The Birmingham MP masterminding plans to move civil service jobs out of London has promised to get it right this time, after criticism of an earlier attempt six years ago.
Liam Byrne (Lab Hodge Hill) admitted decisions about thousands of jobs had been made “in dark rooms”, despite grand promises to shift government workers out of the south east.
The MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury in Gordon Brown’s Government, will publish details of the proposals as part of a wide-ranging review of public services, in the run-up to the Pre-Budget Report on Wednesday.
But Birmingham City Council leader Mike Whitby said there was “an element of scepticism” about the proposals because earlier promises had not come true.
Plans to shift civil servants out of Whitehall and into the regions were the centrepiece of Gordon Brown’s 2003 Budget. Mr Brown, the then-Chancellor, said the policy would save taxpayers’ money by moving posts where office space and in some cases salaries were cheaper.
The city council responded with a campaign to promote the city, which included producing a 30-page glossy brochure listing “20 reasons to come to Birmingham”.
The council highlighted low office costs and a blossoming cultural scene, as well as ready-made civic buildings such as Baskerville House in Centenary Square, which could house a major Government department.
A House of Commons inquiry even named Birmingham as a possible location for the Home Office, because of its multicultural community, or the Department for Trade and Industry, because of its role as Britain’s manufacturing heartland.
But in the end, the only Government department to be radically changed after a review by Sir Michael Lyons was the Department for Work and Pensions, which moved more than 3,000 jobs out of London. The Home Office and Department for Business, as it is called today, remain firmly based in London.
According to the Treasury, 952 jobs were relocated to Birmingham and Solihull, and 484 went to Coventry and Warwickshire.
Mr Byrne said the process would be more transparent and open this time.
Speaking to The Birmingham Post, he said: “We have been really successful in moving jobs out of London and the south east. We have overdelivered on our target of getting 24,000 jobs relocated out. But I still think that there are too many civil service jobs concentrated in London and in the south east.
“I don’t predict sweeping changes overnight, but I think steadily and consistently, as we bring in efficiencies to Whitehall, you will see the relocation of jobs out of London and the south east.
“And I would also like to see a much more open way in which local areas like Birmingham can bid for civil service jobs, and also research establishments, because the way decisions are made about location are too opaque. Too many decisions are made in dark rooms and that process needs to be opened up.
“That will be one of the things I am personally going to focus on after the Pre-Budget Report, because unless it is given a political drive, the risk is that it just won’t happen.”
Business organisations and the city council are preparing a joint response to the plans, to be published on Monday.
Coun Whitby, who was in Westminster yesterday to discuss potential relocations, said: “Sir Michael Lyons wrote the tome about relocating London’s departments, but there are many people who felt that tome was left to gain dust on a shelf.
“But we are determined to help the Government achieve its aim of getting better value for money for the taxpayer by spelling out the benefits of relocating to Birmingham. It is a no-brainer, particularly in these difficult economic times, when the cost-benefit ratio we can offer is so much better than London.
“One difficulty the Government will face is the reluctance of Whitehall mandarins to consider moving, and the challenge for me is to help overcome that by explaining the value for money and the high quality of life that Birmingham can offer.”
Mr Byrne has been given the task of overseeing a re-think of Labour’s approach to public services. It includes proposals to give front-line staff such as doctors and teachers more control over their work, by cutting back on targets and holding fewer inspections.
The public service paper will argue that reforms should enable public services to offer a better service, even without extra funding.