Influential think-tank Policy Exchange has called for tens of thousands of civil servants to be relocated from London in a bid to save money and more closely connect decision-making with service delivery.
A new report, published on Thursday by the right-of-centre lobby group, suggests that up to 25,000 London-based roles should be relocated to create more localised public service structures with autonomy over pay levels.
Delivering Differently argues that, although 20,000 civil service roles left the capital following the 2004 Lyons Review, the changes do not go far enough. It says proposals contained in Iain R Smith’s 2010 follow-up review, that called for one-third of the civil service’s London headcount to be moved, must be enacted.
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Earlier this year, then-Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock outlined proposals reduce the size of the government estate from around 800 buildings to fewer than 200 by 2023. The “Government Hubs” programme entails the creation of 18-22 multi-departmental hubs across the UK and further rationalisations of the central London estate, expected to contribute £4.5bn to the Treasury through the sale of surplus land and property.
The Policy Exchange report acknowledges the government’s progress in devolving power and resources to local areas, but says it has “not gone anywhere near far enough” in developing bottom-up approaches to tackling longstanding welfare, health, criminal justice, and education challenges.
The report points out that around 80,000 civil servants are still employed in London, that the proportion of civil servants working in the capital has remained largely unchanged since 2010, and that two-thirds of senior civil servants and over half of the senior management grades – SCS and grades 6 and 7 – remain based in London.
“As we move to a more decentralised political system with city mayors and combined authorities, it makes sense to distribute civil service capability more evenly across the country" – Policy Exchange
“There is now a sense that the lack of capability outside of London is holding devolution back with the government arguing that devolution deals vary between places according to ambition, capacity and readiness,” report author Damian Hind said.
“As we move to a more decentralised political system with city mayors and combined authorities, it makes sense to distribute civil service capability more evenly across the country.”
Hind said that as the devolution agenda progresses, central government could also devolve civil servants – or their headcount allocation – alongside the devolution of new powers and budgets.
He added that the move could save money as civil servants outside of London earned around £3,000 a year less, on average, than capital-based counterparts.
“More decent, human and caring services will only be achieved by changing the mind-set of policymakers in Westminster, breaking down the outdated Sir Humphrey model of government and putting local places firmly in control,” Hind said.
A spokesman for the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which has the highest headcount of civil service members, said the organisation was not opposed in principle to the relocation of roles outside of London.
But it questioned Policy Exchange’s underlying motives.
"We've always argued that civil service employment can play an important role in boosting local economies around the country that have not only been ignored by successive governments but specifically targeted for cuts and de-industrialisation,” he said.
“That's why we're against the business department's plan to relocate policy work back in the capital, it's entirely contradictory to talk on the one hand about a Northern Powerhouse and then move quality jobs responsible for delivering that back down south.
“What we are opposed to is using civil service relocation out of London as an excuse to cuts jobs and living standards and close offices, and we have very little faith that Policy Exchange really wants to protect these things."