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Civil servants fail to show up to shiny new multi-million pound offices

Rendering of civil service offices in Blackpool
The new Blackpool development, which will house DWP staff, is forecast to cost taxpayers £100m

Taxpayers have been handed a multi-million pound bill for new government offices despite large numbers of civil servants continuing to work from home.

Public-sector workers will only be required to go into the office three days a week at dozens of new, state-of-the-art sites across the country.

It comes after the Government’s plans to move thousands of civil service jobs out of London were partially shelved amid concerns staff would refuse to stop working from home.

Developments in Blackpool alone, which will be used to house Department for Work and Pensions staff, are forecast to cost £100m, while new offices in Manchester for civil servants from a mix of departments are expected to cost £40m.

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Blackpool’s new offices are said to include “a large reception lobby” and high quality furnishings including “open-plan working areas, meeting rooms, quiet zones and other flexible workplace areas, with high levels of natural daylight and generous, airy ceiling heights throughout,” according to a local authority announcement.

But current guidelines for civil servants, which require staff to meet a minimum of 60pc in-person attendance, could mean the offices not being used to their full capacity.

In-office figures for staff across the civil service have never returned to pre-pandemic levels. Weekly figures published by the Government show that just 55pc of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) staff were in the department’s head office in the second week of April.

Other departments, such as the Cabinet Office, have much higher attendance rates – at 84pc in the same week. The lowest attended department that week was the Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland, where only 46pc of staff attended the office.

In September, The Telegraph revealed that thousands of HMRC staff at regional centres were not going into the office at all. HMRC workers, as well as other civil servants, are permitted to work from home several days a week under a “hybrid home-office working policy” approved by ministers in May 2020.

The raft of new offices are part of the Government Hubs Programme to move jobs outside of London and recruit more local staff to work in the civil service. Eight new offices were built between 2017 and 2021 in cities including Edinburgh, Leeds and Belfast, while more are planned in Newcastle, Glasgow and Peterborough.

But civil servants have been battling a forced return to offices since the end of the pandemic. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) recently urged workers to make formal complaints about the back-to-the-office push, offering pre-written complaint templates.

Civil servants have also appeared to criticise the new hubs in posts on forums on social media. One post left by someone who said they had worked in the civil service for 15 years said: “So you drive 90 minutes to a hub that doesn’t have enough desks or parking spaces, you pay £6 onsite or £8 offsite for the parking, then sit at a tea point because the desks are all booked and have a [Microsoft] Teams meeting because the teams can’t sit together – exactly like you’d do from home anyway.”

The Government did not say how much the total cost of the new offices would be when questioned and referred instead to the potential savings they could make to the taxpayer.

Ministers have set a target of 22,000 civil service jobs to be moved out of the capital by 2027 as part of the scheme, which closes and sells off old office buildings and builds new office space elsewhere.

It is understood that 42 government offices have been closed so far and that about 30 new ones are earmarked for development across Britain. According to the Cabinet Office, the moves are already generating £220m in savings per year.

However, senior MPs have previously raised concerns that working from home could stymie efforts to spread civil service offices across the UK.

Steven Boyd, chief executive of the Government Property Agency (GPA), the body overseeing the programme, told MPs of the Public Accounts Committee in 2022 that the hubs would have to be reduced in size by a quarter thanks to more home working. A PAC report published in July also found that the offices were too large given the proportion of civil servants choosing to work from home.

A Government spokesman said: “We have always been clear on the benefits of collaborative face-to-face working, particularly for the development of more junior staff. That’s why we have set out new guidance stating that civil servants across all departments and regions are expected to be in the office at a minimum of 60pc of the time, which departments are currently working to implement.

“Equally, we are committed to building an efficient and effective government estate to deliver value for the taxpayer – and Government Hubs play a crucial role in this. Since the programme launched, it has allowed us to close 42 offices, reducing operating costs by £220m per year.”

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