Working to make government more effective


Location, location, location

The geography of the Civil Service.

When considering the Civil Service, we are likely to think of a London-based administration renowned as one of the most centralised in the developed world; there is a reason why, since time immemorial, “Whitehall” has been shorthand for “the British government.” But – with spending reductions changing the size and shape of government departments, and devolution prioritised by the Prime Minister in his mission to create a “smarter state” – is this really the case? Continuing our analysis of the 2015 Annual Civil Service Employment Statistics, Ollie Hirst surveys the landscape.

See our explainer for our more recent analysis of the location of the civil service.

London has more civil servants than any other region of the UK; the East Midlands has the fewest.

More civil servants are based in London than in any other UK region – some 79,000 staff, or 18% of the total: an increase from 16% in 2010. The East Midlands hosts the fewest (just over 20,000, or fewer than one in twenty civil servants), even though – in general population terms – it is larger than the North East of England, Northern Ireland and Wales. In both Scotland and Wales, there are more civil servants working for UK government departments than there are for the devolved administrations.

In Northern Ireland, the reverse is true: there are few UK government civil servants, but the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS, which is not classified as part of the Home Civil Service) employs nearly 28,000 people. This is due to certain policy areas, like welfare, being devolved.

However, territorial spread of departments varies considerably – DCMS is the only department to employ all of its civil servants in London.

While all 600 civil servants at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (including the Royal Parks executive agency) are based in London, all other departments have civil servants in at least one other UK region. In contrast to Whitehall-centred departments like DCMS and the Treasury, the largest four UK departments in terms of headcount – DWP, HMRC, MoJ and MoD – are all well-represented outside London. As delivery-focussed departments, with a high proportion of their staff ‘on the ground’ in job centres (DWP), as tax officials (HMRC), and as probation officers (MoJ), these departments are required to have a presence across the country.

Other departments operate beyond London through specific offices and executive agencies in regions outside of the capital. More than 45% of DfT’s civil servants work in Wales (mainly at the DVLA in Swansea), around a third of DCLG’s workforce is based in the South West of England (including the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol) and over 40% of DfID’s civil servants are based in Scotland (in the department’s East Kilbride office). Almost 60% of home civil servants working for the FCO are based in the South West (mainly at GCHQ in Cheltenham), while the UK Statistics Authority extends the Cabinet Office’s staff into Wales and the South East.

A small number of departments provide most Civil Service employment in most regions.

In most UK regions, the majority of the Civil Service is employed by the four largest departments – DWP, HMRC, MoJ and MoD. In the North East over 70% of all civil servants are employed by DWP and HMRC alone, while in the South West two in five civil servants are employed by the MoD. In Northern Ireland, the NICS accounts for 88% of civil servants; although constituting a much smaller proportion than this, the devolved administrations of the Scottish Government and Welsh Government are also the largest employers in their respective regions.

The Civil Service has become more London-centred since 2010, with staff reductions disproportionately affecting regions outside the capital.

Since 2010, Civil Service headcount has fallen by over a fifth in four regions. As a proportion of their overall workforce, the East Midlands and the East of England have seen the largest reductions, losing around 23% of their staff between 2010 and 2015, followed by the North West (-20%) and the South East (-20%). At the other end of the scale, London’s civil service population has fallen by under 9%. The West Midlands, Scotland and Wales are the only other regions to have been reduced by less than 15%.

As the largest departments, percentage decreases in DWP, HMRC, MoJ and MoD have resulted in high headcount reductions in those regions where these departments are predominantly based. In the South East and South West, the MoD’s pledge of cutting 25,000 civilian staff – a target set in 2010’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) – has been responsible for a large proportion of job losses, while reductions in the running costs and staff numbers of DWP and HMRC have mainly hit the northern regions which account for a substantial proportion of the workforce of these departments. In absolute terms, the greatest reduction has been in the North West, which has seen its workforce fall by over 13,000 in the past five years, from 65,210 to 52,150. DWP alone employs 8,500 fewer staff in the region in 2015 when compared to 2010.

Those in senior grades are also disproportionately based in London.

London remains dominant not only in headcount, but also in terms of seniority. Civil servants at the lower grades, such as those in administrative positions, are relatively evenly spread across the UK outside of the capital. This explains why these regions have been disproportionately affected by staff reductions – our previous analysis has shown that it is within the lowest grades that the headcount has decreased most substantially since 2010.

In contrast, the concentration of civil servants based in London increases with seniority; 64% of the Senior Civil Service (SCS) and over 42% of those at Grades 6 and 7 (the next highest grades) work in the capital. In its mission to decentralise and devolve, shifting the Civil Service’s centre of gravity from London to localities, the government will therefore have to address the traditional view that – to (mis)quote Douglas Jay – “the man in Whitehall knows best.”

Abbreviations for government departments can be found here.

Institute for Government

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