Ministers have been urged to double down on the government’s commitment to move swathes of civil service roles out of London by actually ensuring departmental headcount in the capital falls.
A new report from the Onward think tank, run by former No.10 deputy head of policy Will Tanner, says plans to move 22,000 civil service jobs out of London by 2030 under the Places for Growth programme are laudable.
But it argues that challenging new targets are needed to achieve a genuine rebalancing of the civil service away from the capital, as well as recruitment bans, a refocusing of Fast Stream hiring, and requirements for senior civil servants to have experience of working in the regions.
Onward is calling for every government department, arm’s-length organisation and non-departmental public body to have no more than two-thirds of its staff and the same proportion of its office space in the capital by 2030.
It says departments should be required to publish projections for the growth of their regional headcount over the current spending review period and details of their achievements.
Onward says a Red Tape Challenge-style “one in, two out” rule should be introduced for departments that miss their projections, meaning they cannot advertise for a London-based role until two roles have been relocated or recruited outside the capital.
It also proposes moving most or all Fast Stream assessment out of the city to “send an important signal about the direction of travel” to the civil service leaders of tomorrow – and save money at the same time.
Onward is also calling for promotion to the senior civil service to be “contingent on applicants having worked outside London”, either at a government regional campus or for another public institution.
Permanent secretaries and ministers would also be required to spend one day a week, or one week a month, working from one of their organisation’s regional offices – with a requirement for their work locations to be the subject of transparency reporting by the Cabinet Office.
London headcount still rising
The Institute for Government’s latest Whitehall Monitor report says civil service headcount grew by 10% to 472,700 in the year to September, with growth focused in the capital.
Onward’s report says that while departments such as the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions are finding the majority of their recruits outside of London, other government organisations are not.
It says both the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are recruiting “considerably more civil servants in London than outside”, with both departments increasing headcount around three times faster within London than the regions in the six months to September.
“Both departments can therefore claim to be hiring far more people in less-productive regions than ever before – and yet at the same time are becoming relatively more centralised in London,” it said.
Crown Commercial Service and GDS should be relocated
Onward argues there is a strong case for relocating government’s market-facing or commercial functions away from the capital and urges ministers to prioritise such measures over the three years of the next spending review period.
It says the Government Digital Service, the Crown Commercial Service, UK Export Finance and the fledgling Advanced Research and Invention Agency should all be based outside of London, reducing rent costs and having a positive impact on wider economic activity. CCS has offices in Liverpool, Norwich, Newport, Leeds as well as London.
The report also calls for ministers to commission an independent review of regulators including Ofcom, Ofgem, the Financial Conduct Authority and the Competitions and Markets Authority to “ensure they are best located to regulate the industries they represent” and that their workforce “reflects the values and priorities of the UK as a whole”.
A government spokesperson said good progress was being made with Places for Growth, with 2,000 roles already relocated out of the capital and 15,000 committed to move.
“Departments have moved quickly to establish second headquarters outside of London, including in Darlington, Glasgow and Wolverhampton,” they said.
The spokesperson said ministers had committed to ensuring that 50% of senior civil service roles were located outside of Greater London by 2030.
They added that the “vast majority” of Crown Commercial Service staff were already based outside of London and that the Fast Stream admissions process had been modernised to allow applicants from across the country to apply for a position on the scheme remotely.