London didn’t vote for Brexit, so why is it in charge of how it happens?

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Tobias Buck writes in the Financial Times this weekend about the shift to the right wing ‘Alternative for Germany’ being powered primarily by those in the East of the country feeling increasingly left behind. We in the UK had the same issue with the North of the country in the Brexit referendum. We now have a perfect opportunity to help address the issue, so why are we so determined not to?

The fact that we are leaving the European Union is, for many people, a tragedy. What is seldom mentioned though is the massive opportunity cost that the years of negotiations and associated consequences will be for parliamentary time, civil service capacity and ministerial focus. Given that there is no going back on the referendum result though, the challenge must now be to get as much value out of this mountain of necessary work, and much of the potential value is in how and where that work is done.

Once again, the Civil Service has missed an enormous opportunity that the establishment of a Department for Exiting the European Union (DexEU) presented. This could have been the first Government department to have a truly national presence and visibly move top level policy and decision making outside London and the South East. Instead, the Department is apparently based entirely in London (which voted overwhelmingly for Remain), staffed by university educated civil servants (who fit the demographic for Remain voters) and working exclusively with other parts of the London based civil service which operate in the same way. My point is not that this means the decision making will be flawed as ‘remoaners’ attempt to deliver the softest Brexit they can; my point is that this continues to paint a picture of a ruling class that is London obsessed and dismissive of the provinces.

It is easy to anticipate the responses to this challenge because they are the ones we always hear when the Civil Service is challenged for remaining in the most expensive city in the country.

First of all, we will be told that the Civil Service already has thousands of people outside London. The truth though is that these regional outposts are largely the legacy of being forced to create jobs in areas that were decimated by the death of heavy industry (Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle and Darlington etc.) and contain small functions with few senior staff or serious career routes. The volume roles are in the delivery of public services such as job centres, the DVLA, the Forestry Commission etc. rather than the design and direction of them.

The second line will be that the policy skills don’t exist outside London. This point is circular as the lack of opportunities to develop these skills is the result of the jobs not being available.

The third line is the need for access to ministers. The truth is that the number of officials who need regular access to ministers is tiny. The physical location of the main civil service decision making offices is purely for the convenience of those decision makers who are all based there.

I do accept that there will be some important policy roles outside London, and that there may be a gentle trend towards what I am asking for, but it is neither a) visible enough or b) fast enough to make the difference that we need right now. As long as decision making is seen to be the preserve of an elite group in London, the rest of the country will feel increasingly detached, angry and ignored. Meanwhile, the far right in the UK will be watching the success of ‘Alternative for Germany’ closely and attempting to grow their power base. We need to embrace a new vision for our country in which power is redistributed away from the minority in the South East corner and towards those people whose only voice is currently heard through the ballot box.

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