The government – and especially Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne – has been making much of its devolution policies. Locally, outline agreement has been reached on the development of arrangements for the Sheffield City Region involving parts of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire as well as South Yorkshire. However, there is still a strong feeling that there is more hot air than substance.
The Chancellor promised to “Rebalance our national economy, ensuring that the economic future of the north is as bright, if not brighter, than other parts of the UK, is the ambition we should set ourselves.”
Suspicions about the government’s real commitment to devolution and decentralisation are enhanced when you examine what is happening to the civil service. Under the Labour governments, there had been a determined effort to move civil servants and government agencies out of London to appropriate locations around the UK. There was a clear business case for each departmental move with post-move audits demonstrating the financial savings.
However, this Conservative government has put the whole devolution and decentralisation agenda into reverse. It has already reduced the number of office locations from 800 to 200. In particular, HMRC and BIS have closed local offices and concentrated in London and some regional centres. Ministers have now admitted that they took absolutely no account of the impact on local economies of this policy.
The proportion of civil servants in London has actually risen by c17% under the current government. Even more striking is that the proportion of senior civil servants in London has risen by c65%.
Last month the Government confirmed the axing of the Sheffield office of the Business, Innovation and Skills Department – which has established itself as a centre of policymaking expertise with 300 staff leading on delivering billions in research to universities in particular.
Figures revealed by my Sheffield Heeley MP colleague Louise Haigh show that, at the two Department’s responsible for delivering the Northern Powerhouse agenda (DCLG and BIS), the vast majority of top officials work in London (97.9%, and 93% respectively). Closing the Sheffield BIS Office will take the proportion of policy-making BIS civil servants in London to near 99%.
What makes the whole decision-making stink is that the BIS Ministers and Permanent Secretary responsible have been unable to produce a single report setting out the business case for the decision.