Civil service is ‘institutionally biased’ towards investing in the south, ex-minister claims

Northern Research Group leader says levelling up will require a major shakeup of Whitehall as MPs tell Gove to press on with devolution
Photo: mrlaugh/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

By Jim Dunton

01 Oct 2021

A former minister responsible for predecessor strategies to the government’s levelling-up agenda has claimed the civil service is “institutionally biased” towards investing in the south.

Jake Berry was minister of state for the Northern Powerhouse and local growth at the then-Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government from summer 2019 until last year. Before that, he was under-secretary of state in the same brief.

Berry is currently chair of the Northern Research Group of Conservative MPs who represent seats in the north of England and other areas that are not historically strongholds for the party – including so-called “red wall” seats taken from the Labour Party in 2019’s general election.

The group has pledged to hold prime minister Boris Johnson’s feet “to the fire” on his signature levelling up agenda. Ahead of the Conservative Party conference, which starts this Sunday, NRG members have been sending strong messages to ministers on the need for tangible evidence of delivering on levelling up.

Berry’s comments on regional bias within the civil service came in a BBC News feature on levelling up ahead of the gathering in Manchester.

He also said Whitehall will need a “complete overhaul” if it is to deliver on the levelling up agenda because business-as-usual will result in failure.

“I’d like to hear the prime minister reaffirming his commitment to full devolution across the north, because it's only when you empower people in the north to spend their own money, make their own decisions and set their own political trajectory and destiny will the levelling-up agenda deliver,” he said.

Last month’s cabinet reshuffle that put Michael Gove in charge of levelling up at MHCLG – now rebranded as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – has been seen as a strong signal of commitment to levelling up on part of the prime minister.

But the Institute for Government has warned that the government still has to clarify many aspects of its levelling up agenda, including spelling out whether it is focused on offering new opportunities to individuals or improving the look, feel and prosperity of places.

The independent think tank said last week that Gove should use the pending levelling-up white paper to properly explain the government’s vision, clarify “contradictory rhetoric” and set out measures by which the agenda’s success could be judged.

One area of “mixed” messaging was the prime minister’s July speech on levelling up, which emphasised the importance of devolution to the agenda – including new “county deals”. The speech also saw Johnson claim that improved local and regional leadership would be “the ketchup of catch-up” in a nod to the potential for devolved government to create incentive packages to offer to global business and food giant Heinz's decision to relocate some operations from Holland to Wigan.

The IfG report noted that there is a contradiction between plans to move increasing numbers of civil servants out of the capital, devolve more power to local areas and the centralised nature of funding so far committed to the levelling-up agenda – including the controversial Towns Fund.

CSW asked DLUHC if it had a response to former minister Berry’s “institutional bias” comments. 

A government spokesperson said: “The civil service employs people from every corner of the UK, with the majority of roles already based outside of the south. We recognise that government functions best when it's closer to the people it serves, which is why our Places for Growth programme has already announced thousands more civil service roles being moved to cities such as Belfast, Stoke-On-Trent and Edinburgh.”

Gove must "press ahead" with devolution

Separately, members of parliament’s Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee today called on Gove to “press ahead” with further devolution in England and examine the case for devolving greater powers over health, housing, planning and education.

Their new report, Progress on Devolution in England, makes repeated reference to the prime minister’s July speech on levelling up.

MPs said that for devolution to be expanded successfully, the government should bring forward a devolution framework emphasising that devolution should be the default option for local areas, and that ministers should also consider adopting the model for devolved nations.

They added that financial devolution is also necessary and suggested ministers commission research into alternative revenue-raising options for local councils, such as the potential for a “tourism tax” and ways that a local income tax across a combined authority area could work.

Committee chair Clive Betts said Gove should “seize the opportunity to vigorously drive forward devolution across England” and, in the process, help to boost the provision of public services in cities and regions.

“Government needs to be more positive and proactive in delivering devolution,” he said. “The government should work with local government to produce a devolution framework in which devolution is the default option. Devolution also needs to involve local people. The local public should be consulted on whether devolution should include having a directly elected mayor.”

Betts added that financial devolution will be a “crucial” component for the overall success of devolution.

“The government should examine the options for fiscal devolution, giving local authorities greater freedom and enabling them to be take longer-term decisions for their communities and be more accountable to their electorates.”

This story was updated at 17:15 on 1 October 2021 to include a government response

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