Boris Johnson’s shock announcement that civil service headcount would be cut by 20% put the brakes on the government’s Places for Growth initiative to relocate 22,000 civil servants away from the capital, senior union officials have told MPs.
They said the May 2022 announcement of plans for 91,-000 job cuts – made on the front page of the Daily Mail with the endorsement of the then-prime minister – was a significant contributory factor to a stalling of the programme, which is often flagged as part of the levelling-up agenda.
Members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee were also told that the lack of ministerial presence at many of the new government outposts – sometimes branded as departments’ “second headquarters” – was another obstacle in attracting senior staff.
The claims were made in a PACAC session on planning for the future of the government estate yesterday.
According to National Audit Office figures, some 5,950 roles had been moved away from the capital as part of the programme as of May last year. But evidence from civil service’s biggest union PCS, professionals’ union Prospect, and leaders’ union the FDA suggested that the programme had been plunged into turmoil following the job-cuts announcement.
Over the summer, departments were tasked with modelling headcount reductions of between 20% and 40% to help reach the target. However, Johnson’s July resignation and two months as caretaker PM left senior officials with even more uncertainty.
FDA assistant general secretary Amy Leversidge said the May announcement of job cuts had prompted a recruitment freeze that had hit the ability of new departmental bases outside of London to make external hires, closing off one avenue for boosting regional headcount.
Leversidge added that lingering concerns over job security meant Places for Growth was “completely stalling” and that the issue was part of a wider problem of the government failing to connect its various strands of strategy.
“The bigger concern for civil servants at the moment isn’t that they’re going to be looking to move outside of London but that they’re looking to leave the civil service,” she said. “From our members’ point of view, they can get far more salary in the private sector than they can in the civil service.
“That’s the bigger challenge: how you keep people in the civil service, not necessarily how you get them to move.”
Leversidge told MPs that, in her experience, while Places for Growth often appeared on meeting agendas, it was rarely discussed.
She said the FDA’s 2023 survey of union members showed lots of senior civil servants reporting “little progress” with Places for Growth and only 14.1% saying they were “highly engaged” with the project. She said more than 85% described themselves as “not engaged”.
She said 8.9% of respondents reported having been asked to relocate outside of the capital as part of the programme. Only 3.6% reported that they had relocated in the past year.
The government’s target is for 50% of SCS roles to be located outside of London by 2030. According to the Cabinet Office’s most recent annual statistics, there were 7,220 civil servants at SCS grade as of the end of March last year. The data said 4,480 senior civil servants were based in the capital, meaning that around 900 SCS roles would need to leave London for a 50:50 balance with the regions and devolved nations to be achieved.
Leversidge said another block to progress with Places for Growth was the lack of a ministerial presence at regional offices.
She said it was “meaningless” for officials whose jobs require them to brief ministers to move away from the capital unless their political masters did the same.
“Our evidence from members so far seems to be that when ministers go outside to the second headquarters or to the different offices, it tends to be as visits,” she said.
Prospect deputy general secretary Garry Graham said his union’s experience was that the “ministerial presence” at new departmental offices that was touted by the government had not materialised.
“We were told that ministers would have offices outside of London and that there was significant appetite and enthusiasm for that,” he said. “We have no evidence for that happening and I am told to stop smiling and laughing every time it’s raised by an official.”
Graham said there were “clearly tensions” between the Places for Growth programme and the development of new government hubs, but agreed with Leversidge that that last year’s surprise proposals of job cuts had dented the programme.
“What hasn’t been articulated is a vision for the civil service, how it should operate in the future, what having bases in the regions actually means to policy development, policy delivery and policy evaluation,” Graham told MPs.
“The announcement on 13 May, via the front page of the Daily Mail, that 91,000 civil servants were to lose their jobs... I’ve never seen any other employer operate in that way. It would obviously cause concerns about making long-term decisions that might involve uprooting their family. I think all of those issues combined have led to a sluggish approach with regard to this.”
Martin Kelsey, PCS group secretary at HM Revenue and Customs, said the announcement had been a “bombshell” that had changed a lot of thinking at a strategic level.
“That seemed to go away a bit with the first change of prime minister,” he said, referring to Liz Truss’s brief stint in No.10. “But from what we understand now, the possibility is starting to re-emerge again.”
Civil service unions are expecting to be briefed this week on the outcome of a call for efficiency proposals from departments as part of chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement in November.
Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden warned PACAC last month that “headcount savings” were likely to be part of the outcome.
PCS senior national officer Geoff Lewtas, who is also coordinator of the National Trade Union Committee for Civil Servants, told Tuesday’s PACAC session that questionable decisions about the location of departments’ second headquarters had also devalued the Places for Growth agenda.
“It’s unbelievably haphazard. It’s based on individual ministers within their department deciding largely where that new location will be,” he said. “And it has raised questions that has, I think, led to a degree of cynicism about the motivation of ministers in terms of the choice that has been made.”
Last month, CSW asked the Cabinet Office for its latest statistics on civil-service relocations under the Places for Growth programme. The question was prompted by a speech in which levelling-up secretary Michael Gove wrongly stated that 20,000 civil service roles had already been relocated from London as part of the programme.
The Cabinet Office said more than 8,300 “civil and public service” roles had been relocated away from London since March 2020 – with the clear implication that some of those posts would not be held by members of the civil service and were not comparable with the earlier NAO figures.
Responding to yesterday’s PACAC session, a government spokesperson insisted that Places for Growth would accomplish its target for relocations by the end of the decade.
"The Places for Growth programme is on track to meet its commitment to move 22,000 government roles out of London and across the country by 2030,” they said.
“This will stimulate growth in towns and cities throughout the UK, and ensure the civil service is representative of the communities it serves.”
This story was updated at 15:55 on 22 February 2023 to include a government response