Plans to force civil servants out of London are far too timid

Expert Insights / Relocation
11th March 2021

DragonGate Non-Executive Chairman, David Werran, writes about the announced relocation of civil servants to Darlington and Wolverhampton in The Times Red Box (

In the teeth of determined civil service opposition, it was brave of the government to commit 750 top posts in the Treasury to Darlington and 500 in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to Wolverhampton as part of the imminent Whitehall relocation programme and levelling-up agenda.

The civil service has a long history of moving large numbers of posts quite successfully from London to other parts of the UK — there have been five relocation programmes since 1940 — but the senior civil service has always been deeply hostile to the concept because their careers are built around close proximity to ministers. If pressed, then a regional city such as Liverpool, Bristol or Birmingham might just suffice.

But the UK’s regional cities tend to mimic the problems of the metropolis — relatively high costs and crowded commuting — and the towns and smaller cities provide much better solutions to meet the government’s “levelling up” objectives.

A good start has been made but much more can and should be done. Last year the government signalled its intention to disperse 22,000 civil servants out of London by 2030. But this is not nearly ambitious enough. There are some 90,000 civil servants in the London area and at least two thirds of these should be relocated, to the great benefit of the English regions and the devolved nations and with huge savings to the public purse. And the dispersal should take place over the current parliamentary term rather than a decade as envisaged. The Covid emergency demands a dynamic approach.

With a truly big programme — say 60 to 70,000 posts — it would be a catalyst for the much-needed reform of the civil service, and a very early stimulus for the regeneration of scores of UK towns and cities. It would also offer the opportunity to draw in the boundless fresh talent from the regions and encourage the growth of new skills, as a high proportion of the jobs on offer will be for local recruitment.

Of course, relocation comes with significant upfront costs, but history shows that the pay-backs — the time it takes for the savings that accrue from moving from London to equate to the costs — are very quick, two to three years at most, with savings thereafter amounting to hundreds of millions.

A unique feature of the Wolverhampton and Darlington decisions, in contrast with previous relocation programmes, has been the involvement of the two mayors, Andy Street and Ben Houchen respectively, who have been able to assemble evidence-based business cases in support of their bids for the civil service jobs. This represents a new way forward, with London departments and agencies working in close partnership with local government to achieve the best possible outcomes.

Indeed, the process does not end with the identification of relocation destinations. The next important phase will be to persuade the London civil servants, particularly the senior ones, to “up-sticks” and move to the new locations. This is mainly handled through them and their partners and families going to the new areas to appraise the housing market and other facilities in order to take personal decisions.

These arrangements have been well honed in previous relocation programmes and are achieved by two-day reconnaissance visits or familiarisation tours paid for by the government. A typical example is the BBC’s move from White City to Salford Quays, Manchester a decade ago when some 1,600 broadcast journalists availed themselves of these familiarisation tours before committing to relocation which, with very few exceptions, they did.

Moving from Whitehall, it is now important that the civil service not only engages with local government as stakeholders but as active partners in every aspect of the relocation process. Wolverhampton and Darlington have created the precedents and the blueprint for the roll-out dispersal programme that the government should immediately enlarge to encompass the majority of civil service posts in London.

David Werran is the Non-Executive Director at DragonGate and Co-Chairman of Breaking Barriers Innovations.

Related articles

The Care Tech Campus Challenge Fund Report

REPORT Essex Care Tech Campus Assessing the Outcomes from the inaugural Challenge Fund The Care Tech Campus Challenge Fund, launched in May 2023, serves as an early demonstration project for the core principles and benefits of the Care Technology Campus in Essex. These core principles and benefits include codesign and development with users, providers and the…

Read more

Securing National HQ of Great British Railways to Derby

In the teeth of determined civil service opposition, it was brave of the government to commit 750 top posts in the Treasury to Darlington and 500 in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to Wolverhampton as part of the imminent Whitehall relocation programme and levelling-up agenda.

Read more

Moving Out: What are the Benefits of Civil Service Relocation? 

The Institute has produced a thought-provoking piece as Government prepares for a programme that will see 22,000 civil servants relocated to the English regions and devolved nations during the current decade. But there some important gaps in the paper with too much emphasis on the costs and too little on the very real savings and improvements that can be made, both in the short and the long term.

Read more

Farewell Quarry House!

The BBC’s news today about the Leeds DWP office failing to enforce social distancing following an Health and Safety Executive inspection brought back many memories of Quarry House – a building which carries the rather unkind soubriquet “The Kremlin”.

Read more

You Know When You’ve Been Quangoed

For Boris Johnson’s shellshocked government, there has been little instructive from the worlds of ed and med in recent weeks.

Blame has flown and political heat applied to previously little known quango Ofqual and the much criticised Public Health England (PHE) before its demise and absorption into the National Institute for Health Protection.  Before this, the secretary of state for health and chief strategic government advisers were, apparently, unaware that they had the power all along to direct and control PHE.

Read more

Track and Trace – Why is Serco in the Frame?

Serco was awarded a track and trace contract valued up to £400m, apparently without competition.

Actually, there was a competition – kind of. Serco competed for, and won a place on a government “framework” contract. In effect, it is a catalogue – enabling governments to call off goods and services, without the need for further competition. In this case, the contract was for call centre services, and awarded by the Crown Commercial Service.

Read more

Times Red Box: No 10 must be ruthless to wrench the civil service from London

In his March budget the chancellor indicated the government’s intention to move 22,000 civil servants out of London by 2030. Michael Gove, in his recent Ditchley speech, spoke of relocating Whitehall decision-making centres to not only the main regional centres such as Manchester and Bristol but different parts of the UK.

But this will be nowhere near enough, and the leisurely timescale will provide ample opportunity for further delay and obfuscation, as it has done in the past. What is needed is a truly ambitious programme to relocate the majority of the 85,000 civil servants in London leaving only a core elite of a few hundred.

Read more

Pathways, Place and Priorities

This week Breaking Barriers Innovations hosted the “Pathways, Place and Priorities” Roundtable, discussing the potential impact of digital technology upon the health and social care workforce. We spoke to DragonGate & BBI Programme Manager Rahim Daya, to get his insights into how this fits into the vision for the NHS Long Term Plan

Read more

Connecting the Regions Through Clean Growth

In light of DragonGate’s recent “Connecting the Regions Through Clean Growth” Roundtable, DragonGate Programme Manager George Evans-Jones answers our questions regarding the Clean Growth Grand Challenge

Read more

Out of Sync

Tim Philpott reflects on how local authority property transformation spending may be missing out on the bigger picture

Read more

Passport Blues

Simon Lydiard reflects on the outcry over the contract for new, post-Brexit passports being awarded to a company based in the EU

Read more

Building Transformation in the Public Sector

The demand and financial pressures on the public sector are not going away; but policy activity from central government could nevertheless be the basis for far-reaching local transformation – well beyond the aims of the individual strategies – for the benefit of those who really matter: local citizens. That was one of the conclusions of a recent DGMI round table, hosted and facilitated by Kinnarps.

Read more

Relocation is Good for Our Nation’s Health

In his interesting piece in The Times on the 20th January, Matthew Parris uses the recently published ONS figures that highlight the severe health inequality across the nation. The figures present a jarring picture of imbalance between the London population and the rest of the country…

Read more

Out of Sync: Local Authority Transformation is Missing Out on the Bigger Picture

Ongoing DragonGate research has established that 2018-19 will be a high watermark for Local Government property transformation, with approximately 70 projects due to be completed over the next 24 months. However, with adjacent sectors such as the NHS, Higher Education and Central Government implementing similar programmes for property transformation there is little evidence that opportunities for place-based collaboration are truly being embraced.

Read more

Prime for transformation?

The sustainability and transformation partnerships (STPs) programme should harness and drive digital innovation as a positive force to help overcome barriers to the integration of health and social care and improve standards of delivery

Read more

And Justice for All

Nothing less than a ‘whole-place’ pooling of public service budgets and devolution of criminal justice system powers to local level can create the conditions for community transformation

Read more