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While any benefits of moving public sector jobs round the country are unlikely to be ‘transformational’, as advocates of such policies tend to claim, where exactly these jobs are put will likely influence how large any impact will be. If this impact is going to be larger than the actual jobs moved, then they should be placed in a city centre.
Centre for Cities’ previous work has shown the growing role of successful city centres in the national economy. A good news story for the north of England in the last two decades has been the growth of the city centre economies of most of its large cities.
The challenge is that despite this growth, these city centre economies are still fairly small. This limits their ability to provide jobs for residents in their respective city regions. The relocation of public sector jobs to one of these centres would serve to support the further expansion of them. In this respect the relocation of part of the BBC to Salford Quays rather than Manchester City centre has probably limited the modest local impacts it has had. The same could be said for the DVLA and ONS locations in Swansea and Newport respectively, which are both out of town.
While some city centres have done well, many more in the North have struggled, which has limited job opportunities for people in and around them, and has affected the performance of their high streets. If instead the government chose to locate its economic hub in a weaker economy, if that economy was to fully benefit from the move, then it should be used as part of a wider plan to improve the economic performance of its city centre.
The Tees Valley, which has been rumoured to be the chosen location of the Treasury’s northern economic hub, would be one such place. But instead of placing it in the centre of Middlesbrough, reports suggest it will be put out of town on a campus by the airport. The choice of location is no coincidence – those following local politics will know that mayor Ben Houchen has taken the airport into public ownership.
But this would mean no city centre redevelopment. No increase in worker footfall to support the high street. And yet more employment that, because of its location, will encourage commuting by car.
This would be a mistake that has played out once already in Middlesbrough. Margaret Thatcher’s famous ‘walk in the wilderness’ photograph, which captured in one still the wider struggles of the North as the economy deindustrialised, was taken on the former engineering works on the edge of Middlesbrough. The determination to find another use for the site that this photograph galvanised meant that political attention and public money was focused on building office and retail space in a peripheral location, rather than dealing with the challenges that the city centre faced. Not only did this divert funds away from dealing with these challenges, but it is likely to have subsequently compounded them by pulling business demand away from the city centre too.
The subsequent rise in demand for city centre locations would have been difficult to see then. But the mistake should not be repeated. If the Government wants to get the most out of any move, it shouldn’t be place blind in where it puts these jobs. It should put them in a city centre.
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