Move 50,000 civil servants to northern 'clusters' to break London 'stranglehold' on policymaking, think tank says

Manchester, Warrington and Liverpool among most promising locations for hubs of similar public organisations, says report on levelling-up agenda
Manchester is one promising location for the education cluster, the Northern Policy Foundation said. Photo: Adobe Stock Images

The government’s plan to move civil servants out of London should include shifting nearly 50,000 civil servants to the north of England – and must not just focus on junior roles, a think tank has said.

In a report this week the Northern Policy Foundation, whose board members include Conservative MPs in northern “red wall” seats, called for 49,500 civil service jobs to relocate.

The move could have a £3bn boost for other regions and improve “decision-making, diversity of thought, career opportunities, quality of life and, probably most importantly, breaking the stranglehold of the middle-class London intelligentsia on policy making in the UK”, the foundation said.

The report proposes the formation of 11 “clusters” of complementary organisations, which it said both benefit each other and encourage private-sector investment nearby. The Cabinet Office should create programme management office to coordinate the moves, it said.

Manchester, Warrington and Liverpool were among the most promising locations for these clusters, according to an index that looked at local industries, populations and other relevant factors. Leeds, Salford and Trafford followed, with York, Newcastle and Chester also making the top 10.

And different clusters could be best suited to different towns, the NPF said. An economic cluster comprised of the Treasury, Office for Budget Responsibility and National Infrastructure Commission should be based in either Leeds or Manchester, it argued, based on the financial and insurance industries’ presences there, as well as local professional, scientific and technical expertise.

An education cluster, made up of more than 3,300 officials from Ofqual, Ofsted, Esfa, the Institute for Apprenticeships and the Social Mobility Commission, should meanwhile be based in Lancaster or Middlesborough, it said.

And a business and jobs cluster, which would relocate nearly 7,000 jobs from organisations including the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Industrial Strategy Council, should go to Stockton-on-Tees or Cheshire East, it said – based on the local manufacturing, scientific and technical, construction and electricity, gas and steam industries.

Ministerial teams should spend some of their time in regional offices, the report said.

But the report – which was published with positive comments from Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove – said the move can only succeed if it avoids the pitfalls previous attempts to diversify the geography of the civil service have fallen into.

It says the government must have a clear purpose behind its drive to relocate civil servants – “levelling-up through the creation and movement of high-quality knowledge-based jobs which can also improve policy development and break groupthink”. Critically, it would be “wrong” to make a move based on cost savings, as past efforts have been, it says.

And relocation efforts must involve a large proportion of senior civil servants and policy specialists. At the moment, seven out of 10 officials in senior grades are based in London – which the NPF said effectively meant government presences in other regions acted as “civil service factories” of junior grades in delivery roles.

The report also called on the government to think carefully about the destinations of new government hubs. It said previous cost-saving drives had led departments to set up offices in industrial and business parks outside towns – which it said “generally lowers the regeneration benefits of any relocation”.

And relocation plans should take into account the local labour market, by choosing destinations with a deep enough labour market to fill vacant roles, as well as promising opportunities for civil servants who relocate and then want to go onto other jobs in future outside public service.

Once promising locations have been identified, the government should then leverage its name, credit rating and purchasing power to secure flexible and good-value office space – avoiding long lease agreements.

Commenting on its publication, Gove said the report “adds to the economic, social, moral and intellectual imperative for change as well as laying out some of the benefits to levelling-up, decision making, tackling groupthink and ensuring that powerful voices within every arm of government are better in tune with the majority of public opinion”.

“Despite efforts of the past, all major government departments are still based in London, with the concentration of senior, policy and economic jobs that comes with it,” he added.

“We can and will work to reduce the distance between government and the people by relocating government decision-making centres to different parts of our United Kingdom - including the north of England."

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