Northern Powerhouse? Labour's Louise Haigh takes aim at DCLG over lack of senior officials outside London

Shadow cabinet office minister says lack of senior Communities and Local Government officials outside the capital shows "utter contempt" for the rest of the country – but department points out that senior officials "account for less than 5% of the department’s workforce"

By matt.foster

08 Mar 2016

Labour has accused the government of displaying "utter contempt" for cities outside London, after new figures showed that the overwhelming majority of senior officials in the Department for Communities and Local Government are based in the capital.

According to figures published in response to a parliamentary question from shadow cabinet office minister Louise Haigh, just 2.4% of senior civil servants at DCLG work outside of London, with the rest based in the capital.

Meanwhile, further questions tabled by the Sheffield Heeley MP show that the majority – 91.8% – of DCLG's core policy civil servants are based in London. 

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Haigh has argued that the lack of senior officials outside of the capital could undermine the efforts of DCLG – which plays a critical role in the government's devolution agenda – to hand power away from Whitehall.

She said: "How can the Tories possibly claim devolution of power and investment tops their agenda, when they increasingly insulate themselves in a London bubble of policy advisers and decision makers?

"With policies driven from Whitehall not the town hall, it’s no wonder that cities across the north are forced to rely on scraps."

But a DCLG spokesperson rejected that argument, pointing out that senior civil servants "account for less than 5% of the department’s workforce, while over a quarter of our staff work across the country".

They added: "The Northern Powerhouse is about empowering local people, not relocating civil servants from London to tell them what to do. We are determined to rebalance the economy through the devolution of powers away from Westminster.”

Around a third of DCLG's officials are based in the South West of England, according to the Institute for Government think tank, including at the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol. The department itself has undergone the steepest headcount reduction of any government department in recent years, with its workforce shrinking by 35% since 2010.

Across the wider workforce, the proportion of senior civil servants based in London has also crept up since 2010, with 65.1% of SCS jobs focused on the capital in April 2010, compared with 67% in the same period last year. According to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics, 18% of the total civil service workforce is now based in London, up from 16% in 2010.

London is the English region with the highest number of civil servants, with around 79,000 employees, while the lowest is the East Midlands with 20,083 officials. The ONS data shows that, between 2014-15, there were increases in the number of civil servants working London, Yorkshire and the Humber, the West Midlands and overseas, but all other regions showed decreases.

Haigh has also been sharply critical of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' decision to close its Sheffield office by 2018, with the department instead choosing to focus its policy operations in London alone. The BIS move – which the department has said will help bring policy teams closer to ministers – comes as part of the government's wider plans to vacate 75% of government offices by 2023.

Under those plans, departments will instead move to shared "Government Hubs" in key regions over the next decade.

But the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, the largest of the civil service unions, said the latest figures showed the dangers of centralisation.

General secretary Mark Serwotka said: "The civil service must do more to look like the country it provides public services to, but moving key functions back to central London means it risks going backwards."

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