Closure of UK tax offices in rundown towns jeopardizes leveling scheme

Last October’s decision to close the HM Revenue & Customs tax office in the deprived town of Bootle in north-west England was nothing short of a hammer blow to business Nadeem Patel’s newsagent.

After two difficult years battling the coronavirus pandemic, the decision saw more than 1,000 jobs relocated to nearby Liverpool city centre. Patel said customers at his store in the New Strand shopping center had fallen by 50% on some days, with lucrative cigarette sales falling by almost two-thirds.

“We stopped selling sandwiches because nobody comes to lunch or have cigarettes anymore,” he said. “We really feel the drop in attendance. Every day, I wonder what the future holds for us.

The opposition Labor Party said the closure of the Bootle Revenue Office – part of a nationwide restructuring by HMRC – goes against the ‘levelling’ promise of the Tory’s 2019 election manifesto aimed at redistribute wealth more evenly, especially in the North of England and the Midlands.

Under HMRC planwhich dates back to 2015, 170 smaller and aging tax offices in cities and towns are being closed, consolidating most of its 65,000 in 13 regional centers in major cities, such as Liverpool Birmingham and Manchester.

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Restructuring has continued since Boris Johnson became British Prime Minister in July 2019, although his Conservative party won a landslide election victory later the same year, propelled by a mass defection from Labor voters in parts of the country. targeted by the leveling promise. .

Johnson had promised to breathe economic life into what he dubbed the UK’s “left behind” towns. But during his tenure, more than 7,700 HMRC jobs have moved to regional hubs in already prosperous towns, according to data provided 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 town of Sunderland (243) and Wrexham (249) in Wales.

Further closures are expected over the next two years in Cumbernauld and Dundee in Scotland, and Nottingham, Peterlee and Salford in England.

Lisa Nandy, shadow upgrading secretary, said the move had “stripped” cities of thousands of good, skilled jobs. “The leveling is starting to look like nothing more than a scam gimmick, giving us little pots of money to spruce up our main streets while taking away the good jobs that support them,” she said.

Union representative Dave Gibbons says an alternative office block could have been found in Bootle © Colin McPherson/FT

“You would think that in the context of a ‘race to the top’ the government might want to reassess,” said Peter Dowd, Labor MP for Bootle, standing under the now vacant Triad office building. “But they just kept going regardless.”

HMRC said in a statement that the strategy would help the government’s “modernization plans” and was part of promoting growth and job opportunities in every region.

According to Dave Gibbons, a local PCS representative, the Triad building itself – an eerie 1970s tower – will not be mourned by HMRC staff. But he said a modern alternative could have been found at Bootle.

The Triad office building in Bootle, which was used by HMRC © Colin McPherson/FT

When a third HMRC office in Bootle closes in October, it will leave Liverpool, a culturally vibrant city with myriad attractions worth £3.3billion a year to the economy, home to 4,000 office staff taxes.

Bootle, which has neighborhoods in the top 1% of the UK, has no such attractions. Ironically, the struggling Merseyside city was rejuvenated in the 1960s and 1970s by moving government offices to the area. “It’s like they flipped a switch and sent it into reverse,” Dowd said.

Bootle includes some of the most deprived areas in the UK © Colin McPherson/FT

There has also been no review of HMRC’s restructuring after the government announced plans to move civil servants from London to northern cities in 2020.

Last year Michael Gove, while still Cabinet minister responsible for policy, said the pledge would involve moving 22,000 civil servant jobs out of London by 2030 under the leveling scheme .

Gove, who has since become upgrade secretary, said the plan to open major offices outside London, including a Treasury center in Darlington and a new base for the Foreign Office in East Kilbride, would ensure that policies were “developed and implemented by people from local communities”.

In reality, however, public service jobs have been created much faster in London than elsewhere over 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.

Bootle MP Peter Dowd: ‘It doesn’t matter that jobs are moving ‘just down the road’, as the government likes to put it. Having 2,000 people in one place, five days a week, was a significant amount of money for the local economy” © Colin McPherson/FT

Martin Kelsey, group secretary for HMRC workers at PCS, said the Revenue Authority shutdown program was “not compatible” with the vision set out by Gove.

“Gove is making this big, big statement, but the reality of what we are dealing with at HMRC is very different. We’ve seen thousands of experienced staff leave since 2015 because of people who couldn’t get to these regional hubs,” he added.

The Department of Leveling, Housing and Communities declined to comment.

HMRC offered Bootle staff a chance to find other civil service jobs. There is also travel support for staff moving to Liverpool and the option to work from home two days a week. He said the Liverpool hub offered “safe and modern working spaces”.

Trade at the Strand Shopping Center has fallen sharply since HMRC moved staff out of town © Colin McPherson/FT

Bootle suffered a further blow last March when Santander Banking Group, another major local employer, announcement it was pulling. The city’s request for a £17m regeneration grant from the new government Upgrade funds was also rejected.

Dowd said it was cold comfort that HMRC jobs had been moved just four miles from Liverpool. “It doesn’t matter that jobs are moving ‘just down the road’, as the government likes to say. Having 2,000 people in one place, five days a week, was a significant amount of money for the local economy.

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