The number of civil servants working in London rose significantly more than elsewhere in the past year despite Conservative ministers’ pledges to shift Whitehall jobs out of the capital as part of their “levelling up” agenda.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2019 signalled that he would move thousands of officials to the regions to spread wealth across the country and in October 2020 indicated that even ministers and their private offices might move to “the great cities of the North”.
Meanwhile, in March 2020 chancellor Rishi Sunak announced plans to move 22,000 civil servants out of central London by 2030 to help ensure “government will make decisions different in future”.
But official figures show that the opposite is occurring. The civil service headcount in London grew 11 per cent from 91,660 to 101,930 in the year to March 2021, more than double the rate in the rest of the country.
The figures are awkward for Johnson as the Tory party gathers in Manchester for its annual conference.
“What you’ve seen in London is a remarkable growth of the civil service which has easily overcompensated for any officials moving out thus far,” said Professor Tony Travers, a public policy expert at the London School of Economics.
“These extraordinary figures show how Britain is such a centralised country that ministers can never escape the need for officials close by to provide them with administrative services, hour by hour, day by day.”
The statistics contradict a speech by Michael Gove, former Cabinet Office minister, who in the summer of 2020 said government officials needed to get away from the “inescapably metropolitan” world view of London in favour of a fresh life “from Mansfield to Middlesbrough to Merthyr Tydfil”.
Yet since Gove himself first became a cabinet minister in 2010 — under former Conservative prime minister David Cameron — there has been a conspicuous shift in the balance of the civil service towards the capital.
There was a net increase of 15,401 civil servants in London and a net decrease of 58,005 across the other regions between 2010 and 2021. The only other region that saw an increase, of 561, was Wales.
During the austerity years of 2010 to 2015 there were deep cuts to the number of civil servants, followed by a hiring spree later in the decade.
The huge increase in civil servants in London is partly because of the surge in policymaking roles based in the capital dealing with Brexit and then Covid. Last year there were major recruitment “sprints” for Test and Trace, the Brexit transition and for “winter and coronavirus”.
A government spokesman said the ONS figures did not include several hundred civil servants who had moved since March.
“We have already announced the relocation of thousands of roles to sites across the UK, including Darlington, Glasgow and Wolverhampton,” he said.
Ministers are building up a “Treasury North” economic campus in Darlington which will have “at least 750 roles”. The housing ministry’s new Wolverhampton outpost should have 800 officials — but not until 2030. Meanwhile, a new branch of the ministry in Glasgow should have 500 staff by 2024.
Alex Thomas, programme director at the Institute for Government (IfG), a think-tank, said it would take time to “uproot” staff given the need to procure new sites and carry out proper HR consultations.
Even if Sunak manages to move 22,000 civil servants out of London by the end of the decade that would leave the number in the city at roughly the same level that it was at in 2011.
In addition, London is still taking the lion’s share of senior posts, with 35 per cent of civil servants outside the capital on the lowest rank compared with just 13 per cent in the capital.
Thomas of the IfG said many of the jobs shed in recent years were lower-skilled roles in HM Revenue & Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions which had been automated.
“What you’ve seen in the last few years is that in a crisis or a shock the civil service will accumulate more policy people who need to be close to ministers,” he said. “Spreading civil servants outside London was less of a priority.”
Jake Berry, chair of the Northern Research Group of backbench Tory MPs, called on the prime minister to deliver a “complete overhaul” of Whitehall. He told the BBC that the civil service was “institutionally biased” towards investment in southern England.
Steve Reed, Labour’s shadow communities secretary, said the figures showed that ministers’ rhetoric was hollow.
“This is the latest in a series of con tricks from a Conservative government which is more interested in churning out press releases than actually fixing economic disparities between different parts of the country,” he said.
Yet the record of the last Labour government in devolving power to the regions, also fell short of expectations.
Reviews by Sir Gilbert Flemming in 1963 and Sir Henry Hardman in 1973 sought to move civil servants out of the capital, as much to save costs as to bolster regional economies.
The Hardman review called for 31,500 officials to be transferred out of London but it was mostly blocked by the incoming Thatcher government of 1979.
In 2003, the then Labour chancellor Gordon Brown commissioned Sir Michael Lyons to produce a review on how to shift officials to the regions.
Brown endorsed the Lyons report, which — just like Sunak last year — called for 20,000 civil servants to be deployed to far-flung parts of the country.
That would have been a cut of nearly a quarter of the 86,790 officials then working in the capital, saving £2bn over 15 years.
It never really happened. The civil service workforce in London was almost exactly the same size seven years later at 86,529.