Among the various news reports circulating over the Christmas lull, one in particular was of interest. Taken from the Financial Times, and circulated on the ARRSE website (link is HERE), it revealed that there was allegedly opposition by civil servants from both the MOD and the Department of Transport to move the DFT into the MOD Main Building in Whitehall. The article highlights several points which are not hugely glamorous, but which do show some of the challenges of trying to run a central government department in London.
It is perhaps one of the most enduring images of the MOD that the department has dozens of buildings in London, all staffed with hugely anonymous officials hustling from one Kafkaesque activity to another. The public image is of individuals sitting somewhere between Winston Smith and the long suffering Bernard, while at the top of the tree, crusty old officials like ‘General Melchett’ from Blackadder sit in wooden panelled offices, ignorant of the lives of our brave boys who are fighting and dying in Afghanistan.
The reality though is that the MOD presence in London has been shrinking for decades. Less than 20 years ago the MOD had nearly 20 office buildings scattered across central London, not including British Army linked to London District or other Military sites like the St Vincent COMCEN. Today that figure has been reduced to just two, both on Whitehall – the MOD Main Building (built in the 1930s), and the Old War Office Building (OWOB) next door. Reports in the media suggest that OWOB is due to shut within the next couple of years, and be sold off to a private developer. It is reasonable to assume that MOD Main Building will in short order be the only MOD building in London.
The issue Main Building has is what on earth does it exist for? It sometimes feels to the author that people see Main Building as a combination of the Ministry of Magic, somehow home to great mystery or secrets, and the home of high farce. Relatively few of the Military or MOD Civil Service will ever work there, and much of the buildings functions operate in a fairly rarefied environment, focusing on strategic or political matters rather than day to day issues. It is often hard to put a finger on why the building matters so much, and speak to some in the bar, and they will often make a case that it could be rusticated en masse to some other location.
This is not helped by the undeserved reputation acquired by the building in the 1990s and early 2000s when it underwent a very complex (and expensive) refurbishment designed to make it safe and habitable for the next 40 years. Crucially, the ownership of the building also passed on, with the MOD using it under a PFI arrangement, where a complicated mesh of contractors and subcontractors took on responsibility for running the building on behalf of the MOD. Utterly false reports regularly appeared in the media about the supposedly luxurious surroundings, including chairs, art work and TV screens, all of which indicated a civil service divorced from reality. This has continued to shape public attitudes to the MOD, with many people whom the author has met citing their dislike of the MOD civil service as stemming from this refit.
In theory, there is space for 3-4000 personnel in the building, a figure regularly cited as being all Whitehall Warriors, although in reality this includes everyone from the security guards and cleaners, through to Ministers. Although exact numbers do vary, its fair to say that there is roughly a 50% split between civilian and military staff overall.
What is the building used for now?
There is a clear need for these staffs to be in London – Ministers have a requirement to conduct their Parliamentary duties, while the interface at the strategic levels means officials need to have easy access to other Whitehall areas. Despite the many technological advances, such as VTC and the like, there is still no substitute for being able to have people able to get into departments and start working together. This, coupled with the need for the various staff areas to be able to interact regularly, both which each other and Ministers means there is a definite need for a central HQ building, which brings together these joint staffs.
Every nation in the world needs a strategic HQ of some form or another for its military, and the MOD is no different. Indeed the author would go so far as to say that Main Building is perhaps a very good example of a fairly lean organisation running with far fewer personnel than its peers (for example, in the late 20th Century, there was reportedly 10% of the Canadian Forces based in Ottawa working in DND HQ).
The reason the FT article was so interesting to the author was because it showed vividly just how challenging the last 10-15 years have been for the MOD, and how plans made then have been continually adapted. Originally Main Building was intended to house some 3-4000 persons, and the building refurbishment was structured on this assumption. It was also assumed that the MOD would have a presence elsewhere in London, and that Main Building would be just one part of the wider London office network. Two things have happened to change this – firstly, the aforementioned closure of all the London office buildings, and also the rustification on a vast scale of MOD personnel out of London, which has come about in the last 5-6 years.
There have been two main drivers for this removal of staff from London – firstly, command structure changes which have seen much greater devolution of authority down to the various Front Line Commands, and which now sees the Service Chiefs working far more regularly from their FLC HQs. The second one has been the drive to reduce costs and send civil servants (and military personnel) out of London and into the regions. It is extremely expensive to house personnel in London, particularly Military staff. A few years ago, the authors office team worked out that the single most expensive person on the team was in fact the Corporal employed in an administration role. By the time his military salary, allowances, accommodation, travelcard and all the other costs associated with a London posting had been paid, his total cost was rapidly approaching £60,000 per year. By contrast, the civil servant who could do the same job would cost under £20,000. Rustication massively reduces employment costs, and provides jobs in more deprived areas – it also helps reduce costs in the planning round, although cynics may suggest that a 10-20% headcount reduction rarely leads to a similar reduction in work!
The net result, as the MOD moves away from several years of planning rounds, reviews and general drive to reduce headcounts is that MOD Main Building probably has more space in it than is needed for the likely future number of occupants. The challenge is what to do about this. On the one hand it makes little sense to keep large amounts of office space sitting empty waiting for someone to occupy it. But, moving new departments in brings fresh challenges in terms of access control, support to IT networks, and also the sheer cost of moving. As noted above, with the building now run under a PFI contract, any such move would probably cost a significant amount of public money to fund, as the interior of the building was adapted, and then reorganised as appropriate. This money would come out of someone’s budget, and would probably have potential present a PR disaster for the MOD. The inevitable FOI about costings would be a field day for the media, who would slam the MOD for spending large amounts of public money on moving offices and not buying body armour or bullets for ‘our brave boys’.
At the same time though, the wider government need is to reduce expenditure where possible and reduce the amount of occupancy of central London office space. So, here is one of those terribly difficult decisions- does one act in line with direction from the Government to reduce office space, save money and take an absolute PR beating (not to mention a lot of expenditure), or does one not make different use of the building, saving local budgets, but taking a PR beasting for wasteful use of space!
There is no right answer to this, and as the author is not involved in anyway on this, it would be wrong to speculate on the outcome. But hopefully readers can perhaps understand a little bit about the challenges of planning in Government – the MOD was refurbished to meet requirements to deliver a certain level of capability, based on the Government planning at the time. Now, through a change of circumstances, it finds itself with space to spare and yet is probably going to be lambasted in the press for whichever solution is chosen.