Closure of some departments’ second HQs ‘almost inevitable’, MPs told

Leading public sector academic also questions evidence base for civil service relocations
Prof Tony Travers. Photo: ParliamentTV

By Jim Dunton

31 Jan 2023

MPs probing the government’s plans to move 22,000 civil service jobs out of the capital over the coming years have been told that it is “almost inevitable” that some of new departmental outposts being created will not survive in their current form.

London School of Economics professor Tony Travers told members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs that there was a “cyclical” pattern the relocation of departmental roles and that some recent measures would probably not stand the test of time.

Since it launched its Places for Growth initiative in 2018, the government has opened a range of new hubs and departments have designated bases outside the capital as “second headquarters” in the plans to relocate 22,000 roles away from London by 2030

The Cabinet Office has its second headquarters in Glasgow; the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has opened a second HQ in Wolverhampton, and the Department for Work and Pensions designated Leeds as its second HQ.

At today’s PACAC session, Stoke Central MP Jo Gideon noted that thethen-Department for Business, Innovation and Skills decided to  shut down its operations in Sheffield in 2016 to bring all policy staff together in London. She asked how big a risk it was that some of the new outposts would also close.

“I would say almost inevitable,” Travers responded. “The truth is that there is an element of fashion in all of this. It comes and goes over time.”

Travers, who is a visiting professor at the LSE’s Department of Government and director of the LSE London research centre, said the willingness of ministers to be present at their departments’ second headquarters would make a difference – including to officials’ interest in relocating.

“There is the question of whether ministers, when they’re in their offices, want to have direct access to all the most important policymakers – policymaking officials,” he said. “That will create a barrier, a sort of difference between the civil servants outside London and  those at the private office doing the policymaking at the core of government.

“And you can see from that why being moved or being located outside of London might be less attractive for civil servants, which is definitely a potential challenge.”

The aims of the Places for Growth relocation plans have been firmly connected with the levelling-up agenda, including bringing regeneration to “left-behind” parts of the country and increasing the regional perspectives that feed into policymaking.

Travers questioned the depth of research that existed on the economic benefits of relocating civil service jobs and precisely the kind of diversity of thinking Places for Growth was targeting.

“There is a very limited amount of research by academics,” he told MPs. “There is some evidence of small positive benefits on the economy of the areas to which civil servants are moved. More positive on services than manufacturing.

"With policies of this kind, the decision about moving jobs away from the core of the civil service in London is a decision that is more easily made than the decision about what the impact on the economy would be.

“There are research techniques for doing that but I’m not certain at the moment whether any of the currently proposed relocations are subject to such an analysis.”

Travers said a “big choice” for government was whether to create major hubs in cities or spread jobs more thinly over areas most need of an economic boost.

“If you put the civil servants together in one place, it’s likely to have a bigger effect than if they’re spread thinly,” he said.

“On the other hand, the needs of levelling up might be thought to require many smaller offices because that would bring benefits to many smaller places. There’s a tension there.”

Bristol South MP Karin Smyth asked Travers for his views on the 22,000 Places for Growth job relocations in the context of reductions in local government headcount over the past decade.

Travers said the local government workforce had reduced by around 430,000 since 2011, when the figures are adjusted for academy-trust staff.

“The 22,000 jobs would need to be seen against that backdrop,” he said. “They are very different numbers.”

However he said not all of the lost local-government roles would have been comparable with full-time civil service jobs.

Civil Service World sought a Cabinet Office response to the questions raised about analysis underpinning the relocation of civil service roles in the session.

A spokesperson said: “Our Places for Growth Programme, which has already relocated over 8,000 roles outside of London, is firmly based on evidence, tapping into local talent and bringing economic benefits.”

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