Civil service: Call to move 50,000 officials out of London

Civil service: Call to move 50,000 officials out of London

Moving 50,000 civil servants out of London to the north of England could give the region a £3bn economic boost, a report endorsed by Tory MPs argues.

The Northern Policy Foundation said re-locating entire departments would help reduce the North-South divide and could improve public services over time.

It is proposing moving the Treasury to Leeds, the Home Office to Newcastle and the Department of Health to Liverpool.

The government plans to shift 22,000 civil servants out of London by 2030.

In March’s Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced plans to create a campus in the north of England for 750 staff from a range of government departments, including the Treasury and the Department for Business.

But the think tank, whose board members include a number of “Blue Wall” Conservative MPs who were elected in traditionally held Labour seats across the north of England in 2019, said the government’s vision was not ambitious enough.

Scott Benton, the MP for Blackpool South, said more “radical” steps were needed to “spread opportunities and growth more widely” and ministers needed to learn from the “mistakes of the past”.

The Foundation believes only a total re-location of the Whitehall machine will have the necessary galvanising effect and begin to tackle decades of over-centralisation of decision-making in London.

While four out of five of the UK’s 456,000 or so civil servants work outside London, according to the last data, many of those are in junior positions at the Department of Work and Pensions and Revenue and Customs.

The most senior officials remain over-represented in London, particularly those who advise ministers and implement policy.

The think tank has identified 49,500 jobs which it believes could be moved to different regions by matching the needs of individual departments with areas’ economic and employment strengths, their digital connectivity and other factors, such as house prices.

Its blueprint would see a series of new departmental clusters in the north-west, in locations such as Lancaster (Education), Preston (Defence), Salford (Culture) and Manchester (Justice and Courts).

Under the proposals, the bulk of the Treasury’s operations would move to Leeds, while York – mooted last year as a future site for the House of Lords – would be the new home of the Department of Environment and Rural Affairs.

Newcastle would be home to a new “crime fighting” hub, bringing the Home Office, the UK Border Force and the Prison and Probation office together, while the business and work and pensions departments would be based in Stockton-on-Tees in County Durham.

The Foundation said polling it had carried out suggested the move would be popular with the public who wanted to see more economic opportunities in the north and the gap closed between the south and the rest of England.

However, it said voters – including low-skilled, blue collar workers who backed the Conservative for the first time in 2019 – would need convincing that it would have a positive impact on their lives.

“The government’s recent announcements are a good first step but lack ambition and are in danger of taking too long and running out of steam,” said the think tank’s director Tom Lees.

“Moving Whitehall mandarins and roles out of London allows for recruitment of local people with different backgrounds…Given the proliferation of Zoom, Teams and other technology there is no real need to be in close physical proximity.”

Government departments have been asked to assess what roles do not need to be in London and to ensure the locations earmarked for their re-deployment have the skilled workforce necessary.

More than 3,000 staff working for non-departmental bodies and agencies are to be moved out of the capital while the default position is that any new quangos created in future will not be headquartered in London.

Officials from different departments are increasingly being housed together in “government hubs”, with new locations planned in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Belfast, Nottingham Cardiff and Bristol.

The Conservatives are also setting up a second headquarters in Leeds as part of their manifesto pledge to “level up” the country after Brexit.

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