Perm secs could face duty to plan office moves better

MPs call for guidance requiring departmental leaders to properly explore all options before signing off on major schemes
Then-housing secretary Robert Jenrick, minister Eddie Hughes and West Midlands mayor Andy Street at the official opening of DLUHC's Wolverhampton base in 2021. Days later Jenrick was ousted in a reshuffle and his department was rebranded

By Jim Dunton

01 Aug 2023

Departmental permanent secretaries could be subjected to new guidance requiring them to confirm that any major office relocation or consolidation proposal has been worked through with the Government Property Agency and other departments before it is signed off.

The proposals follow concerns about a lack of coordination between elements of HM Revenue and Customs’ hubs programme and the further rollout of hubs, which is being overseen by the GPA.

Members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee made their call for new guidance in their Where Civil Servants Work: Planning for the future of the government’s estates report last week.

While the GPA was set up to run the government’s office estate, it only directly managed 44% of all government offices as of March this year. HMRC, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs still control their offices.

PACAC said it was now accepted that a target for all remaining offices to transfer to the GPA by March 2025 would not be hit.

Members said there was a risk that HMRC, DWP or Defra could undermine the coordination that the GPA had been created to bring to the government’s office estate by pursuing their own property strategies.

Their report cited the closure of an HMRC office in Wolverhampton as part of the department’s hubs programme that was followed less than a year later by the opening of a GPA hub in the city – badged as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ second headquarters.

PCS, which is the civil service’s biggest union, told MPs that redundancies could have been prevented with better coordination between HMRC and the GPA over their Wolverhampton offices.  It also suggested that there was a similar absence of joined-up working in relation to DWP’s office-consolidation programme.

Committee members called on the Cabinet Office, which oversees the GPA, and HM Treasury to create new guidance for departmental accounting officers – normally the permanent secretary – requiring them to be more proactive in exploring options for new offices before decisions are finalised.

“The rationale for the creation of the Government Property Agency was that by taking over the management of all government office buildings it would lead to coordinated decision-making and efficiency savings,” MPs said.

“But with the departments with the biggest office estates remaining outside the GPA’s control, the government is potentially missing out on opportunities to bring together different public bodies and optimise the location of its office estate.

“To help ensure joined up decision-making across government, it should be a requirement for every accounting officer, before approving any major property consolidation or relocation proposal, to obtain assurance that their officials have explored opportunities to co-ordinate location and design decisions with the Government Property Agency, in its management of the office portfolio.”

MPs asked the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury to report back on the results of development work for the guidance within six months.

A government spokesperson said MPs’ recommendation would be fully considered as part of the Cabinet Office’s overall response to the report.

“We are committed to making the most cost-effective and efficient use of government property, including examining options for the use of any under-utilised space in government buildings,” they said.

“The Government Property Agency takes a leading role in planning the size and shape of the government office portfolio to meet department requirements and to ensure best value for the taxpayer.”

Where Civil Servants Work: Planning for the future of the government’s estates also saw MPs accuse the Cabinet Office of “boosterism” in relation to its Places for Growth programme, designed to move 22,000 civil service jobs out of the capital by the end of the decade.

MPs said the government had failed to properly set out that Places for Growth was essentially about recruiting for roles outside of London rather than moving civil servants away from the capital, and that the number of officials in London could still rise in tandem with the programme.

The Cabinet Office was also criticised for failing to set out clear underlying objectives for the programme when it was launched, or research to support the economic benefits claimed for the programme.

The government’s hubs programme is closely connected with Places for Growth as the new buildings typically host roles being “relocated” from the capital as well those being moved from older local offices, such as HMRC’s Wolverhampton base.

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