Is moving civil servants out of Whitehall ‘levelling up’?


By Henri Murison, Chief Executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership

This week Rishi Sunak outlined his plans to overhaul the civil service in a bid to tackle what he called “groupthink”, calling for senior civil servants to spend at least a year of their careers working on secondment outside Whitehall or in industry.

He’s not the first to make this point. Since the 2019 General Election, there’s been a lot of discussion about how to bridge the divide between Whitehall and the rest of the country, with the government pledging that 50% of senior civil servants will be based outside the capital by 2030 as part of their levelling up agenda.

They have already made a start with a Darlington campus for the Treasury, new offices for BEIS in Salford and the Department for Transport in Leeds, as well as more department moves expected imminently.

But the government isn’t the only one making moves up north. In recent years there has been a wider trend of businesses and other organisations ‘northshoring’, looking to capitalise on our talent pool, lower operating costs and huge commercial opportunities in sectors such as digital and the net zero transition. 

TalkTalk moved its headquarters to Salford in 2019. Last year the Bank of England announced it was opening a northern hub in Leeds. The new HQ for Rolls Royce’s small modular reactor business is in Manchester.

TalkTalk’s offices in Salford

It’s fantastic to see businesses taking regeneration into their own hands, creating opportunities for local people. It sends the message to young people that they don’t need to move to London to get a decent career.

Look at what the arrival of the BBC in Media City has done for Salford and Greater Manchester over the past decade. Channel 4 should do something similar for Leeds.

I support any plan to bring more jobs and opportunities to the north – but it’s worth saying that moving civil servants around the country is far from the be all and end all when it comes to levelling up.

My advice to Rishi Sunak would be to include secondments at combined authorities or local government as part of his plan, encouraging better understanding and collaboration between Whitehall and the regions.

We also agree with those like Energy Minister Greg Hands MP who spoke up for the suspended fast-stream graduate recruitment programme, making use of talent from our world-leading universities alongside creating alternative career pathways in the form of apprenticeships.

However, civil service relocation – necessary though it may be – cannot be a substitution for real devolution. If this government is serious about moving the power beyond Whitehall, it needs to devolve further real powers to metro mayors. This would allow us to reduce headcount in Whitehall, making a considerable saving on salaries, as well as on London weighting while bringing decision-making closer to local people.

Photo credit © Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy

Media Enquiries

For media enquiries and interview requests, please contact the press office on:

07885 489003

Get involved...

There are a number of ways you can help drive forward the Northern Powerhouse agenda.

Get involved

Our Members

Working with businesses and organisations across the North