‘Levelling up’: Moving civil servants is not the same thing as devolving power

‘Levelling up’: Moving civil servants is not the same thing as devolving power

There’s been a lot of interest in a speech by Michael Gove in which he argued that the civil service must be purged of its “metropolitan outlook” if public confidence in government is to be restored. “Government departments recruit in their own image, are influenced by the think tanks and lobbyists who breathe the same London air and are socially-rooted in assumptions which are inescapably metropolitan,” he said.

Better decisions about public spending would be made if those making them lived and worked in towns such Mansfield or Merthyr Tydfil rather than being based in London, the co-architect of Brexit maintained. “We can literally reduce the distance between government and people by relocating government decision-making centres to different parts of our United Kingdom.”

Gove’s speech has coincided with Boris Johnson saying in advance of a speech tomorrow that ministers will be “doubling down” on his pledge to “level up” the economy of the UK in terms of public spending on infrastructure, and with the UK’s top civil servant Sir Mark Sedwill confirming that he will be standing down in September. Meanwhile, in the background, Dominic Cummings appears to have big plans for turning the structures of UK government upside down.

Would the types of change Gove and Cummings have in mind produce the improved results they claim? Would it really be the case that, as Gove argued in his speech, better tax and welfare policies would be devised if fewer of those responsible for them were based in London and if more of them were recruited from “overlooked and hitherto undervalued communities”? Would taking more of the civil service out of London of itself produce policies that were better for the country as a whole?

It’s worth noting that, in fact, the vast majority of civil servants work in places other than London already. London has the highest number of any region – around 83,500. But the other 346,000 are spread throughout the UK’s other English regions and nations. The highest concentrations of civil servants are found outside London too, in Northern Ireland, Wales and the north-east of England. That said, as the Institute for Government points out, the vast majority of senior civil servants are based in London. So maybe if more of them were located in places other than London – Aberdeen, Teesside, the east Midlands – Gove’s theory would work in practice.

But would it? The obvious place to test Gove’s argument is London itself. After all, if the geographical proximity of civil servants, including senior ones, to the people and places they make policies for is key to getting those policies right, you would expect London and Londoners to be rejoicing in the tax and welfare programmes produced for them in Whitehall, which lies at their city’s very heart. Yet London local and regional government bodies, which see those policies enacted in their own back yards and are sometimes made responsible for implementing them, do not seem greatly impressed.

For example, London Councils has called for the design of programmes to assist the unemployed and poorly-paid to be taken out of central government hands and put in theirs and the Mayor’s instead. The underlying problem in their eyes is not that the Whitehall civil servants who put these programmes together live and work far, far away from Hillingdon or Camden or Redbridge, but that they don’t understand local conditions and communities as well as they and the Mayor do.

Extending that logic, the problem would be the same if the centre of national government were based in Birmingham or Bristol. It’s not where civil servants, including senior ones, are based that matters most, it’s what they do. And the fact that many of them live and work in London doesn’t necessarily mean they do what’s best for London or Londoners. So why should the mere fact of moving them to Merthyr or Mansfield, or recruiting more of them in those towns, be any better for the people who live in them?

The big thing missing from Gove’s speech was any real recognition of an important distinction – the one between decentralisation and devolution. Like Labour at the last general election, he gives the impression of believing that simply embedding a greater civil service presence in “left behind” areas, “the north” – and so on – in other words, decentralising it from London – would inherently facilitate the “levelling up” of inequalities between and within regions, because decision-makers would be more aware of local needs. But we haven’t seen that in London itself. And while Gove had plenty to say about where national government staff ought to be based, there was far less in his speech about national government re-locating decision-making power – which is what devolution is.

There was, to be fair, this rather enigmatic passage:

“I also think we need to look at how we can develop an even more thoughtful approach to devolution, to urban leadership and allowing communities to take back more control of the policies that matter to them. One of the glories of the United States is that there are fifty Governors, all of whom can be public policy innovators. As so often, diversity is strength.”

Also, with a white paper on devolution promised, perhaps he didn’t want to jump the gun. That said, the government’s approach to London government of late, in particular to Transport for London, has been the very opposite of devolutionary. And, as ever with this Brexit-driven administration, you have to wonder if their talk of lessening London’s economic dominance is at least partly just a way of signalling to voters whose loyalty they need to keep that “London” is less a city or even a case study of government over-centralistion than a metaphor for values those voters do not like.

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Categories: Analysis

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