A review of the civil service’s London property needs is anticipating a reduction of more than 25,000 staff in the capital over the next seven years, MPs have been told.
The figure suggests a cut in numbers significantly above that offered by the Places for Growth programme, which is looking to move 22,000 jobs out of London by the end of the decade.
According to the Cabinet Office’s latest figures, just over 11,000 roles have been shifted away from the capital as part of the drive, which launched in 2018. Despite the programme, which is connected to the government’s levelling-up agenda, headcount in the capital has continued to rise in recent years.
As of March last year, the civil service’s London headcount was 100,950 full-time equivalent staff according to the Cabinet Office’s own data, up from 98,000 the previous year. Several thousand job relocations conducted under the Places for Growth programme would have figured in the 2022 numbers.
At a Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee session this morning, Cabinet Office director Ravi Chand told MPs that the latest thinking in the department was that London headcount would drop by more than a quarter from its current levels.
Chand – who is director for Places for Growth – said the figure was part of the Cabinet Office’s work on its Plan for London, which is looking at the government’s future need for office space and reductions in its property portfolio.
“The numbers have gone up as a consequence of Brexit and the pandemic and we saw numbers rise, particularly in test and trace,” Chand said of the London headcount.
“More recent numbers have shown that actually it’s beginning to drop and we anticipate it dropping.
“My engagement with departments is showing that they are looking to reduce those numbers.
“We have a plan called the Plan for London, which I’m the SRO for. That plan is looking towards, by 2030, getting London down to around 75,000 FTE from around about 100,000 FTE.”
Explaining why the London headcount rose despite jobs being relocated under Places for Growth, Chand told MPs that relocating civil service roles away from the capital was not incompatible with London headcount rising.
“There should be 22,000 real roles outside of London by 2030 that have not been reappointed to London,” he said.
“That doesn’t take into account other activities of growth that may take place that would lead to increases – for example the pandemic, where we had an increase which was unrelated to Places for Growth.”
Cabinet Office’s second HQ ‘too far from London’, says minister
Today’s session also saw PACAC members grill Cabinet Office minister Alex Burghart over the lack of ministerial presence at the department’s new “second headquarters” in Glasgow.
The committee heard that over the past year there had been just six ministerial visits to the base.
Burghart, who was appointed as parliamentary secretary to the Cabinet Office on 27 October, admitted that he had yet to visit his department’s second HQ after five months in post.
“I would have gone up sooner, were it not for the fact that I’ve been taking the Procurement Bill through parliament, through the Commons, which has taken up a very great deal of my time,” he said.
Burghart said he was planning to visit the second headquarters in May.
“The practical challenges are fairly straightforward. It’s four and a half hours to Glasgow. If you fly, then there’s a carbon element involved in that,” he said. “For me, as a minister, the limitation is mostly on time.”
Burghart contrasted the travelling time with getting to the government’s new 23 Stephenson Street hub in Birmingham. “You’re literally door to door in under two hours,” he said.
The minister said that while going to Birmingham for an in-person meeting was “doable”, the further away from London “the bigger the constraints are”.
“You can get to Manchester in just over two hours; you can get to Darlington in about two-and-a-half hours,” Burghart said. “Glasgow is obviously a little bit further, and so – with time constraints – is a little bit harder to spend more time in.”
He said the presence of ministers in the Cabinet Office’s Glasgow second HQ worked out to be about one visit in every eight weeks.
“If you then look at the other locations across the country which Cabinet Office ministers have worked at in the same time, you’re at really one visit a month,” he said.
Committee member Beth Winter said 2021’s Declaration on Government reform had pledged “regular ministerial presence” at departmental second HQs.
“That clearly hasn’t happened,” she said. “You’ve described infrequent visits, not actual presence.”
Burghart said that “about twice every parliamentary term” there was a ministerial presence in Glasgow. He added that Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Dowden had recently spent “48 hours” in the city.
“If you’re asking whether it will ever be possible for ministers to go up to Glasgow every day, the answer is ‘probably not’ because of the nature of their work and their commitments in parliament,” he said. “But will they be there regularly? Absolutely.”
Burghart added that increasing civil service presence outside of London was also about investing in communities and “seeking the benefits of the expertise and the skills that exist” elsewhere.
“That is very apparently happening,” he said.