Boris Johnson is planning a big shift of civil servants out of London in 2020 — notably by placing new government agencies outside the UK capital — as part of his efforts to “level up” opportunity and spread wealth across the country.
The prime minister’s allies said the priority would be to locate new government bodies promised in the Conservative party election manifesto in other parts of the UK, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The most prestigious is expected to be a new advanced science agency, inspired by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, to develop “high-risk, high-reward” projects promised in the manifesto.
Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, hopes to fulfil his long-held ambition of putting the UK at the forefront of advanced scientific research. He lists “Get Brexit done, then ARPA” as priorities on his WhatsApp account.
The new institution will sit outside UK Research and Innovation, the primary government funding agency for research, and will receive £800m over the next five years.
Given the leading roles in scientific research played by Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester universities, the agency may be based outside London.
Mr Johnson’s government is also considering plans to set up an “MIT of the north” — modelled on Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology — possibly in Leeds, to help train more scientists.
During the election campaign, Mr Johnson vowed to double government research and development spending to £18bn within five years as part of a “new wave of economic growth”.
He pledged to close the “opportunity gap” between rich and poor, notably by boosting the regions, and he is now under pressure to deliver after the Conservatives won seats traditionally held by Labour, notably in the Midlands and northern England.
One ally of Mr Johnson said there was a “strong desire” to move civil service jobs out of London. “We’re talking about some of the new bodies we want to establish, rather than simply moving existing Whitehall departments out of London,” added this person.
Other new government bodies promised by the Tories include a “single enforcement body” to uphold what Mr Johnson claims will be the highest employment standards in the world after Brexit.
There is also speculation that a new borders and immigration department could be created to oversee a post-Brexit immigration regime, while industries including fisheries will need government bodies to take responsibility for supervisory work currently done in Brussels.
One cabinet minister said Mr Johnson was particularly keen to shift UK government bodies into Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland “to demonstrate the value of the union”.
The election result put new strain on UK unity after Scottish and Irish nationalist parties won a majority of the seats at Westminster returned by voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The Scottish National party is seeking an independence referendum, while Irish nationalists are interested in a so-called border poll about a united Ireland.
David Duguid, Conservative MP for the Scottish fishing seat of Banff and Buchan, said: “There is a huge opportunity for increased employment in the fisheries sector and I can’t see why that should not include government jobs too.”
Sajid Javid, chancellor, is backing the initiative to shift civil servants out of London in spite of traditional Treasury reservations about the cost and disruption caused by “machinery of government” changes and the relocation of staff.