Relocation is Good for Our Nation’s Health
David Werran comments on Matthew Parris’ piece in The Times on the 20th January (“Social mobility is creating dustbin Britain”)
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, where in some cases life expectancy is falling and can be up to a decade lower than in the capital. The causational relationship between economic development and public health is a strong one and Parris makes the very good point that London continues to attract from all parts of the UK the ambitious, energetic and talented to the great detriment of the locations they quit. Very little is being done to redress this serious imbalance.
What can or should government do? Well there is one thing on the immediate horizon: a Whitehall relocation programme as part of the much heralded Industrial Strategy. There is nothing new about Whitehall relocation – there have been five major programmes since WWII – but this one will be the biggest, with the potential of moving some 400+ ‘National Institution’ type bodies (officially known as Non Departmental Public Bodies and other Arm’s-Length Bodies) to all parts of the UK that should have a significant regenerative impact wherever they go.
I have some experience in the relocation business, having relocated three departments in the 1980s and ‘90s and was much involved with the various public bodies that were dispersed following the 2004 Lyons Review. And having reviewed previous relocation programmes one has to conclude that the dispersals were generally carried out efficiently and effectively. However, all the programmes had a single fundamental flaw: the office property solution at the relocation destination. Time and again the fruits of relocation – the huge financial savings possible, the efficiency and productivity dividends – were often squandered by inept real estate decisions.
A classic and not-so-distant example was the Quality Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA). Located in Piccadilly opposite the Ritz, the organisation and its 700 staff were destined for Coventry in the light of the Lyons Review. And despite ample high-quality new office space springing up in the city’s station quarter the QCDA board decided to create a new bespoke office. A lengthy tendering process ensued, the new office was delivered (late) in 2009 and relocation proceeded that same year. In 2010 there was a new Conservative Government and the first action of the newly appointed Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, was to abolish QCDA. When subsequently it was discovered that said agency had signed a 25-year lease with no break clauses, the tax-payer was left with a liability for years to come.
Will the lessons of the past be learnt? Sadly, the omens are not good. As part of an ambitious transformation programme, HMRC is to consolidate its operations into 14 ‘super-hubs’ located in the UK’s main regional cities. Whatever the merits of this programme known as ‘building our future’ – early critics are the National Audit Office and in recent weeks the Public Accounts Committee – one of the consequences of this policy will be to absorb HMRC activities from the sub-eregions. So 3,000 posts will transfer from Bradford to Leeds, 1,500 posts from Southend-on-Sea to Stratford – not to mention the myriad small offices dotted around in some of the most deprived parts of the country. Ominously, HMRC is starting to take out 20- and 25-year leases with developers so these super-hubs will be around for a very long time, irrespective of social change. And it is inevitable that these hubs will be government’s (i.e. Cabinet Office’s) locations of choice for the Whitehall dispersal programme.
There are a number of arguments against the wider civil service consolidation in the super-hubs. These big city locations will be more expensive than alternatives in the regions and will not be to the liking of many of the quango candidates, who will view absorption into the hubs with some alarm. But the most important argument is the ‘public interest’. The relocation of valuable civil service posts from London should be dispersed for the benefit of a wide variety of towns and cities where the logistics, labour supply and other factors make sense. And local government should be charged with making the office property options available as they are best-equipped to advise and assist implementation. In this way the public interest is best-eserved and the sector can try to mitigate or perhaps reverse the situation identified in Matthew Parris’s article.
David Werran is the Executive Director at DragonGate and Co-Chairman of Breaking Barriers Innovations.