‘Hi Ho Robert Jenrick’ – MHCLG moves to Wolverhampton
By David Scane
Over the past 4 years Wolverhampton has seen an influx of high profile arrivals courtesy of the Nuno Espirito Santo revolution at the city’s football club. The once slightly unglamourous West Midlands outfit (with apologies to celebrity fans Led Zeppelin) has been transformed with an exciting brand of football and reasonably priced Portuguese imports. This uptick in Wolves’ fortune has helped to fuel a sense of reinvigoration in the area, and firmly put the city on the map.
One man who will have been enjoying Wolves’ “Revolução Portuguesa” will be Communities Secretary, and Wolverhampton native, Robert Jenrick. As a proud son of the city, the Secretary of State will no doubt have enjoyed making his announcement this weekend that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) will be basing around 500 MHCLG staff in Wolverhampton by 2025, making it the first ever ministerial office to be based away from Westminster.
The move comes as the first tangible example of the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda that dominated the 2019 Conservative manifesto promoting the idea of moving decision making away from Whitehall.
It is notable that Wolverhampton is the first area chosen for such a move. The city typifies the ‘red wall’ revolution that took place at the 2019 General Election with all but one of the three seats turning from red to blue and the remaining Labour seat experiencing a significant fall in the party’s majority. The announcement is also being made with more than one eye on the May 2021 West Midlands Combined Authority elections, at which incumbent Andy Street will go head to head with Labour’s Liam Byrne. Should Andy Street retain the Mayoralty it will be painted as a significant setback to Kier Starmer’s early electoral prospects and a boost to Conservative hopes of solidifying their base in the West Midlands.
So what can we expect from a relocated MHCLG? In Robert Jenrick’s own words the move is about ‘signalling the end of the Whitehall knows best approach’ and about having ‘local voices’ at the heart of policy development. The Secretary of State has also been at pains to clarify that the move will not just see civil servants relocate, but will also come with a “regular Ministerial presence” as well. The move will undoubtedly be a boon to the region, if not to those civil servants who will now become well acquainted to the delights of the buffet breakfast on Avanti West Coast.
Whether the relocation achieves any significant change in the direction of planning policy time will tell. It could be argued that planning policy being developed in Wolverhampton is no more ‘local’ for communities in other regions of the UK than if it were still being developed in Westminster. There is also still a clawing suspicion that the ‘other half’ of MHCLG remaining in Westminster will continue to be at an advantage due to the proximity of power.
Whatever the outcome, the move provides a significant first step in the Government’s commitment to move decision making away from Whitehall, and towards the regions. That the Government has chosen such an important department as MHCLG to take this first step is in itself also significant, and other departments will now surely follow, with Rishi Sunak pushing for a ‘Treasury North’ to be located in Leeds, Newcastle or Teeside.
Robert Jenrick will be hoping that move provides a significant boost to the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, and that some of that magic from Molineux rubs off on MHCLG.