Working to make government more effective

Explainer

Relocation of the civil service

Where in the UK do civil servants work?

Map of Darlington

One of the government’s top priorities for civil service reform is to relocate civil servants outside of London. The government is committed to moving 22,000 officials, including 50% of UK-based senior civil servants, outside of the capital by 2030. The 22,000 target was first announced by the then chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in the March 2020 budget. 

In the February 2022 Levelling Up white paper, more than 15,700 roles across 15 central government departments and public bodies were announced to be moving by 2030. undefined //assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1052706/Levelling_Up_WP_HRES.pdf  New public bodies are being established outside of London by default.

The government has given three main reasons why it wants to relocate civil servants. They are to:

  1. allow talented people who do not want to live or work in London to contribute more effectively to the civil service
  2. shift what it perceives as civil servants’ ‘urban metropolitan’ mindsets by encouraging them to experience life in non-metropolitan areas undefined //assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1052706/Levelling_Up_WP_HRES.pdf
  3. economically ‘level up’ deprived areas by relocating public sector jobs to those parts of the country.

Institute for Government research suggests that, if done successfully, relocation is able to achieve all of these aims, although any economic impact is modest and localised. Our research also shows that it is not easy to build a thriving office outside of London. For more, see Settling In: Lessons from the Darlington Economic Campus, Moving Out and the Institute for Government’s written evidence on relocation to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. undefined //assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1052706/Levelling_Up_WP_HRES.pdf

What is the history of civil service relocation?

The civil service’s London-centric distribution is a long-standing, well-known problem and attempts to relocate officials around the UK is a recurring theme in the history of civil service reform.

As far back as the 1968 Fulton Report, a civil service reform plan produced by a committee chaired by Lord Fulton, the civil service was identified as being too London-centric. undefined //assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1052706/Levelling_Up_WP_HRES.pdf  Fulton argued that “the Administrative Class of the Civil Service has been on easy and familiar terms…with London, less so with the regions” and that there was not ”enough awareness of how the world outside Whitehall works”. It was seen as ”desirable” for the civil service to become more geographically representative.

During the 2000s, two reports called for the civil service to become less London-centric. The 2004 Lyons Review argued that “national public sector activity is concentrated in and around London to an extent which is inconsistent with Government objectives” while the 2010 Smith Review argued there was “scope for further relocation and a continuing rebalancing of activity between central London in particular and the rest of the country…to achieve a proper balance between London and the rest of the UK.” undefined //assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1052706/Levelling_Up_WP_HRES.pdf undefined //assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1052706/Levelling_Up_WP_HRES.pdf

Michael Gove’s Ditchley Lecture, given in June 2020 while he was chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, argued that there would be a host of beneficial effects from “reduc[ing] the distance between Government and people by relocating Government decision-making centres to different parts of our United Kingdom.” undefined //assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1052706/Levelling_Up_WP_HRES.pdf  June 2021’s Declaration on Government Reform called for more civil servants, including senior ones, to work outside of London.

Where do UK civil servants work?

As of March 2023, there were 519,780 people employed in the home civil service, across the UK and overseas*. Of these, 103,735 (20%) were based in London – an increase of 12,075 since March 2020, but decrease of 1,095 since March 2022. The capital remains the region with by far the most civil servants, with 36,625 more than the North West, in second place.

*This figure is in headcount, and is therefore higher than the number we use in our staff numbers explainer which is in full-time equivalent staff.

A chart showing the number of civil servants in the UK, with London the most populated region.

Most civil servants in the UK are based in England. There are 38,655 civil servants based in Wales, of whom just over 6,000 work for the Welsh government. There are 53,495 civil servants based in Scotland, of whom around 28,000 work for the Scottish government.

What civil service jobs are there in different parts of the country?

A chart showing the number of civil servants at each grade in each location. 62% of senior civil servants are based in London

The majority of senior civil servants work in London. The capital has over 10 times more senior civil servants than Scotland (the region with the next highest number of them).

However, the overall proportion of UK-based senior civil servants that work in London fell from 67% in 2021 to 62% in 2023. While the SCS remains London-centric, this demonstrates progress on the ambition for 50% of UK-based senior civil servants to be located outside the capital by 2030.

The regional distribution of civil servants in Grades 6 and 7 is marked by a similar concentration in London. Civil servants at lower grades are more evenly distributed across the UK.

A chart showing the profession of civil servants in the different regions of the UK. London is the most policy-centric.

The mix of different civil service professions also varies by region. Cross-departmental specialist roles – including policy, economics and HR – make up around one in five civil service jobs, but constitute almost half of the London-based civil service work force. London is the most policy-focused region, with 20% of London-based civil servants belonging to the policy profession. The region with the next highest proportion of policy officials is Wales, where 6% of civil servants are in policy roles. 

A chart showing the distribution of policy professionals around the country. Almost 70% are based in London.

Overall, 67% of all policy-focused civil servants are based in London – down from 68% last year and 72% in 2021, but still reflecting the deeply London-centric nature of the profession.

How has the number of civil servants in each region changed?

In February 2023, the government announced that it was over halfway to the goal of moving 22,000 civil servants outside of London. While it is unclear how this target – and progress towards it – is calculated, it seems to reflect some recent progress in increasing the number of civil service roles outside of London, particularly between March 2022 and March 2023.

A chart showing the change in numbers of civil servants in different regions of the UK between 2022-23, with a decrease in London and increase in most other regions

However, measuring from 2010 rather than 2020 tells a different story. The number of civil servants in London has grown by 20% over the past 13 years, the largest growth of any region. The other regions where staff numbers have grown are Wales (9% growth), Scotland (6% growth), North West (3%) and Northern Ireland (1%). The deepest staff reductions since 2010 can be found in the East of England, where numbers have fallen by 27%, and the South East, where they have fallen by 19%. 

This means that, to some extent, the current places for growth programme is merely attempting to reverse some of the effects of the accretion of roles in London over the past 13 years.

A chart showing the change in numbers of civil servants in different regions of the UK between 2010-23, with the biggest increase in London although that has begun to decline.

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