How to successfully move the Civil Service out of Whitehall

As Darlington is announced as the home for a new Treasury campus it is worth looking at what is required to successfully move the Civil Service out of Whitehall.

Darlington has been announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak as the location for the new Treasury campus as the Government pursues its ambition to create a more geographically diverse public sector. But when the move comes to fruition, what are the practical steps it will take to make the new home a success?

While Newcastle and Leeds were also in the running, it was Darlington that won out and will host the new campus for 750 Treasury staff, as well as colleagues from associated economic departments.

Announcing the move in his Budget speech, Rishi Sunak said: “Our future economy demands a different economic geography. If we are serious about wanting to level up, that starts with the institutions of economic power. Few institutions are more powerful than the one I am enormously privileged to lead – the Treasury. Along with the other critical economic departments, including BEIS, DIT, and MHCLG, we will establish a new economic campus in Darlington.”

“De-Whitehalling” - learn from the success stories

While this move is part of the current levelling up agenda, it also continues an historic shift of Civil organisations out of Whitehall. There have been some real success stories over the years in moving out of London - going as far back as the 1970s and 1980s in moving parts of the Civil service to Sheffield and Leeds.

The successful move of parts of the Department for Work and Pensions to Sheffield was built on a long-term recruitment plan. The first wave of people who relocated saw their careers out, but as they then began to retire, those roles were taken by local people.

One of the reasons it worked in Sheffield was that there are two universities, with that pipeline supplemented by effective use of apprenticeship and youth training schemes.

The new Darlington campus, although in a different environment, does have commutable cities like Newcastle,York and Sunderland within striking distance to supplement the local workforce.

Long-term thinking required

These moves work well when there is an organisational development plan that looks 15-20 years ahead and maps out a plan to sustain that function in that geography. That will address the question of how the organisation will move from being staffed by re-locatees to a local workforce.

It’s also crucial to consider what practical steps will be taken to encourage people to make the move out of London and follow their role to the new location. There can be a gradual drift back to London fuelled by the need for Ministerial engagement. Civil Servants need interaction with their Ministers, who in turn need access to their knowledge. What the last year of Covid has taught us though, is that familiarity with technology has reduced that need, as virtual communication has increasingly become the norm. 

We’re at a point now where technology has overcome those geographical challenges and these moves to the regions stand much better chances of being effective. With the right planning and vision, we could see a sustained successful programme of relocation that delivers the diverse Civil Service we need.

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