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Sketch: Could the BIS Sheffield office still be saved?

Mark Leach asks whether MPs have done enough to save the HE specialist civil servants in BIS Sheffield which the government is now planning to close.
This article is more than 8 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

Poor old Anna Soubry. She was in trouble in the House for her behaviour during a debate on this issue back on 28th January, and she drew the short straw again during Paul Blomfield MP’s backbench debate on the closure of BIS Sheffield on Monday.

Though her remit is on the “business” side of BIS, as a minister she had to defend the decision to close the BIS Sheffield office to centralise policymaking in London and maybe save some money. This time, she was able to report that a decision by the BIS executive board had been deferred from the 10th to the 29th of May and that board members were “actively considering” the other options raised during the consultation period.

Blomfield’s speech returned time and time again to the “extraordinary state of affairs” that no cost-benefit analysis has been done of the proposed closure. This position has been maintained through questions raised in “a Westminster Hall debate, in oral questions, in an urgent question, in written parliamentary questions, in over three separate evidence sessions of two Select Committees—the BIS Committee and the Public Accounts Committee—and in written correspondence.”

“We’ve done the maths” he confidently proclaimed, “and this decision will cost the department a little over two and a half million pounds a year, every year”. This analysis was informed by sight of an internal BIS briefing. Blomfield reported that a page entitled ‘Potential Savings from Sheffield Office Closure’ stated that over “90% of the potential savings are dependent on how many jobs are retained and moved to London… In other words, the more people reject the non-offer to up sticks, try to find a house in London’s hugely overheated housing market and move their children to different schools, the more money will be saved—and, to make sure of that, no relocation package was offered to the staff.”

There is significant external interest around this decision. The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union are balloting for strike action, and voices around the sector – including former BIS special adviser Nick Hillman – have decried the loss of policy expertise that could result as current staff are expected to follow their roles to Whitehall with no relocation expenses available.

As Hillman says, “the civil servants in Sheffield… hold BIS’s institutional memory on HE and often know more than the policymakers who are nominally closer to the centre of power”. The expertise and talent at BIS Sheffield is highly regarded as staff tend to spend longer in roles away from the Whitehall expectations of staff rotation. This has allowed them to build up expertise and knowledge that supports ministers in developing and delivering policy, including – it has to be imagined – the forthcoming White Paper on HE.

In all, 247 BIS staff work at St Paul’s Place in Sheffield on HE, apprenticeships and FE, alongside colleagues from the Department for Education and the Skills Funding Agency. As might be expected, this proximity allows for cross-departmental policymaking and, in one of the more illuminating moments of the debate, it was highlighted that DfE had expressed an interest in taking on many of the displaced BIS staff in order that numerous joint projects could be delivered on time.

The last time BIS Sheffield was moved – in 2010 from former offices in Moorfoot to St Paul’s Place – the total cost was over £33 million, including £25 million on acquiring a 250 year leasehold at St Paul’s Place. This was expected to realise running cost savings of £1.5 million a year, with additional returns coming from leasing Moorfoot space back to Sheffield City Council. If the planned closure goes ahead, it is unclear whether this 2010 move would have contributed any savings at all.

Soubry’s response to questions on the next planned move focused on apologising for the lack of time available in the debate rather than responding to Blomfield’s case – there were numerous “difficult decisions” made against a “difficult financial background” but despite many claims of “efficiency and effectiveness” there was no evidence presented that the closure of BIS Sheffield would achieve either. She frequently referred to the evidence given by Martin Donnelly to the BIS and Public Accounts committees, despite this being referred to by the chairs of both committees as “obfuscatory, if not misleading”.

In summing up, Blomfield noted that the admission that “no assessment of costs had been made” was “frankly extraordinary”. He called, along with others, for the National Audit Office to become involved in understanding the roots of the decision.

It is clearly in the interest of wonks everywhere that policymaking expertise is explicitly valued and recognised during turbulent times, and that the rich experience of the team at Sheffield can be brought to bear on the White Paper and other pressing HE policy issues.

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