HM Treasury’s Darlington Economic Campus is getting positive feedback from staff and currently has strong backing from HMT leaders, but questions remain about its long-term sustainability, MPs have been told.
A Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee session investigating planning for the government’s future property needs heard this week that the success of the campus would depend on continued cross-departmental support and the quality of opportunities for staff.
The campus was launched in 2021 and brings together officials from several other departments, including the Department for International Trade, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
The base includes Office for National Statistics and Competition and Markets Authority staff. The Department for Education occupies a nearby building and is also part of the “campus”.
Institute for Government programme director Alex Thomas and researcher Jordan Urban gave evidence to PACAC this week on their experience of the DEC, based on visits and input from staff.
Thomas said the campus is well-connected and that he got no sense of it being considered an “outpost”. Urban added that there is a sense of community at the campus, and that staff who have relocated from the capital see significant cost-of-living benefits, particularly in relation to property prices.
Urban added that there is not a sense of a “regional ceiling” affecting the campus.
“Something that felt really important to the people there was that every job in the Treasury, in particular, can be done from Darlington,” he said.
“There wasn’t this funnel, where as you got more senior you had to move back to London because that’s where the jobs were.”
However, Thomas said there is anecdotal evidence that some premium roles are thinner on the ground in Darlington than in Whitehall.
“One of the points that we reflected on is the importance of there being a clear career path for civil servants in these locations outside of London,” he said.
“One of the things we did hear a little bit is that there are – bit of jargon – ‘accelerator’ jobs that help civil servants in their careers. Being a private secretary would be an obvious one.
“I think there’s only one private secretary, possibly two, located on the Darlington campus. So there’s an absence of those accelerator roles.”
Thomas said there is a sense in which being part of the campus has a different offer in terms of professional advancement, but not necessarily a worse one.
“There’s now a second permanent secretary there in Beth Russell and other senior people,” he said. “So the trade-off that civil servants were making is ‘maybe we don’t have access to all of the London gossip, we don’t have access to all of those accelerator roles, but we have a different sort of career opportunity and career boost’.”
Thomas said there is “an energy” in HM Treasury around the economic campus but “less energy” in the other departments at the base.
“They are – to be kind – at an earlier stage of the process,” he said. “And there probably is less genuine senior commitment from other departments to make it a hub that is really firing on all cylinders and I would be concerned about the sustainability of it.”
Thomas told MPs that while political commitment to new government offices is important for staff, the commitment of senior officials is “far more important”.
“The critical test will be: are very, very senior officials really happy to continue with that commitment?” he said.
“The ministerial role is more about whether ministers are happy to have hybrid meetings and to not summon people back to London.
“The energy around the campus would degrade very quickly if you had a chancellor who insisted on in-person meetings, because the whole thing would flip. So it’s fragile.”
Demand for in-person meetings with London-based ministers is a major consideration for civil servants’ willingness to be based in locations a considerable distance from the capital, Urban said.