A refreshed plan to move civil servants out of London to be published this summer could be a landmark change to how civil servants work. Richard Johnstone looks at what to expect
What do Channel 4, Brexit quangos and even the Bank of England have in common? They have all been mooted, by politicians of different stripes, as organisations that could be moved out of London as the government renews its drive to move public bodies – and civil servants – outside London.
The government is set to unveil its updated estates strategy in the coming weeks as Civil Service World goes to press, which will build on the steps taken since the last strategy in October 2014 to rationalise the property footprint of the public sector. The updated strategy will also be the first to be published since the Conservative Party’s general election manifesto pledged to move government functions out to the regions.
“We will start moving significant numbers of UK government civil servants and other public servants out of London and the south-east to cities around the UK,” the party stated. “We will ensure that senior posts move too, so that operational headquarters as well as administrative functions are centred not in London but around Britain. And we will do so in a way that encourages the development of new clusters of public services, private businesses and, where appropriate, universities.”
It was in this environment that then-Cabinet Office minister Chris Skidmore told Civil Service World last year that the government is likely to place the more than 20 new public bodies set to be created as a result of Brexit outside London.
Skidmore said such a move would provide beacons to the work of the civil service.
“Actually getting those public organisations [outside London] – whether it is the UK Statistics Authority in Newport or whether it is the Local Government Ombudsman in Coventry – is not just about saving money, it is about giving people something to aspire to and to know that the government is in their area.” The first fruits of this policy have been borne with the announcement that the Department for International Trade is to base its post-Brexit trade watchdog in the Berkshire town of Reading.
And while the plan to relocate some functions from the Bank of England to Birmingham was recommended by Labour rather than the Conservatives, the report calling for this shift echoed the tone of the government, stating that “basing national institutions instrumental to economic policy in London increases the risks of concentration” in the capital.
The refreshed strategy will build on the reforms implemented under the 2014 plan, which was primarily focused on driving efficiency across government buildings.
The Cabinet Office has hailed the progress made since 2010, with the size of the estate having fallen by over 25%, with £1bn in annual running costs saved and over £3bn in capital receipts raised from the sale of surplus land and property.
“We will start moving significant numbers of UK government civil servants and other public servants out of London and the south-east to cities around the UK” – Conservative manifesto
“Our work to transform how the government approaches and manages its property to drive efficiencies, savings and productivity has taken important strides forward since 2010. This work has never been more critical as we look to introduce even more innovative ways of working,” Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden said, announcing the newest figures. “The size of the estate and our running costs have continued to fall and 2016-17 was no exception. We are making ever more efficient use of our estate and our space per person ratio in offices is down to 9.9 sq m, which means we are outperforming much of the private sector.”
The next step is to introduce “modern, innovative workspaces delivered by the government hubs programme [that] will help drive this efficiency even further,” Dowden added. “It is our ambition to achieve 6 sq m in these locations… [and] through the One Public Estate programme, we are changing the approach to public sector property, helping to support national and local priorities in a way that works for everyone.”
The refreshed strategy, which is being developed by the Office of Government Property in the Cabinet Office, will set out the next steps in the government’s vision for using property to deliver on wider commitments, including its Industrial Strategy. As part of this, the government has set up a programme in Cabinet Office to drive the location of more roles and public bodies outside of London and the south east.
Although this programme is in its initial stages, early examples of how this might work already exist across the country. NHS Digital, for example, has been located in Leeds – and will soon move into a new government hub – as part of plans set out in the Industrial Strategy to build a centre of digital health expertise in the area.
“We are building on the digital health cluster in Leeds by moving NHS Digital, alongside HM Revenue and Customs, into a new hub of 6,000 civil servants,” the industrial strategy noted. “We will be looking to move further health functions to the city to build on this success.” A further example of what impact such moves can have is illustrated by the development of MediaCityUK in Greater Manchester, which was based around the BBC’s relocation.
“In the building I work in we work on six different floors. That is a barrier to delivery” – Isabel Hunt, NHS Digital
Alongside the strategic overview of the OGP, the Government Property Agency was launched in April to help deliver the reforms on the ground, including managing the hubs across the country and being able to take over property management from departments.
The hubs programme has so far been primarily focused on HMRC, which is moving staff from 170 current offices into 13 of the hubs [see box, below]. Although some hubs have announced partners, like NHS Digital, the next stage of the scheme is set to cover more departments and agencies to reach the target of 18-22 across the UK, in more locations.
“In the initial stage we have worked very closely with HMRC and their Building Our Future programme,” says Dave Stanley, the GPA’s head of communications. “So that has given us a phase one with 13 hubs announced across the UK and, as we move into phase two there’s going to be a lot more locations and government departments getting involved.”
The next stage will include smaller hubs as well as further large strategic hubs.
“Currently we’re working with departments on who will be involved with phase 2 hubs with early sites possibly announced from the autumn,” Stanley said.
HMRC’s Building our Future programme
HMRC has been at the vanguard of the hubs programme to rationalise government offices into what are called government hubs, which was developed alongside the tax authority’s plans to leave its current properties when their leases expired.
HMRC chief executive Jon Thompson says the move from 170 current offices into 13 of the regional hubs represents an opportunity. “I can understand why colleagues might have been sceptical when it was announced in 2015, because how do you conceptualise this thing when it is sort of an idea,” he told CSW earlier this year. “But I think as soon as we were able to bring it to life for people, with the rollout of much better technology, which provides much more flexible working and so on… I think people are beginning to see this vison come to reality.”
The Government Property Agency’s Dave Stanley tells CSW that “the timing of the HMRC programme meant it made sense to partner with them, with the experience showing what can be possible”. He adds: “Departments have mainly been responsible for their own offices and their own people and now we’re asking them to share. That is going to be a challenge but a number of the HMRC led hubs will be shared with other government departments like NHS Digital in Leeds and there are already locations across the UK working well as shared buildings which shows we can get over that and there are benefits to be had.”
What, then, should civil servants expect if they move to a regional hub?
The GPA is working with departments to tie the development of hubs into the Civil Service Workforce Plan and ensure that “smart working is at the heart of these new offices” through creating a workspace that encourages new ways of working and shared spaces where departments can work effectively together. “This will make it easier to for people to grow their careers locally across the civil service, gaining exposure to different experiences, and building their depth of expertise,” according to the workforce plan.
Stanley says that “shared space and smart working are absolutely a fundamental pillar” of this drive. “These are places where we can put people together into a single space, give them access to that infrastructure, government wifi for example, that then opens up opportunities for people to work more flexibly.”
Isabel Hunt, the director of improvement at NHS Digital, has worked on the plans for the agency to move into the Leeds hubs alongside HMRC, from 2020 – a move she calls “a gamechanger for us”.
“Two-thirds of our staff are based in Leeds, and we have grown at pace since [the organisation was rebranded in 2016]. We are now 3,000 statisticians, technologists, software engineers, agile developers, primarily based in Leeds.
“We are based in four different offices, and we’re quite fragmented because of that. The offices are all old, relatively tired, they’re all leasehold, and that fragmentation of being across four sites has an impact on organisational culture, on delivery, on collaboration. Given the type of work we do, which is essentiality innovation and digital delivery, our estate is a real barrier to best practice.”
The aim is to start moving in by November 2020, and Hunt says that staff engagement has begun, covering both the opportunities to boost smart working and more everyday provisions like ensuring there is the right local tea available.
“It would be harder for us to do smart working [without the move], and I do genuinely think our existing Leeds office estate is an impediment to smart working,” she says. “The building I work in, I think there are about 500 people here, but we work on six different floors, and it is a T-shaped building, so each floor has three wings to it and you can’t really collaborate outside the wing of your building.
“That is a barrier to delivery for us – if you’re a member of the senior team you’ll be walking between those four buildings every day for meetings, so there’s a lot of time lost through not being in a single site. Ultimately being in the single site will make a big difference.”
Discussions with staff over the move have already begun. “We are engaged with staff on a number of different levels to say this is what is planned – what do you think, and is there more that we should be doing?” says Hunt.
Among the recommendations taken on board from staff is what type of tea the new offices should stock, after a poll among staff on the food and drink options for the new office found that over 80% specifically wanted Yorkshire Tea. “I did think about writing to Bettys of Harrogate, who make it, to tell them that they have very loyal Yorkshire Tea drinkers,” jokes Hunt.
“We are also inviting input to the design. Broadly, we’ve agreed the design with HMRC, but we are asking our staff to collaborate with us on specific elements of that. We are working with our staff disability network, we call it our ability network, on helping us think through the requirements of the hub from a mobility perspective, and we’re engaging with our multi-faith network on the design of prayer or contemplation facilities in the hub. We have a very active cycling community, so we have been engaging with staff about transport options for the site, and as a result we agreed a re-spec of the cycling facilities at the hubs, so there are more showers and more lockers.”
“There are always going to be examples where the set-up departments have now is right for them, and if it is not broken don’t fix it. But where we can offer that ability to co-locate, that has to be a positive thing” – Dave Stanley, GPA
Hunt acknowledges that HMRC has “a much more difficult challenge, because they are relocating staff from all over Yorkshire into Leeds, and they are doing much more engagement with staff from Sheffield and Hull and Bradford to reassure them about travel into work”, whereas NHS Digital is already in the city. “So I would characterise the staff response as really positive – they just wish it was happening a bit sooner,” she says.
Alongside the upside of getting all NHS Digital staff into one site, Hunt also highlights that there are benefits to sharing the offices with HMRC that would not be available otherwise.
“I think that it is going to be a really interesting partnership between us and HMRC. We’re talking about joint initiatives on sustainability, we’re talking a lot about how we might develop shared space for our respective delivery teams and developing things like joint user experience labs for the hub, and we’re talking about a joint digital apprenticeship scheme, which will be a first for government, where our apprentices move between both organisations to develop their skills. There’s interest from both HMRC and NHS Digital in making that happen.”
GPA’s Stanley stresses that the hubs will not be a one-size-fits-all project, but rather trying to provide flexibility through shared infrastructure that allows departments themselves to become more flexible in how they do their work.
“There are always going to be examples where the set-up departments have now is right for them, and if it is not broken don’t fix it.
“But where we can offer that ability to co-locate, that has to be a positive thing,” he notes, reflecting on the development of the hubs so far. “People do like the stability of what they have always known, and they are having to think in different ways now, but I think there will be a lot of people chomping at the bit.”