Dave Penman: What does the government’s northern focus mean for civil servants?

The Conservative Party’s newfound interest in the north of England could be a game-changer for civil servants. Or it might just be a passing fad

The pre-shuffled Cabinet meets in Sunderland on 31 January, the day the UK left the European Union. Photo: PA

By Dave Penman

24 Feb 2020

The concept of “The North” has always felt a little alien to me. I still find it strange to see signs on the motorway that just say “The North” rather than a specific destination. It’s just as well, though, that Sajid Javid wasn’t moved to the Department for Transport in this month’s reshuffle or we’d be spending precious taxpayers’ dollars repainting them to read “North England”, after the now-ex-chancellor tweeted that he and his then-cabinet colleagues were on their way to a meeting “in north England”.

The whole #NorthEnglandGate was, of course, because of the gains made by the Conservatives in traditional Labour heartlands. In an attempt to prove its northern credentials, the cabinet swept into Sunderland, patronised the populace with lazily crafted social media and then promptly headed back to civilisation. Job done.

Ever since the election we’ve seen similarly astutely crafted attempts to prove the government’s commitment to the north with various promises of investment and rebalancing of the economy, including the House of Lords relocating to York and even Conservative Central Office being relocated to “The North” – which in this case could just mean anywhere north of the M25. Quite what northern England has done to deserve the quiffed and coiffed staffers from the Tory research department descending on their local hostelries in search of a decent Chablis, heaven only knows.


Of course, at the heart of this is the very real issue of the geographical imbalance in the economy and the inability of successive governments to deliver sustainable, long-term economic growth. Those same governments have looked at how the public sector, and the civil service in particular, can play a part in stimulating the economy. I grew up in Cumbernauld, where, like many of my peers, I left school and went to work in the town’s largest employer, HM Revenue and Customs. It was one of two central sites in the UK for the collection and processing of tax payments. It had over 1,000 staff and was part of a planned approach to support the economies of the New Towns in Scotland that were developed post war. For over 30 years it has been the largest single employer in the town and has delivered well on its original purpose. I worked there, my mum did for 20 years and my sister still does. That is not an unfamiliar tale in the town.

Delivering an economic impact in a specific town is different, however, from regenerating the economy of “The North”. There are lots of factors at play here which require a much broader range of policies than simply the relocation of parts of the civil service, but this does have a role to play.

Attempts in the past to relocate chunks of work – the Department for Work and Pensions in Leeds or the Department for Education in Sheffield, for example – have in themselves been major projects. Their impact, however, is localised. And, despite best efforts, there is still a tendency for some of the most senior roles to be located close to the heart of political power, with civil servants spending significant time shuttling up and down to London.

There is also the issue of how sustainable careers can be built, either in a department or across the service if, inevitably, a significant stint in London is required. It’s one thing to sell your compact and bijou one-bedroom apartment on the Old Kent Road for half a mil and buy a rambling home in the country. Try working that the other way around financially, never mind the impact of such moves on families.

There is a huge attraction in being able to live, work and develop your career out of London, which will be good for a balanced economy and the quality of policymaking. It cannot, however, be a series of tokenistic gifts to various “North England” towns. There is an opportunity to build a government in the north across a number of northern cities which would allow civil servants to build careers without having to move home. Creating a genuine government presence in the north with the full range of departments and, crucially, a mix of roles at all levels, would allow the transfer of skills and experience that already exists in Whitehall, and benefit the service as well as individuals.

It’s too early to tell whether this is merely the tactical reaction from a politically-focused government or a genuine attempt at rebalancing how government works. Relocation is for life, not just Christmas. It raises huge logistical, financial and people issues that need to be handled sensitively and will only deliver benefits over the longer term. In short, only a government with a strong mandate could have the capability to deliver on a such a bold agenda. The question is: will they?

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