: “It is important to recognise the huge boost not only to direct but also indirect employment that this will bring, as well as allowing Lancashire to play its part in securing the safety of the nation."

Defence secretary Ben Wallace is also MP for nearby Wyre and Preston North. He says: “I am hugely proud and enthusiastic to see this happen, not only will it provide a catalyst for investment, but also see our levelling up agenda bring economic stimulus and tangible benefits to this region.”

The long-term vision for the victorious bid partners is for Lancashire to become the most data-aware and data-mature economy in the UK. 

Charles Woodburn, chief executive at BAE Systems, is excited by the prospects the announcement brings. He says: “It is a real boost to the region, bringing in advanced capabilities and high-level digital skills.”

County Council leader Phillippa Williamson says the Samlesbury decision followed months of intensive effort. She says: It has been a lot of hard work to land.

She believes the NCF will now act as a catalyst for further investment in the county, adding to its levelling up ambitions.

Describing it as a real vote of confidence in Lancashire, she adds: What it shows is that we can present a really powerful case that competes with anybody else across the country. It is already generating a lot of interest.

“Nearly two centuries ago Lancashire changed the world as the cradle of the industrial revolution. We’re now set to do this again as a hub for the new digital revolution.

Debbie Francis, who chairs the LEP, also stresses that it was a collaborative approach that delivered. Urging more of the same, she says: The way in which all partners involved have worked together to ensure Lancashire was the successful location demonstrates what can be achieved by taking a partnership approach.

UCLan vice-chancellor Professor Graham Baldwin takes up the theme. He says: This investment brings to life how universities can work together with industry to build the supply chain for the future. These are very exciting times indeed, providing excellent real-world learning opportunities for our students.”

However, there are challenges. Not least ensuring that the jobs created are filled by the local workforce.

Coun Matthew Brown, the leader of Labour controlled Preston City Council, believes it is important to look at ways of raising the skills of local people to help them secure the high-quality jobs that will be on offer at Samlesbury.

And, while welcoming the overall announcement, he adds: We have to look at this in the round. We have lost a lot of civil service jobs in Preston. The people who have lost those jobs will personally find this news quite difficult.

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