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Lack of civil servant ‘capability outside London holding devolution back’

One-third of civil servants should be moved outside London as part of the devolution of powers to local areas, according to a new report from the Policy Exchange.

The think tank says that the government’s current programme of devolution risks imposing responsibilities upon local authorities who do not have “the right set of in-house skills” to deliver them and that “the lack of capability outside London is holding devolution back”.

It says that increased devolution of powers to combined authorities and elected mayors should therefore be accompanied with a more even distribution of civil servants.

Around 20,000 civil servants moved out of London between 2004 and 2010 following recommendations in the Lyons review. A 2010 follow-up of the review recommended moving a third of civil servants out of London in the long-term.

The latest report says that this goal, which could lead to around 25,000 people being transferred, is feasible by the beginning of the next Parliament in 2020.

The report recommends giving local places control over their paybill for public sector workers in order to deliver this, and says that the move could save central government money because civil servants in other parts of the country earn around £3,000 less than their counterparts in London.

It also says that aligning civil servants more closely with individual areas will help make services such as employment support, housing and social care “personalised support” and be more “holistic and flexible”.

Report author Damian Hinds says that the current system of UK government needs to be restructured because it “has reached the point of diminishing returns”.

He adds that a change to “a presumption in favour of designing, delivering and administering service reform at the local level” is needed to address this, as well as focusing on “the value we get from the money we spend on public services rather than simply the costs”.

The government’s devolution plan has come under attack recently after a report from the Public Accounts Committee called its approach ‘unclear and inconsistent’.

A joint report from the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) and Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) accused it of misusing a “unique opportunity” by using an approach that is “stacked in favour of the status quo” and encouraging austerity.

Plans to transfer more Civil Service offices outside London also suffered a blow when the Department for Business and Skills confirmed recently that it is closing its office in Sheffield despite strikes in protest.

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