The Institute for Government has cautioned ministers not to boast that moving civil servants out of the capital to new regional centres will change the way policies are made.
Its warning came after Robert Jenrick confirmed the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government would be opening a “dual HQ” in Wolverhampton that would bring hundreds of jobs to the city and feed local voices into government policy.
IfG senior researcher Sarah Nickson said that while the arrival of government jobs in left-behind towns and cities could be a welcome boost, it was unwise for ministers to give the impression that relocation alone would transform decision making.
She also noted that the Office for National Statistics lost 90% of its London-based staff when it relocated to Newport in 2007, in a move said to have harmed the quality of the ONS’s work and done little for the Welsh city.
Nickson said that while Jenrick and his department had “made the first big government downpayment” on the promise to shift 22,000 civil servants out of London by the end of the decade, relocations would “mostly be a symbolic contribution” to the levelling-up agenda.
“Relocation will only make small in-roads on regional inequality,” she said. “Twenty-two thousand jobs sent to a handful cities or towns might be transformative in those places, but it is too small a number to have an effect across the country.
“Further, the economic benefits of relocations tend to be highly localised, with much of the growth in private sector jobs lured by a new government office coming from displacement of jobs elsewhere in the same region.”
Nickson added in her IfG comment piece that the government would also face a trade-off between giving a boost to overlooked towns and cities and disrupting departments’ work.
“Michael Gove has argued for looking past cities like Bristol and Sheffield that already have a government presence, in favour of less affluent places with fewer university graduates,” she said.
“But places with smaller or less skilled labour markets might make it difficult to recruit enough staff.
“And it is unwise to assume that vast numbers of existing civil servants will want to swap the metropolis for small town life.”
Nickson said there were good reasons to break London’s stranglehold on policy roles in the civil service. But she said Jenrick’s suggestion the public “will be as likely to meet ministers in Wolverhampton as in Whitehall” and that the move would ensure “that local voices are represented… in the creation of government policy” gave the impression that relocation alone was the answer.
“Changing where decisions are made is not the same as changing how they are made,” she said.
Nickson said Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham had reported to an IfG event last year that while the Department for Education had a big presence in his city, its approach to decision-making was centralised.
“If ministers are to deliver on their soundbites, setting up new offices will need to be the beginning not the end of the process,” Nickson said.
Separately, FDA general secretary Dave Penman questioned Jenrick’s assertion that MHCLG’s plans for a major Wolverhampton base represented a “first” for a government department in relocating from the capital.
“Not sure ‘first time’ is accurate,” Penman said on Twitter, in response to a video clip posted by the housing secretary.
“DfID had dual HQ in East Kilbride, with central functions like HR/Finance. I worked in Leeds after Dept for Social Security relocated in early 90s, also Sheffield for Dept of Employment. Many welcome the strategy, but let’s not pretend it’s new.”
In other versions of the announcement, Jenrick said MHCLG’s Wolverhampton base would be the “first ever ministerial office outside of Westminster”.
Jenrick was born in Wolverhampton and was a pupil at the independent Wolverhampton Grammar School. His family home is in Herefordshire.
Newly-appointed junior minister for housing and rough sleeping Eddie Hughes represents the Walsall North parliamentary constituency, which is immediately east of Wolverhampton.