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Ministers should not promise a revolution from civil service relocation

Ministers should not give the impression that relocation alone will transform decision making

Ministers should not give the impression that relocation alone will transform decision making, argues Sarah Nickson

Robert Jenrick has announced that the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government (MHCLG) will move 500 jobs to Wolverhampton and the surrounding areas. In doing so, the communities secretary has made the first big government downpayment on the promise to shift 22,000 civil servants out of London by the end of the decade. Other moves are lined up, including the long-trailed “Treasury north” campus.

Jenrick has declared that the public “will be as likely to meet ministers in Wolverhampton as in Whitehall” and that the move will ensure “that local voices are represented… in the creation of government policy”. Other ministers have said relocations will bring government closer to “the people” and boost left-behind regions. As the Institute has previously argued, there are good reasons to break London’s stranglehold on policy roles in the civil service. But Jenrick – and his ministerial colleagues – should be cautious of giving the impression that relocations alone can meet their rhetoric.

Relocation won’t give local communities more control over policy

Relocation allows ministers, in relatively quick order, to deliver something visible, but changing where decisions are made is not the same as changing how they are made. At an Institute event last year, the mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, noted that the Department for Education has a big presence in his city (and others in the UK), but still has a centralised approach to making decisions. Allowing “communities to take back more control of the policies that matter to them” would require central government to cede decision-making powers and funding to local government across the whole country, not sending departments to a handful of towns and cities. So far, it has shown little appetite for more radical change.

Relocation would mostly be a symbolic contribution to levelling up

Relocation will only make small in-roads on regional inequality. 22,000 jobs sent to a handful cities or towns might be transformative in those places, but it is too small a number to have an effect across the country. Further, the economic benefits of relocations tend to be highly localised, with much of the growth in private sector jobs lured by a new government office coming from displacement of jobs elsewhere in the same region.

The government also faces a trade-off between targeting overlooked towns and disrupting departments’ work. Michael Gove has argued for looking past cities like Bristol and Sheffield that already have a government presence, in favour of less affluent places with fewer university graduates. But places with smaller or less skilled labour markets might make it difficult to recruit enough staff. And it is unwise to assume that vast numbers of existing civil servants will want to swap the metropolis for small town life, as the ONS found when 90% of its staff opted to quit rather than leave London for Newport.

With the Wolverhampton move the government seems to have found a halfway house, albeit one with potential for disappointment. An official is reported to have said that staff might be able to stay in London, work remotely and commute to the west Midlands a couple of times a week. This would help minimise staff losses, but risks being a relocation in name only.

Even simply changing where policy is made needs long-term commitment

Even though 80% of civil servants are based outside of London, the capital is still home to two-thirds of policy makers, in part because successive governments have failed to unpick the career incentives nudging ambitious civil servants towards London. This requires work long after the ribbon on a new office is cut.

Jenrick’s commitment to locate half of his senior civil servants outside London will help. While better use of technology offers more flexibility when it comes to location, it does not erase the fact it is harder to build relationships remotely. Joining meetings with ministers and other officials remotely means missing crucial pre- and post-meeting chat where the real business of a meeting is sometimes transacted. These dynamics have in the past pulled senior jobs back to London, but having fewer senior jobs based there in the first place, along with better techniques for running online meetings, can help prevent this from happening.

Jenrick’s eye-catching pledge that MHCLG ministers will split their time between Wolverhampton and London will help too. Other ministers must show similar commitment and the practice must not end with Jenrick’s tenure. Jenrick has a home and parents near Wolverhampton, but a successor might find the location less convenient.

The government will also need to break the model of frequent job-hopping – often with stints in the Cabinet Office or the Treasury – as the route to promotion. If it does not, civil servants in places with a smaller government presence will either find themselves at a disadvantage compared to London-based peers, or be forced to uproot their lives on a regular basis.

There is much to be said for building policy hubs outside London: the capital does not have a monopoly on talent. But if ministers are to deliver on their soundbites, setting up new offices will need to be the beginning not the end of the process. Otherwise, they risk offering the red wall a red herring.

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