Mixed messaging on flexible working is hampering civil service relocation plans, MPs find

Parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has published a report accusing the Cabinet Office of exaggerating the progress of a programme to move thousands of officials out of London

A parliamentary committee has found that mixed messages from the government over flexible working policies and the volume of potential civil service job cuts are hampering the Government Property Agency’s ability to plan for future office-space needs.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has published a damning report on government’s Places for Growth programme, which aims to relocate 22,000 civil service jobs from the capital by 2030. MPs on the committee accused the Cabinet Office of exaggerating its achievements at the same time as failing to provide “key measurements” for its success.

MPs also said that mixed messages from the government over flexible working for departmental officials and the magnitude of planned civil service job cuts were hampering the Government Property Agency’s ability to plan for future office-space needs.

They called on the Cabinet Office provide a “definitive statement” of government policy on the flexibility civil servants should have around how often they must work in the office, as well as the size of headcount reductions the government is modelling – which, for many departments, involves assessment of how digital and data can be used to enable efficiencies.

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PACAC members said the update should set out the timescale for the cuts – clearly recognised by Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden, but not enumerated since the outcry over Boris Johnson’s 91,000 plans last year – and the impact they will have on departments’ office-space requirements.

The report said the GPA should review the benefits of proceeding with high-tech regional hubs that are currently in the planning stage until it has “greater certainty” over departments’ workforce plans.

PACAC chair William Wragg accepted that the government was making “steady progress” towards its Places for Growth target, which has now passed the halfway stage. But he said MPs were concerned about the way the Cabinet Office’s targets were originally arrived at, and how progress has so-far been framed.

“The lack of consistency in relation to relocating civil service jobs reveals a vagueness at the heart of a key plank of the government’s levelling up agenda,” he said. “The Cabinet Office has failed to provide a clear account of why certain functions are located where they are, and how relocation and regional hubs will benefit local communities across the country, if at all. There is evidence to show that, since 2010, civil service jobs have been created in London faster than anywhere else in the country, with a net decrease of civil service jobs created elsewhere in the UK.”

Wragg said that closing long-established regional offices could have hard-hitting impacts on local communities and seemingly flew in the face of the levelling-up agenda.

“We need greater transparency and accountability of what seems to be a haphazard approach to reforming the government’s estates and its workforce,” he said.

Other concerns flagged by MPs include the potential for increased pay-driven churn caused by staff moving between departments based in the same hub in pursuit of higher salaries.

They noted, however, that Places for Growth could benefit from increased use of videoconferencing, reducing the need for in-person staff visits to Whitehall, which has undermined previous relocation programmes.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said 12,000 roles had now been “moved” out of Greater London as part of the Places for Growth programme. They insisted “detailed evidence” on the benefits of the programme had been shared with MPs.

“Extensive planning and analysis goes into decisions on new locations, including assessment of value for money, skills and local transport networks,” the spokesperson said. “New hubs are expected to deliver millions of pounds of economic benefits for local areas through increased footfall and spending from staff. Moving civil servants will always encounter opposition but we are determined to deliver.”

Jim Dunton

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