THE Government has announced it will be moving thousands of civil servants out of Whitehall in a bid to cut costs.
So will they be moved up North, say to Manchester, Sheffield or Leeds?
Not quite: it turns out they’re moving just a few miles east to share offices with bankers in Canary Wharf. Once again this Government is squandering an opportunity to properly rebalance the economy and ensure public money is spread right across the country.
This move to create an offshoot of Whitehall in east London is the first step, apparently, in an overhaul of Government offices. Ministers have boasted that moving thousands staff out of Government buildings will save the taxpayer millions of pounds in the long-term, through cheaper rents and better transport links to the rest of the country.
You might therefore have hoped that these plans to move out of Westminster would have got them a little further. But the reality is it’s often difficult to persuade Whitehall mandarins that there is a world past the M25.
In a particular irony, a large section of the 540,000 sq ft building leased in Canary Wharf will be occupied by HM Revenue & Customs, the tax authority. But just last year, HMRC announced plans to close 137 of its offices around the country, including 12 offices in Yorkshire and four in Leeds.
These ill-thought through plans risk 8,000 job losses by 2021, and will make it even harder for HMRC to do its job properly at a time when it is already performing poorly. I know this from constituents who have tried to get in touch with HMRC at the best of times. So once again, it seems London wins while the North is getting a kick in the teeth.
You see this in transport infrastructure spending, while new major projects such as the Oxford-Cambridge rail corridor get the green light in last month’s Autumn Statement, plans to electrify the Leeds-Harrogate-York line were suspended over a year ago and we still await an update.
You see it in arts funding, where London gets 42 per cent more per person in culture funding that Yorkshire. In fact, of England’s nine regions, eight are getting half or less than what London is getting. This cannot be right. And you see it in sports funding too, where over the last two decades, the South East has received £563m in National Lottery sports grants, but Yorkshire has lagged way behind, receiving £376m.
Over the last few years we have seen Government offices, jobs and agencies rolled back and slashed in places like Yorkshire. These jobs were well-paid and secure and provided stability to many communities.
But the Conservatives are insisting on yet more cuts that will mean thousands more public sector jobs lost. Yes, we do need to harness the potential of the North and create more private sector jobs across our region, but my question to the current Government is also this: what happens to communities where the private sector is still growing and the public sector is a major employer? This is rarely answered because the Tories don’t know and frankly often don’t care. Instead of investing in our communities, they are happy to keep ploughing money into the overheated economy of London and the South East.
The Autumn Statement was an opportunity for the Government to set the record straight and show how it will invest in boosting economy across the country. Instead we are being faced with a £220bn black hole from Theresa May’s reckless plans to leave the Single Market, billions that could have been spent investing in vital infrastructure and creating jobs. And at a time when we desperately need more housebuilding, the Office of Budget Responsibility report predicted that overall the Government’s plans will actually mean 13,000 fewer affordable homes being built.
The Liberal Democrats have always fought hard to rebalance the economy to harness the potential of the North of England and give the region and its great cities and towns a fairer deal. We want to see real devolution so that local people have a say over the big decisions that affect them on issues like transport, housing and infrastructure.
But devolution must not just be a way to palm off responsibility for swingeing cuts. It should come with moving more resources out of Whitehall, both in terms of funding and staff.
This month, the Government had a chance to show it was moving in the right direction. It failed the test this time. Now we need to put the pressure on to ensure lip service to rebalancing the economy are turned into a reality.
Greg Mulholland is the Liberal Democrat MP for Leeds North West.