Life in a Northern Town: Some thoughts on the Treasury move to Darlington

Amongst the many goodies dispensed by the Chancellor in his Budget last week was a special gift to the North East: an announcement that a significant part of the Treasury would move to Darlington. Over the next few years 750 senior civil servants will move up to County Durham. Yes, it is cynical politics aimed at shoring up newly-won ‘red wall’ seats and at bolstering the position of Ben Houchen, the hyperactive Mayor of Tees Valley. But even so, surely this is unalloyed good news, on multiple levels?

Not if you read the comments from a few local people on social media. Some expressed the rather sour-faced view that moving suits up from London wouldn’t create any jobs for Darlington residents, whilst others said that “the best we can hope for” are office cleaning and taxi driving roles. This is both depressingly defeatist and economically illiterate. For one thing, even if every one of the 750 suits is someone relocating from London, they will spend in local businesses, buy local houses, their kids will attend local schools, and generally they and their families will participate in the community and spend money. New companies will spring up to serve the needs of ‘Treasury North’ and its staff, both directly and indirectly, and those firms will bring jobs and opportunities for local people.

This trickle down effect of relocating public sector roles from London is demonstrable and significant. For example, despite some early quibbles it is now generally accepted that moving large parts of the BBC to Salford has brought measurable economic growth. This has included a cluster of new and innovative firms locally, making up “the second largest cluster of digital and creative business in Europe” and creating thousands of new jobs. In Darlington we can expect to see a similar process, including via spin offs such as economic consultancies founded by former HMT officials. In my own sector, I wonder whether we’ll see a few new public affairs folk operating in the area?

In many ways, though, all this is the least we can expect. In fact not everyone offered the move to Darlington will take it, so there will be spaces to fill right away. Over time the Department will need new recruits; people in the area now in education can hope to work at the Treasury one day without needing to leave the North East. With luck and good judgement schools and universities will adapt to meet this demand for highly qualified staff, bringing further knock on benefits.

But the economic and educational fillip for the North East is really only a small part of what Treasury North can deliver. Perhaps the greatest advantage of all is the change of perspective it ought to inspire. Removing people at the epicentre of policy-making from the Westminster and London bubble will allow them to see at first hand the impact of their decisions and recommendations so far away from the capital. If that doesn’t lead to more humane and responsive thinking it is hard to see what will.

For me, then, moving part of the Treasury to Darlington is a great idea, and one that probably should be repeated for other Government Departments. Of course there are risks, the greatest of which being that if Ministers stay in London to be close to Parliament the most senior officials will try to do the same, meaning that the North East will not receive the best civil servants and could become a backwater. Ministers will need to fight this natural instinct. Parliament can help too by allowing Ministers to strike a balance between being present in the Chamber and sitting in their office up north. But all this can be overcome, and in difficult economic times Treasury North should be one big success.

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