The decision last October to shut down the HM Revenue & Customs tax office in the deprived town of Bootle in north-west England was nothing short of a hammer blow for Nadeem Patel’s newsagent business.
After two tough years battling the coronavirus pandemic, the decision meant more than 1,000 jobs were shifted to nearby Liverpool city centre. Patel said custom at his shop in the New Strand shopping centre had fallen by 50 per cent some days, with lucrative cigarette sales down by nearly two-thirds.
“We’ve stopped selling sandwiches because no one comes in for their lunch any more, or to pick up ciggies,” he said. “You can really feel the drop-off in footfall. Every day I wonder what the future holds.”
The opposition Labour party said the closure of Bootle’s tax office — part of a nationwide restructuring by HMRC — flies in the face of the “levelling-up” promise in the 2019 Conservative election manifesto aimed at redistributing wealth more evenly, particularly to northern England and the Midlands.
Under HMRC’s plan, which dates back to 2015, 170 smaller, ageing tax offices in towns and smaller cities are being closed, consolidating most of its 65,000 into 13 regional hubs in major cities, such as Liverpool Birmingham and Manchester.
The restructuring has continued since Boris Johnson became UK prime minister in July 2019, despite his Conservative party securing a landslide election victory later the same year, propelled by a mass defection of Labour voters in the parts of the country targeted by the levelling-up pledge.
Johnson had promised to breathe economic life into what he has dubbed the UK’s “left behind” towns. But during his tenure, more than 7,700 HMRC jobs have moved to regional hubs in already-thriving cities, according to data supplied by the Public and Commercial Services Union.
Places affected include the English towns of Shipley (924 HMRC jobs lost), Stockton-on-Tees (375), Preston (335) and Grimsby (117), as well as the city of Sunderland (243) and Wrexham (249) in Wales.
Further closures are expected during the next two years in Cumbernauld and Dundee in Scotland, and Nottingham, Peterlee and Salford in England.
Lisa Nandy, shadow levelling-up secretary, said the move had “stripped” towns of thousands of good, skilled jobs. “Levelling up is starting to look like nothing more than a con trick, handing us small pots of money to spruce up our high streets while taking away the good jobs that sustain them,” she said.
“You’d think in the context of ‘levelling up’ the government might want to reassess,” said Peter Dowd, Bootle’s Labour MP, standing beneath the now-vacant Triad office block. “But they just pushed on regardless.”
HMRC said in a statement that the strategy would help the government’s “modernisation plans” and was part of promoting growth and job opportunities in every region.
The Triad building itself — a grim, 1970s tower block — will not be mourned by HMRC staff according to Dave Gibbons, a local PCS rep. But he said a modern alternative could have been found in Bootle.
When a third HMRC office in Bootle closes this October, it will leave Liverpool, a culturally vibrant city with myriad attractions that are worth £3.3bn to the economy annually, home to 4,000 tax office staff.
Bootle, which has neighbourhoods in the top 1 per cent most-deprived in the UK, has no such attractions. Ironically, the struggling Merseyside town was regenerated in the 1960s and 1970s by relocating government offices to the area. “It’s like they’ve flicked a switch and sent it into reverse,” said Dowd.
There was also no review of HMRC’s restructuring after the government announced plans to move civil servants out of London and into northern towns in 2020.
Last year, Michael Gove, when he was still Cabinet Office minister overseeing the policy, said the commitment would involve moving 22,000 civil servant jobs out of London by 2030 as part of the levelling up agenda.
Gove, who has since become levelling up secretary, said the plans to open big offices outside London, including a Treasury centre in Darlington and a new base for the Foreign Office in East Kilbride, would ensure policies were “developed and delivered by people drawn from local communities”.
In reality, however, civil service jobs have been created much faster in London than elsewhere in the past two years with a spike in policy experts to deal with Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since the Tories took power in 2010 there has been a net increase of 15,401 civil servants in London and a net decrease of 58,005 elsewhere in the UK, according to official figures.
Martin Kelsey, group secretary for HMRC workers at PCS, said the tax authority’s closure programme was “not compatible” with the vision set out by Gove.
“Gove makes this big, grand statement, but the reality of what we’re dealing with at HMRC is very different. We’ve seen thousands of experienced staff leave since 2015 because of people who couldn’t commute to these regional centres,” he added.
The Department for Levelling up, Housing and Communities declined to comment.
HMRC has offered Bootle staff a chance to find other civil service jobs. There is also help with commuting costs for staff transferring to Liverpool and the option to work from home two days a week. It said the Liverpool hub provided “safe and modern workspaces”.
Bootle suffered a further blow last March, when the banking group Santander, another big local employer, announced it was pulling out. The town’s application for a £17m regeneration grant from the government’s new Levelling Up Fund was also rejected.
Dowd said it was scant consolation that the HMRC jobs had moved just four miles away to Liverpool. “It doesn’t matter that the jobs are moving ‘just down the road’, as the government likes to say. To have 2,000 people in one place, five days a week, was a significant amount of money for the local economy.”