'Relocations can be expensive and disruptive': four tests for moving civil servants out of London

Moving jobs out of London will not automatically level up the country, IfG says
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By Richard Johnstone

11 Nov 2020

Plans to move more government jobs out of London must include a "critical mass" of senior roles to make relocations sustainable, the Institute for Government has warned.

In a report examining the government’s pledge to move 22,000 civil servants out of London by the end of the decade, the think tank said that although such a shift could benefit civil service recruitment, it could also cause major disruption to its work. In addition, it was unlikely that these moves would do much to meet the government ambition to “level up” the country, the report said.

The pledge to move 22,000 jobs was set out by chancellor Rishi Sunak earlier this year. Since then a number of possible new bases for government jobs have been floated, including York, Darlington and Manchester.

The IfG report said making a success of moving officials who now work in the capital could cost as much as £40,000 per worker – made up of relocation payments, redundancy payments for staff unable to move, and recruitment for those in the new location.

Such disruption provides a disincentive to departments to move, the report said. The Treasury seems set to coordinate a central process for relocation when it called for relocation plans as part of the 2020 Spending Review – although that full review has now been postponed.

Ensuring that any departmental moves take account of the plans elsewhere in government, as well as local government and industry, is one four tests the IfG said relocations must satisfy to work.

The others are: Will the relocation result in a ‘critical mass’ of roles, including senior ones, in the new location? Do the department’s ministers and senior officials have a long-term plan to ensure the move is sustainable? Does the labour market in the receiving location meet the department’s needs?

Four tests for relocaton

 

  • Does the labour market in the receiving location meet the department’s needs?
  • Will the relocation result in a ‘critical mass’ of roles, including senior ones, in the new location?
  • Has the department taken account of the plans of other central government departments, local government and industry?
  • Do the department’s ministers and senior officials have a long-term plan to ensure the move is sustainable?

Moving senior roles is vital to ensure career progression is possible for officials who move, report author Sarah Nickson said. Only around 20% of the UK’s 456,000 civil servants are based in London, but policy and senior roles are disproportionately based there, with around two thirds (64%) of civil servants who work on policy based in London.

“This is not the first time a government has tried to relocate policy makers,” she highlighted. “But career incentives nudge civil servants towards staying put in London, where they can more easily access ministers and switch to other public sector jobs. The government should tackle this by making sure it builds up sizeable hubs in big cities and avoids creating isolated outposts.”

Nickson, who is a senior researcher at the IfG and wrote the report with Erenie Mullens-Burgess and Alex Thomas, also urged ministers to be realistic about what relocations can achieve. They should primarily focus on improving the capacity of the civil service by widening the pool of highly-skilled workers available, rather than hoping that moves will automatically improve policymakers’ understanding of delivery or the impact of policies and programmes, they said.

“Relocations can be very expensive and disruptive, so the government must have a clear sense of what it wants to achieve, how it will meet those goals, and whether the benefits justify the cost,” Nickson said.

“Moving departments to the places that offer the skills needed to staff them will do little to help the civil service understand deprived communities or the feeling behind the Brexit vote. And relocations would only make a small dent in the north-south divide.”

The government has said that it wants to target "overlooked and hitherto undervalued communities" as part of the relocation plans, including those that voted leave in the 2016 EU referendum. But the IfG said these are often smaller towns where departments could struggle to attract the staff needed to make any move a success.

“The government must therefore be realistic about what relocations can achieve. Shifting 22,000 jobs around the country could bring localised benefits to the selected areas, but it will not be a panacea for overcoming economic inequality between regions – if that is what the government means by ‘levelling up’. Further, departments should not assume they can successfully establish an office in whichever location they happen to choose," the report said.

“In many cases, small, deprived towns will struggle to supply highly skilled workers or encourage them to relocate from London or elsewhere. For example, the performance of the Office for National Statistics suffered for several years after its move from London to Newport in Wales, when 90% of its London-based staff chose not to follow it.

"However, cities with a larger talent pool might not offer the shift in perspective the government says it wants: of the 12 cities besides London that have been earmarked for government ‘hubs’, only three voted to leave the EU.”

But widening the pool of available talent to government is one objective that relocations could help to meet.

“Many talented people who want a civil service career cannot or do not want to live in London. In many – but not all – cases, capturing and retaining this talent will mean setting up sizeable offices with decent career paths in larger cities that have substantial and skilled labour markets, such as those where government hubs are planned," the report said.

"Ministers and senior officials will also need to commit to long-term plans from the start to ensure that new offices succeed where past relocations have fallen short of expectations. This approach will help to create a sustainable civil service presence in more parts of the country.”

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