Jill Rutter was unsure about being a UK civil servant as she did not want to live in London. When she visited her university’s careers office in 1978, memories of her family’s relocation came to mind. “My Dad worked for a bank based in Liverpool and his work relocated to London. I hated it with a vengeance, so my main criteria was not to live there,” she recalls.
Ms Rutter nonetheless ended up at the Treasury for two decades, noting “if you work there, you never work anywhere but London”. Today, though, her options would be greater. Half of the 1,400 civil servants based in the Treasury’s ornate Whitehall palace are to be shipped out to England’s regions. A new campus, dubbed “Treasury North”, is being created to broaden policymaking beyond the Westminster bubble.
The Treasury’s proximity to power is supreme — Downing Street on one side, parliament on the other. But its connection to the outside world can be tangential. It is also the most London-centric of departments. One civil servant, who declined to be named, says of the Treasury experience: “I came here growing up in Manchester. It’s a bubble within a bubble. Decisions are too often made in the theoretical abstract.”
The case for breaking up Whitehall’s policymaking monopoly is made by Michael Gove. The Cabinet Office minister has criticised previous relocation efforts for focusing on areas with a “particular socio-economic profile”, adding, “wouldn’t it be better for those deciding how taxpayers’ money is spent to be living and working alongside those citizens?” Overlooked “and hitherto undervalued” communities that backed Brexit would benefit most.
An almighty row, however, is under way over where Treasury North should go. Politics, as reflected by Mr Gove, would take it somewhere such as Teesside, a midsized area that backed Brexit and voted Conservative for the first time at the last election. Land is cheap, transport connections decent and the electoral rewards are clear. It would also prove Boris Johnson’s government is serious about its “levelling up” agenda to focus on parts of the nation that feel left behind.
Yet moving ministries to smaller towns has been tried before, with mixed results. The Office for National Statistics’ shift to the Welsh city of Newport over a decade ago saw 90 per cent of staff quit. Another risk for Treasury North if it went somewhere similar is that it will lack critical mass. But if it went to a northern city — Leeds or Newcastle have been mooted — there are major universities and a broad skills base that would bring locals into government, not just imports from the capital.
Sarah Nickson, a former civil servant who has explored how to make a success of relocation, argues that fleeing London will not automatically improve policymaking and will require trade-offs between skills and locations. “People need to see there’ll be opportunity to climb the ranks and to move sideways. You really need a solid base of senior jobs — partly for the career prospects to lure more junior people and partly for the prestige factor for a new office.” Otherwise, senior officials will “drift back to London”.
Helpfully the government is testing both approaches. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport will move half its operations to Manchester within five years. As the BBC and ITV already have large offices there, critical mass is present — even if the political gains in a Remain-backing, Labour-supporting city may be lower.
In total, the Johnson government intends to shift 22,000 officials out of London by 2030. A detailed announcement was due last week, but it was shelved as there is no final agreement on the strategy. “We don’t have a coherent enough package. There is still a lack of agreement from the departments about who they are sending, where,” one official explains.
What if Ms Rutter joined the civil service today? Would she be enticed by Treasury North, the DCMS in Manchester, or would the draw of Whitehall trump the regions? “If it was in Newcastle or Manchester then yes! Especially if other people I was graduating with were also finding jobs there.” Practical realities, rather than crude politics, favour northern cities over smaller towns for rebalancing the British state. It does not betray the idea of levelling up to say so.