Plans to ‘level up’ the UK are being undermined by the location of most civil service jobs, a report has suggested, as growth in the number of civil servants in London continues to outpace that of the rest of the UK.
According to centre-right think-tank Onward, since 2006 the overall civil service headcount in London has increased by 50%, compared with 3% across the rest of the country.
Its Time to move out report says that, despite warm words about decentralisation from the government, the civil service is nearly as London-centric as it was 45 years ago. More than 100,000 full-time civil servants are based in the capital.
Since 2018, headcount has grown twice as fast in London than regions outside the capital. One in three civil servants has been recruited in London.
Although the government has announced intentions to move jobs out of Whitehall – including the announcement of a new economic campus in Darlington which would house the Treasury, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) – departments are still hiring London-based staff. More than nine in 10 civil servants employed by the Treasury and BEIS are in London, and in the six months following the announcement these departments hired almost three times as many officials inside the capital as outside.
The report says: “The recently published Levelling Up White Paper argues that one of the best ways they can change the experience and values that drive government decisions is by changing where decisions are made.
“By relocating senior civil servants to Darlington, Wolverhampton and Newcastle, they hope to make government more attuned to the needs of those places, and places like them, and less London-centric.
“Our core finding is that, despite warm words and good intentions, efforts to decentralise the civil service are going backwards.”
If the government is serious about shifting the centre of economic power from London, the report recommends that it needs to:
- Reform recruitment and promotion to better reflect regional diversity, moving the majority of Civil Service Fast Stream assessment out of London. This would reduce the reliance on the capital for talent, save money, and send an important message about the government’s intentions, the report says
- Significantly expand the number and size of regional campuses and support co-location with local and regional government
- Encourage greater use of flexible working, combining remote and office-based work at regional campuses
- Prioritise the relocation of market-facing commercial functions outside of London, with the report stating that there is no reason why the Government Digital Service, UK Export Finance and Advanced Research and Invention Agency should be headquartered in the capital
- Require every department to publish regional projections for civil service headcount and floorspace over the current spending review period, with an expectation that no department will have more than two-thirds of staff or office space in London by 2030
- Implement a “one-in-two-out” rule for recruitment for departments that miss their projections for staff dispersal. This would mean they cannot advertise for an additional London-based role until two roles have been relocated or recruited in another region
- Require ministers and permanent secretaries to publicly commit to working from regional campuses at least one day a week, or one week per month, to show they can “lead from the front”
- Ensure Cabinet meetings take place in every region of the UK at least once a year.
The report acknowledges that this will “not be an easy task”, but it is necessary.
“Achievement will require a much greater pace and scale of dispersal than has been achieved to date,” it concludes.