Prime minister Theresa May with her election manifesto. Credit: PA
Civil servants based in London and the South East can expect a new wave of pressure for their jobs to be relocated to other parts of Britain under proposals outlined in the Conservative Party’s general election manifesto.
The document, published yesterday, said the move was aimed at ensuring that major cities shared in opportunities that had “for too long” been focused in London, and would see senior roles, operational headquarters as well as administrative functions relocated.
The proposals have been questioned by the main civil service unions, which – although supporting increased regional influence – pointed to the potential costs of forced relocations and likely skills losses.
One notorious example is the Office for National Statistics’ mid-2000s decision to move its London functions to Newport in south Wales. Around 90% of the 1,000 staff based in the capital opted to leave the organisation rather than relocate, resulting in what Charlie Bean’s recent review of UK statistics said was “a significant adverse impact” on the subsequent development of economic statistics.
The Conservative manifesto said the party's drive to move more government functions out to the regions would have arm’s-length bodies at its vanguard.
“We will start moving significant numbers of UK government civil servants and other public servants out of London and the south-east to cities around the UK,” it says.
“We will ensure that senior posts move too, so that operational headquarters as well as administrative functions are centred not in London but around Britain.
“And we will do so in a way that encourages the development of new clusters of public services, private businesses and, where appropriate, universities.”
Figures compiled by the Institute for Government show that as of March 2016, fewer than one in five UK civil servants was based in London, however the 19% figure was an increase from 16.5% in 2010, when the Conservative-led coalition government came to power.
Gavin Freeguard, head of data and transparency at the think-tank, said that despite the proportionate rise in London-based civil servants in recent years most staff were based outside of the capital, and that many arm’s length bodies had already moved away from London too.
“We have heard a fair bit of this before, but it is important that any move out of London is driven by a business case, rather than a search for a headline,” he said.
“Only the DCMS and the Treasury have more than 90% of their staff based in London.
“DCLG has quite a lot of staff based in the South West – because of the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol, and the Department for Transport has more than half of its staff based in Wales.”
Freeguard said the manifesto's reference to the creation of broader public-service and university "clusters" was interesting and appeared to recognise the need to ensure that necessary local infrastructure was in place for relocations to be successful.
FDA assistant general secretary Rob O'Neill said that while expanding the geographic reach of the civil service was a welcome goal, any moves had to prioritise the retention of skilled and experienced staff and be subject to reasonable timescales.
"If handled badly, relocations have the potential to massively disrupt the lives of civil servants across the UK, and, for many, can pose a significant threat of job losses,” he said.
“Employers also need to make sure that they do all they can to minimise the impact of any programme on civil servants, including by implementing proper flexible working and offering relocation packages to those affected.”
Garry Graham, deputy general secretary at Prospect, said old hands in the civil service would recognise the proposals as redolent of New Labour’s Lyons Review, tasked with advising ministers on the relocation of public servants out of London and the South East.
“In the report – commissioned by the then chancellor Gordon Brown – one of the conclusions was: ‘Major dispersals are unlikely to offer a quick payback and they incur considerable costs up front. The government must be prepared to make the necessary investment’,” he said.
“Budgets are far tighter now than they were in 2003-4 and it will be interesting to see how any new government would resource such an initiative.
“The irony will not be lost on many that it was the coalition government in 2010 that abolished the Government Offices in the Regions in the quest to save money.”
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS, said the union was not opposed to the relocation of work outside of the capital, provided that there were no compulsory moves or compulsory redundancies, and full impact assessments were conducted.
However he questioned the motives and track record of the Conservatives on maintaining a civil service presence in the regions.
“The hypocrisy of this Tory policy, which supposedly favours towns and cities outside London, will not be lost on our members at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, whose more than 70 regional offices will be shut down with many staff thrown on the scrap heap,” he said.
“This is a government that has also needlessly closed hundreds of government offices across the UK, devastating public services and slashing 110,000 public sector jobs in its seven years in office, with hundreds more government offices targeted for closure, including courts, Jobcentres and HMRC offices, depriving areas of major employers and workers.”
Last month, members of the Public Accounts Committee urged HM Revenue and Customs to rethink its proposals to consolidate its regional estate from around 170 offices to 13 regional hubs.
MPs said there was a lack of clarity over the cost of the strategy, whether it was designed to save money or provide improved working environments, and they questioned whether regional city centre locations were the best locations for the hubs.