Moving mindsets and offices: how to successfully relocate civil servants

By on 29/03/2021 | Updated on 29/03/2021
Media City, Manchester: civil service relocations could help boost local regeneration strategies – just as the BBC’s move to Salford Quays did. Credit: James Johnstone/Flickr

The UK government has pledged to move 22,000 civil service jobs out of London by 2030 as part of its ‘levelling up’ agenda. At a recent webinar, experts discussed the benefits of the approach and insights on how to make it work

“If you’re only working with a group of people who largely live and work in the same environment as you do, you will build up a specific worldview,” said Stephen Boyd, chief executive officer at the UK Cabinet Office’s Government Property Agency.

“We need to make sure that the worldview in the management of the UK is a pan-UK one, and so it’s really important to have people in the major cities in the UK: not just London but Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham, Glasgow and Edinburgh, as well as smaller places,” he said.

Boyd was explaining the government’s civil service relocations agenda at a recent GGF webinar. Part of its work to ‘level up’ underperforming parts of the UK, the relocations drive is designed to spread civil service jobs much more evenly across the country – bringing in new staff, insights and experiences that broaden the civil service’s perspective and ensure that policies and services are designed to meet the whole country’s needs.

Stephen Boyd, chief executive officer at the UK Cabinet Office’s Government Property Agency

Prime minister Boris Johnson pledged in spring last year that 22,000 civil service jobs would be moved out of London by 2030. As Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove argued, such relocations won’t just create “opportunities, jobs and investment; rather, they will bring “decision-makers close to people” – allowing local communities’ perspectives and priorities to be better reflected in the UK government’s work.

Numerous relocations are already in the works. New hub offices are planned in cities including Belfast, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham, while Peterborough is set to welcome 1,000 civil servants from HM Passport Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from 2022. In February this year, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government confirmed it would set up a second headquarters of 500 people in Wolverhampton, and in March’s Budget HM Treasury announced plans to move 750 roles to Darlington. 

A broader view of policy

There are already lots of civil servants based outside London, commented Boyd, but many are in junior grades. “So one of the key things as part of this work is to make sure that policymaking staff and senior civil servants move to try and achieve some kind of cognitive diversity,” he said. In this way, “people will think and work in a different way to make sure that the policies devised for the UK are the ones that support everyone.” 

Philip Rycroft, a former permanent secretary whose previous roles include managing the UK’s relationship with the devolved governments, highlighted the agenda’s potential to bring well-paid roles to communities that could sorely use the additional expendable income. But relocations could achieve much more than that, he said – particularly if government bodies start recruiting public sector managers from local authorities and other service providers.

Former permanent secretary Philip Rycroft

“Whitehall is by instinct a centralising bureaucracy, and relatively few senior civil servants have experience of different tiers of government,” he noted. “Most civil servants, in the policy profession in particular, will spend much of their career working in London. So wherever they’ve come from originally, they move to London start their career, and they tend to stay there. In my view that has an inevitable effect of rather narrowing perspectives.”  

On this point, Rycroft was speaking from experience, having spent around 10 years working in Whitehall while continuing to live in Scotland. “Even though I was spending most work weekdays in London, at least at the weekends I was rubbing shoulders with people who were steeped in Scottish politics and Scottish opinion, and I could take that back to debates in Whitehall,” he said. That “did keep me grounded, and I am sure there will be similar benefit to getting other senior civil servants out – not just into the Midlands and the North of England, but also into Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland,” he added.

For Rycroft, though, the needs of local communities will only be fully met when more decisions are made by local organisations; sending central decision-makers out to work in the regions can only achieve so much. “England remains the most centralised polity, certainly in Europe and probably in the wider democratic world,” he said. “It is absolutely bonkers that a department in London is running schools throughout England, pretty much. Ultimately, powers in England need to be devolved further down over education, health care and economic development to give local people choices and engagement in their futures.” 

Building local connections

In the view of Angela Barnicle, chief officer for asset management and regeneration at Leeds City Council, it isn’t sufficient for civil servants simply to be based in a different place: civil service bodies will need to engage with local communities to successfully recruit and build their expertise and capabilities. Leeds has set up a strategic board to help new arrivals – both public and private sector organisations – integrate into the city’s economy.  

Angela Barnicle, chief officer for asset management and regeneration at Leeds City Council

“When you are relocating, you get an operational board with the local authority and local business partners that can really help network you into the local culture and the local business culture,” she said. “And that’s what we’ve seen work really, really well. We’ve seen it work well with Burberry and [law firm] Reed Smith, and we’ve seen it pay dividends with Channel Four.” 

Building these local connections will be key to addressing one of the biggest challenges around relocations: recruiting and retaining technical professionals and senior leaders. This is not the first time national leaders have tried to disperse civil servants away from London and the South-East, and previous programmes have seen relocating organisations shed institutional knowledge and specialist capabilities. In the late 2000s, for instance, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) moved to Newport in Wales, only to see 90% of its staff staying put in London – and leaving the agency with a major headache. Both the ONS relocation and the move of Scottish Natural Heritage from Edinburgh to Inverness, commented Rycroft, took time to “settle down”.  

According to Jenny Rydon, a partner at property consultancy Montagu Evans, civil service bodies can help address this risk by focusing on their offer to staff beyond shiny new offices. “I think this requires a cross-sector approach and affordable, quality housing provision to support a multi-generational workforce that will equally want a home office coming back into our post-Covid-19 environment, and better than adequate transport that connects regional hubs and towns across the country,” she said.  

“People also want digital connectivity and interoperability so we can connect wherever and whenever we want, proactive healthcare, and wellbeing messages being driven in local communities to support positive physical and mental wellbeing, and an exciting and varied retail, leisure and night time offer that safe and secure,” she added. “So it’s not a short list!” 

Reaching critical mass

Jenny Rydon, partner at property consultancy Montagu Evans

There’s a tension between ministers’ and MPs’ talk of locating civil servants in small towns, and employers’ interest in having access to large labour markets offering the skills and experience they require, noted chair Matt Ross. “I do worry slightly about the Wolverhampton and Darlington decisions, because that looks like putting individual packets of civil servants in different towns,” said Rycroft. “I think you do need to focus on particular regional centres, and build up that critical mass to get enough senior jobs for people who might want to locate in those areas.” 

Boyd, however, was less sure. “I would say that we are going to have some larger offices in big cities, and in the smaller towns there’ll be smaller offices,” he said. “And we should think about this as a network of offices where people can work together. It’s not a choice of big towns, big cities or smaller towns. I think the experience of the pandemic has proven to people that you don’t physically have to be there all of the time to make your presence felt. So, I’m not sure we should encourage a black and white choice. We should think about what’s the right balance, what’s the right network.”  

In both small towns and big cities, civil service relocations could help boost local regeneration strategies – just as the BBC’s move to Salford Quays in Greater Manchester revived the city’s waterside. “An easy solution to moving people quickly would be to lease existing office space – there is some on the market and away we go – but that wouldn’t necessarily be the most sustainable answer,” said Rydon.

But, she added, the way “to drive a more beneficial solution is to strategically assess all of those surplus assets in a location, identify opportunities to repurpose vacant space and spot areas that are primed for regeneration. For instance, we’re working with a local authority outside London that is taking a vacant Debenhams and looking to repurpose that into an office hub, bringing people back to the high streets and creating jobs.” 

Shifting office spaces out of the expensive South-East will save government money – but Rycroft pointed out that organisations should allow for the additional costs involved, such as increased business travel. Despite the COVID-driven shift towards remote working, “people will still have to go down to London for various things,” he said. “My travel costs were paid for from Scotland to London, and I ended up in The Sunday Times for my sins for that. But I thought it was a price worth paying, having at least one permanent secretary – at a time when there’s an existential threat to the United Kingdom – who sort of knew where Scotland was.”  

Most importantly, however, it was agreed that making a success of relocations will require a fundamental change in how senior civil servants and ministers think. “It does require a mindset shift in Whitehall,” said Rycroft. “I tried to work from Edinburgh some days during the week and it was really difficult at times to be able to dial into meetings, particularly in the Cabinet Office, because the tech was pretty rubbish – but the attitude was also pretty rubbish. If you weren’t in the room, you weren’t really there.”

By creating new habits of remote working, the pandemic lays the groundwork for a fundamental shift here – allowing civil servants based outside the South-East to connect seamlessly with officials and ministers in the capital. So COVID-19 could end up reducing some of the barriers on this front. To make the agenda a success, however, civil service bodies will have to think very carefully about recruitment – finding ways to both tap into local labour markets, and provide a great offer to staff.

The ‘Levelling Up: Making a success of relocations’ webinar was held on March 3 2021, and supported by Montagu Evans. You can watch the whole session via our events page, or below.

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One Comment

  1. Norman Donaldson says:

    From Canada my immediate reaction was “it is not even 700km from London to Edinburg, so what’s the issue?” 🙂
    To be more serious, starting professional employment in places with few professional jobs is obviously a Good Thing, but there is a fundamental sociological problem with moving existing professional positions to those places. At least here in Canada, professionals tend to be married to other professionals. So a mid-level manager in IT might love the idea of moving to a quieter, cheaper location but if her husband cannot find work that will be a show-stopper. In the end, successful decentralization may need to start with moving government positions to places that are removed from London but already have a moderate pool of professional positions.

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