Government continues drive to move more civil servants – and money – out of London

By Joe Cooper

The Government today announced a number of new policies in support of its levelling-up agenda with the headline of an £830m investment package to support high streets across 57 local areas, and £10m to support improved teaching standards across local authorities in Plymouth, Ashfield and Mansfield, South Sefton and North Liverpool, and North Durham and City.

As well as confirming another round of funding, the government announced a further push to get the civil service out of London and into the rest of the country, with the Home Office and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy set to see more than 3,000 roles move to hubs in Stoke-on-Trent, Edinburgh and Belfast by 2025. The Home Office will also grow its presence in Peterborough, Salford and Solihull.

Stoke was one of the towns in the “Red Wall” which swung to the Conservatives during the last election, and in line with the announcement earlier in the year that the Treasury would partly relocate to Darlington and that the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government will open offices in Wolverhampton, the move comes as part of the wider attempt for the party to secure support in these newly-won constituencies and demonstrate that government is moving closer to them.

The relocation drive is not just about rewarding individual constituencies, however. The recently opened Queen Elizabeth House in Edinburgh, in particular, is seen as an important part of the efforts to strengthen the Union. The UK Government hub, which will host civil servants from around 15 different government departments, was deliberately sited just around the corner from the Scottish Parliament and today’s news of more new arrivals – combined with plans for a second Cabinet Office HQ in Glasgow – are designed to demonstrate a commitment to proving the UK Government is present on the ground and can deliver for Scottish voters.

On the new funding for education and investment, the Prime Minister said that “as the country gets back on its feet, the Government has renewed its commitment to levelling-up”, and that he was “determined to seize the opportunity it [the recovery from the pandemic] presents to create a fairer society, improve lives and build back better once and for all”.

The renewed emphasis on the levelling-up agenda provides an indicator of the Government’s priorities for the coming months and as the lockdown continues to lift. But questions are increasingly being asked about what levelling-up actually means beyond the various funding streams that have been announced since the Prime Minister took office, from the Levelling Up Fund to the Towns Fund to the expansion today of the Future High Streets Fund. Last week’s Queen’s Speech (see SEC Newgate’s briefing here) was in part an attempt to do this, through a Skills and Post-16 Education Bill to improve access to lifelong learning and address the UK’s skills gap, and the National Insurance Contributions Bill aimed at incentivising employment at the eight freeports which the government has been keen to champion under the levelling-up banner. Critics argue these new Bills don’t go far enough and more detail is needed on structural reforms.

There is certainly no shortage of ideas about what more levelling-up should mean, with the centre-right think tank Onward yesterday arguing through its Levelling Up Taskforce that the government should consider targeted regional or sectoral tax and regulatory incentives to attract foreign direct investment into the areas most in need of development.

The appointment by the Prime Minister of Neil O’Brien MP – an Advisory Board member of Onward – as his Levelling Up adviser earlier this month is therefore a significant indication of the government’s awareness of the need to make the agenda about more than money. Through O’Brien’s work and the creation of a new No.10 and Cabinet Office Unit to lead on the implementation of a Levelling-Up White Paper later this year, expect today’s announcement to be one of many more to come.