From Whitehall to Walsall: redistributing the civil service

By on 16/07/2020
(Illustration by Katy Smith)

Among all the UK government’s civil service reform agendas, it is the goal of moving officials out of London and the South-East that is moving most quickly – with heavyweight backing from ministers and the Treasury. Ben Willis hears the Government Property Agency chief and employment experts debate the best way forward

For centuries, Whitehall has been the place in which key decisions are made in the civil service – despite a series of attempts to disperse civil servants away from their traditional heartland. But Boris Johnson’s administration is loudly proclaiming its intention to move large numbers of staff away from London and the South-East, boosting local economies and bringing new perspectives into policymaking.

In March, chancellor Rishi Sunak’s first Budget set out the goal of moving 22,000 jobs out of central London by 2030, and promised to set up a 750-strong, multi-departmental economic policymaking campus in the North. And earlier this month, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove emphasised that the government is intent on shifting policymakers into “overlooked and hitherto undervalued communities”. Previous relocations have favoured “cities such as Bristol and Sheffield, with a particular socio-economic profile and a particularly large proportion of existing university graduates,” he said.  “We need to be more ambitious for Newcastle, for Teesside and Teesdale, for North Wales, for the North-East of Scotland, for East Lancashire, for West Bromwich.”

“I think it’s vitally important that decision-makers are close to people. I think it’s vitally important that the strength of the UK government is displayed across the whole of the United Kingdom,” Gove told the BBC at the weekend. Meanwhile, the Times reported that departments have been given two weeks to draw up relocation plans. And earlier this week, the civil service’s new reform ‘prospectus’ noted that over recent years, civil service numbers have been rising faster in London than other regions – setting out the government’s determination to “reverse that trend”.

From theory to practice

So major changes to the civil service’s distribution are on their way. Such a large shift in skilled, professional and senior public sector jobs could provide a major boost for local economies in the regions targeted by Johnson’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda. And if civil service bodies recruit large numbers of new staff in their new locations, a more diverse workforce may enable government to – as Sunak put it – “make decisions differently in future.”

Yet as previous relocation initiatives have illustrated, dispersing the civil service workforce is not an easy task. Agencies that have moved into areas with relatively small and less skilled workforces have sometimes struggled to recruit, while losing senior and specialist staff who are unwilling to leave London: the Office for National Statistics, for example, had to work hard to overcome these problems after it moved to Newport in South Wales. What’s more, the arrival of a large public sector employer can imbalance local jobs markets: competing for staff, they can drive up local wage levels – raising private sector costs, and sometimes fostering an unhealthy dependence on a single major employer.

Steven Boyd

Despite Gove’s talk of Teesside and West Bromwich, the government may be alert to these risks: the Times reported that ministers are eyeing up York as one potential hub location for senior staff, offering them relocation to a relatively wealthy, desirable – and largely Tory-voting – northern city. As civil service leaders and HR professionals consider how best to realise the government’s goals while maintaining their organisations’ efficiency and effectiveness – and providing a sustainable boost to local jobs markets – GGF ran a webinar on how best to redistribute the civil service workforce, featuring Government Property Agency (GPA) chief executive Steven Boyd and two employment market experts.

This isn’t an entirely new agenda, noted Boyd: before ‘Levelling Up’ became part of the political lexicon, the GPA and the Cabinet Office’s ‘Places for Growth’ programme were well into the process of establishing a series of government ‘hubs’ outside central London ­– each housing multiple departmental disciplines under one roof. The next phase in the GPA’s work, he added, will be the establishment of a number of ‘clusters’ around the country, where departments with similar areas of interest can co-locate. These may be linked to complementary local industrial and academic expertise, said Boyd: the Department for Transport, for example, could move staff to sit among the West Midlands’ strong rail and automotive industries.

Creating new, multi-departmental office spaces allows civil servants to develop their careers in a single location, said Boyd: “If those departments are co-located in the region or in the city, then there’s the opportunity to improve cross-department working, and also to develop career paths for civil servants who might serve in a number of departments.” Boyd said.

The next set of decisions

The comprehensive spending review (CSR) – originally planned for July, but pushed back due to the pandemic – may include more detail on the next phase of the government’s civil service relocation plans, he added. The GPA’s plans will “depend on government priorities in the spending review, and what they will commit for the civil service relocation as part of the wider Levelling Up approach,” said Boyd. “Right now, there is work on the clusters and refining those; and that will spill over into the specifics of hubs that are needed to support those clusters. When the spending review is announced, I would like to think [we’ll have] some real clarity on the clusters and where investment in regions and cities is planned, including [further] hub locations.”

But might the pandemic and its effects demand a different approach? Civil servants are fast adapting to working from home, noted chair Matt Ross, while ministers are getting used to meeting senior leaders in teleconferences rather than face to face meetings: if flexible and remote working becomes much more widespread in the future, it might be better to set targets around the locations of civil servants’ homes rather than their workplaces.

“That’s a very good point,” Boyd replied, adding that he hoped the CSR will provide more detail on the government’s targets. “I suspect that there will be – and certainly I’m pushing for in the spending review – some targets that amplify that 22,000. What does that mean, in terms of the types of role [for example]?”

The metrics might, for example, include details of the types of role that should be relocated – perhaps with an emphasis on more senior positions. “There might well be a target around senior civil servants,” he said. “That’s not intended to be a ‘gradist’ approach; it is a recognition that with the more senior roles comes more decision-making ability. Those people tend to build their teams around them, which tends to be more sustainable than [putting] team leaders in place A and the people doing most of the work in place B.”

Don’t just decentralise: devolve

Anna Round

Those decision-making roles are important, said Anna Round, a senior research fellow at the think tank IPPR North, if relocations are to address the UK’s over-centralisation of power and policy-making. The concentration of senior jobs in London, she argued, has left other regions’ perspectives unrepresented in policymaking – contributing to the North and Midlands’ relative decline. “The Levelling Up agenda and the commitment to look seriously at those regional imbalances…. that’s really welcome,” Round said. “But it needs to take that forward with additional powers to build on the achievements of devolution in places where there’s been a deal in place for some time.”

The big prize here, said Round, is the chance to recast how national government works with local bodies and the wider public sector to design and deliver policy. “There’s an opportunity here for moving out of policy silos towards policy that’s more based in the potential, the opportunities in places as well as the things that different places need,” she said. “I think one of the key questions for relocation of departments … is how it will work with local voices, with local institutions, but also with organisations within the business and civil society sectors to develop that holistic, place-based policy.”

Balancing rescue and recruitment

Ed Griffin

Ed Griffin, director of HR consultancy and research at the Institute for Employment Studies, said a key question for the next phase of the relocation agenda is the extent to which it will target the areas of greatest need. He cited IES analysis showing that in some regions of the UK, the number of benefit claimants per job vacancy stands at around five; in other localities, he said, it can reach as high as 50. “This really starts to raise a whole series of questions about how you target this most specifically, in terms of geographies,” Griffin said. “Is it at a regional level? Or is it very targeted to specific districts and communities where the deepest impact of it will be felt?”

But if civil service organisations move into the poorest and lowest-skilled areas, said Ross, how will they recruit the workforces they need? It’s a difficult balancing act, conceded Boyd: “On the one hand, we want to be in places where there is a good source of highly-skilled people – particularly, increasingly, with digital skills,” he said. “Being close to good universities is a good step for that; many graduates are quite keen to stay in the town where they studied. But we also realise that that’s not the whole story.”

One option under consideration, he said, is creating a series of smaller hubs – possibly linked to local authority regeneration plans – that can provide workspaces away from the main hubs, allowing civil servants to base themselves in less wealthy or fashionable areas while also permitting departments to maintain highly-skilled, specialists workforces in the main hubs. “That might have the advantage of reducing commuting. It might also be an opportunity to come together with people from different departments. And of course, we’re mindful that not everybody in the civil service has a good place where they can work. Trying to balance those things is quite a challenge, but that’s something that’s been talked about,” Boyd said.

Vertical partnerships

On whether major relocations may distort local jobs markets, the consensus was that – given the right planning – the risk can be managed. Griffin highlighted the need for close collaboration between departments and local employers, while Boyd underlined the need for relocations to complement an area’s existing economic base in order to avoid “crowding out” the private sector. “And we are mindful of the numbers,” he added. “If you bring 2,000 jobs into a city that’s got a population of 500,000 people, then that makes a big difference, but it doesn’t make a huge difference. If that was a much smaller town that had a population of under 100,000, then that would be a really big deal. Planning that carefully is something that we’re thinking about.”

As civil servants make their plans, said Griffin, they could build confidence and maximise the benefits to local areas by ensuring that contracts for construction work and services are focused “clearly on the local economy”. And as they begin recruiting, they should work closely with organisations on the ground to ensure that local job-hunters are well-placed to find work: when “people see how recruitment is managed; how the linkages are made with local training providers; if there are opportunities for perhaps more early career-stage jobs, through things like apprenticeships that knit the local economy, education and so on much more closely together,” he said, “that quickly creates belief: a sense of the credibility of what is being done to genuinely generate local benefit.”

This webinar was the second session in a four-part online conference on ‘Levelling Up in the era of COVID-19’. The first session, featuring senior panellists including a former DEXEU permanent secretary, Treasury adviser and Northern Powerhouse chief, covered how the Levelling Up agenda should evolve in response to the pandemic, and examined the best ways for government to realise its goals. The third session considered the role of infrastructure in levelling up. And in the fourth session, panellists discussed how combined authorities can achieve far more than individual councils.

You can also watch this entire panel session:

About Ben Willis

Ben Willis is a journalist and editor with a varied background reporting on topics including public policy, the environment, renewable energy and international development. His work has appeared in a variety of national newspapers including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Times, as well as numerous specialist business, policy and consumer publications.

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