Foreign Office mulls plans for northern base

Officials consider move to open regional base as HMRC gets keys to latest northern hub

Manchester has reportedly been suggested as one potential location for a northern branch of the Foreign Office. Photo: Dave Thompson/PA

The Foreign Office is considering plans to open a northern office to support the prime minister's plans to "level up" regions of the UK outside London.

The plans could see the FCO open a new office in Manchester or to relocate staff to existing government offices outside London, the FT reported yesterday.

Boris Johnson is planning to move more officials out of the capital this year, building on a government-wide move to establish regional cross-departmental hubs, in a bid to distribute economic growth around the country.


A spokesperson for the Foreign Office said: “The civil service has been looking for some time at how to broaden its reach across the UK and so officials have been considering how the FCO could contribute."

“No proposals have gone to ministers," they added.

The reports come after the Foreign Office has spent several months holding events around the country with the non-partisan think tank the British Foreign Policy Group, to examine how different cities are working internationally, the FT reported.

BFPG's managing director, Sophia Gaston, told the newspaper the work was looking at “how to better engage the country’s regions and constituent nations in our UK foreign policy".

“In many ways, this approach puts the Foreign Office at the forefront of the government’s levelling-up agenda - it is about shifting our foreign policy conversation from the dusty corridors of Whitehall, to recognise that it must be more inclusive and relevant to the whole of the UK and the specific needs and interests of its region," she said.

The possible move comes after the Cabinet Office revealed that it was working with departments to develop plans to move more civil service jobs out of London as part of this year’s Spending Review.

In the annual update on the government’s estate strategy, the Cabinet Office said that departments were working “to develop their own relocation plans”, targeting those roles that “do not meet our criteria for requiring a London base”.

The work forms part of the Places for Growth (PfG) scheme, which is the government’s programme to move more civil service roles and public bodies into the regions and nations of the UK to ensure government is better represented across the country and to lower costs. The government’s estate strategy has pledged to move 1,000 posts out of London by 2022, with “thousands more” to follow.

Staff will be moved into city centre government hubs, the property rationalisation programme being spearheaded by HM Revenue and Customs. The first round focused on HMRC moving staff from 170 current offices into 13 hubs, and the Government Estates Strategy published last year set out plans for a total of "around 20” to be created, with an overall aim to reduce the office buildings in which central government operates from 800 to around 200.

Some 4.500 civil servants are expected to move to Salford in Greater Manchester as part of the hubs scheme, while other prominent regional moves include the communications intelligence agency GCHQ is planning to move hundreds of its staff to Manchester city centre next year.

New Leeds hub

In the latest development of the hubs programme, HM Revenue and Customs got the keys to the government's latest cross-departmental hub in Leeds this week.

The building at Wellington Place, near Leeds train station, will be home to around 6,000 officials from bodies including the tax agency and NHS Digital.

Construction on the hub, which was acquired in a £211m deal, is due to complete in November.

HMRC's director of estates, Richard West, said the building "will be a great place to work for our colleagues, providing the modern, collaborative and world-class workspaces they deserve".

"HMRC has a large and long-established presence in Yorkshire and its new Regional Centre in Leeds demonstrates commitment to the region and its economy," he said.

"This hub will not only bring together HMRC colleagues from across the region into one central location but also colleagues from a number of other government agencies and public bodies.”

NHS Digital's associate communications director, Marc Silverside, meanwhile said the hub would "revolutionise" the way his department works, reduce its carbon footprint and enable closer relationships with other government bodies.

"Our location is important to us to help attract the very best digital and technology talent across the entire region," he said.

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