The Prime Minister’s “levelling-up” agenda is an important and exciting one. It will deliver a real boost to left-behind communities across the country. However, in order to achieve this to its fullest possible extent, the Government and civil service will require two things in terms of staffing:
1) Some experienced and capable leaders and staffers with a thorough knowledge of their regions, who wish to remain there in order to spearhead and support change locally.
2) Other experienced and capable leaders and staffers from those regions who are able to come down (or up, or across) and work in government / civil service roles in Westminster and Whitehall.
Aside from the odd fanciful notions expressed in the past couple of years (such as moving the House of Lords to York), we all know that large parts of the seat of governance will remain in central London and that this is not going to change any time soon, if ever. That creates a certain reality around the talent pool to be recruited from when the Government / civil service is looking to draw in staff to advise or otherwise work for it on a permanent, full-time basis: they need to be able to get to central London every day.
For younger recruits, this can be less of a challenge if they do not live in or around London already – they do not have commitments elsewhere. There are several names of people in their 20s that occur to me in this regard. People like these were able to come and live and work in central London precisely because they were previously living with their parents, so renting in London would be their only housing expense.
However, if there is now more of a focus on people slightly older (in their 30s or 40s, say) – which, I gather from party sources, there is – owing to their relative youth but greater experience, then this presents a problem.
These people are far more likely to already have commitments elsewhere; for example, they may have already bought a home in the regions. For them, it would be foolish in the extreme to sell up and move to renting in London; having got onto the property ladder, it would be a great misstep to get off it again. Renting out their property is not always an option, either – where else would they keep all their possessions, given the size of just about anything most people could afford in London?
However, aside from their main skillset, they will also have extensive experience of the issues faced by their region and it would be extremely helpful to be able to employ these people in government / civil service roles too, so that recruitment is not restricted to the Greater London catchment area.
This should be very important for the Government’s agenda; if the Prime Minister wishes to truly level up the country and “switch up” the way our society works, then he should not be limited to the Greater London crowd alone to help Get It Done.
In the Cummings era of this government, there was said to be a great focus on data science. That era may now be over, but some of its ethos prevails. “Helen” might be the most talented data scientist in the country, and eminently suitable for the role – but she is 35 and is just about getting by with her mortgage in Exeter. She is not going to be applying for that job on Parliament Street.
Accordingly, I propose that the Government buys up a large residential property in central London and uses this to house such people who apply for and are successful in obtaining a government / civil service role. They would be offered rent at a heavily subsidised monthly price (perhaps two or three hundred pounds per month), essentially just to cover maintenance expenses. The provision would remain in place for only as long as they hold their role, plus perhaps a two-week grace period either side to allow people to acclimatise and depart without issue.
It would, in essence, be a bit like a “residential version of Portcullis House”. Just as PCH is where such people might work, the new provision could be where they would live.
This provision would not be available to those already living in and around London, but solely to those with existing property commitments elsewhere in the regions, who would not be able to afford to maintain both a property there and the cost of a full rent plus bills in central London – but perhaps just a few hundred. There must surely be a great many potentially valuable people up and down the country who, but for this final hurdle, could certainly be of great use to the Prime Minister’s agenda – if they could only manage to live there!
There would also be some security for those involved, as they would still have a property to go back to once their role was over or if it did not work out.
Clearly, this would incur a one-time cost to find, buy up and renovate such a property, but that is essentially a budget line item in one fiscal year. Afterwards, the maintenance costs for that building would fade into the noise of all the others owned and maintained by the State anyway. And once in place, the value of being able to draw staff over from anywhere in the country, without the need (for them) to worry about accommodation, would clearly be very significant. Any future government would be able to make use of those facilities to better pursue its own agenda too.
It would open up a new dynamic in terms of the typical Westminster/Whitehall staffer figure, which – in my view! – is long overdue regardless. In doing so, and with a now-broader perspective from its staffers, the Government would be better informed and able to act more smartly to improve the living standards of communities all across the land.
My own MP and I are at odds over this – but then, he was used to being moved around the country before he won an election. He says that people move around all the time for jobs, and that jobs with the Government or civil service are no different.
I disagree – these jobs are about the governance of our country. They are not like any other, and there should be no barriers whatsoever to the State’s ability to recruit the very best and brightest for the roles it needs – especially those from the regions, given the current agenda. Where they might come from, and whether or not they could otherwise afford to maintain two residences at once, really should not matter in the slightest.
Anyone with experience in Westminster and Whitehall circles knows that the quality of staffing there makes up a large part of how effective the governance of this country is – regardless of who has been elected to be in charge of it. If the Government makes this move, it can help rebalance perspectives at the heart of governance towards the regions.
That, it has consistently said, is what it wants to do. Adopting this proposal would be of great help there.