It is right to move more posts outside London but pay attention to the senior leadership roles—and the resources in Scotland, Wales and Northern Irelandby Philip Rycroft / March 20, 2020 / Leave a comment
Coronavirus sweeps all before it. The government and civil service will be straining every sinew to deal with a scale of crisis that this country has not witnessed for many a long year. The concentric circles of officialdom dealing with the emergency centre tightly on the Cabinet Office in London and many of the officials leading the response will be within walking distance of 70 Whitehall.
This is no doubt efficient in a crisis. Whitehall is a meetings-driven culture and the clear preference is for face-to-face discussion. While attempts will be made to minimise the number of meetings during the current pandemic, the premium on being close by, during crises and through times of more normal business, is unlikely to dissipate soon.
So how will the civil service respond to yet another incoming government announcing that it intends to disperse more civil service jobs out of London? The projected number this time round is 22,000 over the next 10 years, a not inconsiderable proportion of the 80,000 or so civil servants currently based in the capital.
Most civil servants already work outside of London, about 350,000 of them. Why move more?
The most obvious reason is cost. London office space is expensive. Since the surge of new recruits to deal with Brexit, Whitehall is bursting at the seams. Moving staff out of London makes financial sense. It also allows the civil service to access a broader range of talent, including those whose family commitments and circumstance make living in London difficult.
Civil service jobs, while at most levels not desperately well-paid, are nevertheless broadly secure and can provide a steady anchor in a local jobs market. Getting civil service jobs into towns and cities less advantaged than London can serve a useful function in economic regeneration. Civil service training is well regarded and having a pool of experienced civil servants on hand in different parts of the country who might be tempted into the private sector is no bad thing.
So is that it? Modest financial and economic regeneration benefits, a useful PR exercise, but not much more? I hope not. There should be a wider purpose here which speaks to this government’s commitment to “levelling up” the country.
Despite the current dispersal of civil service jobs across the UK, the leadership remains highly centralised in London. Nearly 70 per cent of senior civil servants are London-based, a concentration even more marked if the civil servants working for the Scottish and Welsh governments in Edinburgh and Cardiff are left out of the equation. The power and the prestige are in London, an unsurprising reflection of what is still one of the most centralised polities in the western world—England.
If civil service relocation is to mean something, that is where the challenge lies. Serving in the civil service is a culturally homogenising experience. Most top mandarins live in London, most in well-heeled parts of London, most share the same cultural milieu and send their kids to the same sort of schools. The edges get knocked off regional distinctiveness; it’s rare to encounter a broad Yorkshire or Scouse accent in the rarefied meeting rooms of 70 Whitehall.
This would matter less if London was not so different to the rest of the country. But London is different. For all the tours undertaken by assiduous London-based senior civil servants around the country, it’s really hard to get the sense of a place by distant observation and occasional visits. Relocation of more civil service jobs out of London is a chance to put some of the power and heft into the midlands and north of England, to have advice coming from senior civil servants whose daily experience is of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds or Newcastle, not just London.
That means moving out more policymaking functions as well as operational and back office jobs. That will be the wrench for the civil service. Of course, there will be inconvenience, as officials have to shuttle backwards and forwards to London for meetings—though not so much inconvenience such that improved video conferencing facilities can’t fix it. And it will be no bad thing if progression in the ranks of the civil service of the future is dependent on experience of working outside of Whitehall, not just in the civil service in the regions of England but also in local government and the devolved governments.
The commitment to create an economic campus in the north of England with 750 jobs from the Treasury and other departments is an encouraging sign. That might have sent shivers through spines in 1 Horseguards Road, current home of the Treasury, but it is the sort of initiative that is essential if the civil service is really to understand what makes this country tick and provide the sort of policy advice that might give the levelling-up agenda some chance of success.
And while we’re at it, what about more senior UK government jobs in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? Any department with continuing UK-wide responsibilities like the Treasury, the Business Department and the Home Office should have more senior staff located in the devolved parts of the UK. The clue is in the title; they are UK government departments and, if nothing else, a greater presence in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be a visible sign that this Union still works for all its peoples.
Office relocation is fine, as far as it goes. To make a real impact, relocation of senior leadership needs to be part of it. Modern technology reduces the barriers of distance. If well done, moving civil servants out of London need not reduce the capability to respond to crises such as the present one. But it will mean that the civil service leadership of the future is better grounded in the country they serve so well.