Cabinet Office accused of ‘vagueness’ and ‘boosterism’ on civil service jobs relocations

Plans for new hubs should be placed under review until there is clarity on remote-working rules and headcount reductions, MPs say
Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin at the construction site for the government's First Street hub in Manchester. Photo: Cabinet Office

By Jim Dunton

27 Jul 2023

A damning report on the Places for Growth programme to relocate 22,000 civil service jobs from the capital by 2030 has accused the Cabinet Office of exaggerating its achievements at the same time as failing to provide “key measurements” for its success.

Members of Parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee said that despite being badged as part of levelling-up efforts, the Cabinet Office had not clearly set out the evidence base for the programme’s claimed economic benefits.

They added that although the programme is closely linked to the creation of new regional government hubs to replace older local offices, the Cabinet Office had also not estimated the economic impact of closing those workplaces, which are often located in smaller towns.

MPs also said that mixed messages from the government over flexible working for departmental officials and the magnitude of planned civil service job cuts were hampering the Government Property Agency’s ability to plan for future office-space needs.

They called on the Cabinet Office provide a “definitive statement” of government policy on the flexibility civil servants should have around how often they must work in the office, as well as the size of headcount reductions the government is modelling.

PACAC members said the update should set out the timescale for the cuts – clearly recognised by Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden, but not enumerated since the outcry over Boris Johnson’s 91,000 plans last year – and the impact they will have on departments’ office-space requirements.

The report said the GPA should review the benefits of proceeding with hubs that are currently in the planning stage until it has “greater certainty” over departments’ workforce plans.

PACAC chair William Wragg accepted that the government was making “steady progress” towards its Places for Growth target, which has now passed the half-way stage. But he said MPs were concerned about the way the Cabinet Office’s targets were originally arrived at, and how progress has so-far been framed.

“The lack of consistency in relation to relocating civil service jobs reveals a vagueness at the heart of a key plank of the government’s levelling up agenda,” he said.

“The Cabinet Office has failed to provide a clear account of why certain functions are located where they are, and how relocation and regional hubs will benefit local communities across the country, if at all.

“There is evidence to show that, since 2010, civil service jobs have been created in London faster than anywhere else in the country, with a net decrease of civil service jobs created elsewhere in the UK. ”

Wragg said that closing long-established regional offices could have hard-hitting impacts on local communities and seemingly flew in the face of the levelling-up agenda.

“We need greater transparency and accountability of what seems to be a haphazard approach to reforming the government’s estates and its workforce,” he said.

Elsewhere the PACAC report said the Cabinet Office had failed to properly spell out key information about Places for Growth, including that it is principally about relocating roles rather than people – allowing London headcount to rise at the same time that relocation targets are met.

“In some of its communications, it is adopting a boosterish approach to reporting progress, which is likely to give an exaggerated picture of its achievements,” the report said.

MPs added that Cabinet Office had not shown evidence of seeking to learn from past examples in which relocation policies were reversed, such the 2010–11 abolition of the Government Office network.

“There is a risk the Cabinet Office is not being mindful of the need to design these programmes with sufficient clarity of rationale to help future-proof them,” they said.

MPs said Places for Growth  also carried a risk of creating “two-tier departmental cultures” if regional offices mainly comprised new starters who had never previously worked in Whitehall.

Other concerns included the potential for increased pay-driven churn caused by staff moving between departments based in the same hub in pursuit of higher salaries.

They noted, however, that Places for Growth could benefit from increased use of videoconferencing, reducing the need for in-person staff visits to Whitehall, which has undermined previous relocation programmes.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said 12,000 roles had now been “moved” out of Greater London as part of the Places for Growth programme. They insisted “detailed evidence” on the benefits of the programme had been shared with MPs.

“Extensive planning and analysis goes into decisions on new locations, including assessment of value for money, skills and local transport networks,” the spokesperson said.

“New hubs are expected to deliver millions of pounds of economic benefits for local areas through increased footfall and spending from staff.

“Moving civil servants will always encounter opposition but we are determined to deliver.”

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