Opinion: Civil service relocations should not be driven by “levelling up”

As possible moves for government departments hit the headlines again, Sarah Nickson from the Institute for Government says decisions should be made based on the skills a location can offer, not based on things like whether it voted to leave the EU.
Boris Johnson with HS2 workers in Birmingham. Photo: EDDIE KEOGH/WPA Rota/Press Association Images

By Sarah Nickson

30 Nov 2020

Last week’s Spending Review confirmed that the government remains committed to its target to send 22,000 civil servants packing from London by the end of the decade. Ministers have pointed to a variety of reasons to do so: levelling up the north, bringing civil servants “closer to the action” and better reflecting within civil service ranks the 52% who voted to leave the EU. 

Shifting civil servants might be a symbolic contribution to ‘levelling up’. But, as moves to Birmingham and Wolverhampton are mooted for the Department for Transport and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government respectively, a new IfG report argues, it is an expensive one – estimates in 2010 put costs at up to £40,000 per relocated job – that will do little to advance the goals ministers have said they want to achieve. 

There are good reasons to move government jobs out of London 

The government is right to expand the civil service footprint and draw on more talent outside London. While only 13% of UK residents live in London, two thirds of policy and senior roles are based there. By relocating some of these jobs – particularly to other major UK cities with deep labour markets – it will be able to draw on a wider talent pool. Even though ministers’ rhetoric has focused on small towns, the government also plans to build civil service “hubs” in 13 large cities, including London. This is sensible. The labour markets of those thirteen cities capture at least a third of the UK’s workforce and all but one has a higher than average proportion of residents in managerial and professional jobs, so offer a large base of well-qualified workers. 

But civil service relocations won’t do much to help “level up” the north 

Even if government jobs are moved to smaller or less affluent locations, it will make little difference to the overall north-south economic divide. While past relocations have created new private sector jobs in receiving areas, many are simply relocated from other parts of the same region. Further, economic benefits tend to be maximised by clustering government jobs together. Taken together, this means the contribution of relocations to levelling up on a national scale will be limited. 

The government should not assume relocations will help the civil service better understand the Leave vote 

Michael Gove has said he wants civil servants to be “closer to the 52% who voted Leave”. This is not just a soundbite: many of the civil servants we spoke to researching our new report expressed a sincere desire to better understand the dynamics behind the leave vote. 

While the hubs model is sensible, it will not deliver on Gove’s promise. Ten of those cities voted to remain, and of the other three, only Peterborough recorded a leave vote greater than 55%. Even in London, 40% of people voted for Leave, so if London-based civil servants struggle to understand the feeling behind the leave vote, it’s not clear how moving them to places that voted Leave by small margins would change that. 

On the other hand, sending departments to “overlooked” leave voting towns would create difficulties for recruitment. Smaller towns are less likely to have the number of skilled workers needed to sustain a sizeable government presence. Further, the referendum saw a correlation between the likelihood of a local authority having voted to remain and the proportion of its residents having higher education. 

Moving civil servants out of London won’t bring them closer to the action 

The idea that evicting civil servants from the ivory towers of Whitehall and sending them to small, deprived towns will transform public services is, in many cases, a fallacy. Some types of policies – like economic development programmes for specific regions – are best designed in the places where they will be delivered. We also spoke to civil servants who felt that, in subtle ways, having colleagues working in different parts of the UK deepened their appreciation of how life varies across the country. 

But when we asked civil servants working on policy applying in all parts of the country whether being outside London had deepened their understanding of its impact on the ground, most tended to think their location had little or no influence on policy design, or its effectiveness. 

Shifting the civil service out of London might make it less, not more, diverse 

While the government is right to want the civil service to reflect the public it serves, making it more geographically diverse might mean making it less ethnically diverse. More than one third of civil servants in London come from a minority ethnic background, but for all regions of the UK other than the West Midlands (22.3%), the figure ranges from 1% to 13.6%. This reflects the local labour markets government departments draw on: over a third of the workforce in London is from minority ethnic groups, with the West Midlands the highest of all other regions at 17.4%. 

The government is right to make the policy profession less concentrated in London. But decisions about location should be based on maximising the number of skilled workers it can draw on, rather than hopes of levelling up or breaking a “metropolitan” mindset.

Sarah Nickson is a senior researcher at the Institute for Government working on civil service reform

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