In a guide to the north-east market town for London-based civil servants suddenly facing the prospect of relocation, the paper attempted to list what the place was best known for.
Railway heritage, Quakers and Vic Reeves were on its list before the sound of straws being clutched could perhaps be heard. “In 1939,” the article told any reading mandarins, “Darlington had the most cinema seats per head of population in the United Kingdom.”
Safe to say, not all officials are understood to be relishing the shift in which 750 jobs will move here as part of Boris Johnson’s plan to ultimately move 22,000 government roles out of the capital.
But in Darlington itself, such potential reluctance can do nothing to dampen enthusiasm. Even on a wet and windy locked-down Thursday, the excitement that this Tees Valley town – population 92,000 – is set to become home to one of the major offices of state is palpable.
“It’s the best thing to happen to the town since I got into politics,” says council leader Heather Scott OBE. “And that was 45 years ago.”
Why so brilliant? Because the move – announced as part of the budget and a symbolic plank of the Conservatives’ levelling up agenda – will result in investment, regeneration and economic growth here on a scale not seen in generations, she reckons. Where the government leads, others will now follow.
“It’s been a tough year so this was just the news we needed,” says Scott, herself a Tory whose party won control of the authority in 2019 for the first time since the Seventies. “Now, we just want to make it happen as quickly as possible.”
Is she worried by those rumours that civil servants are not necessarily keen to move? A look of complete bafflement. “Why would anyone not want to come and live in Darlington?” asks the 81-year-old.
The correct answer, of course, is no reason at all.
This corner of north-east England may have suffered savagely at the hands of both deindustrialisation and austerity over the past half century but Darlington undoubtedly has much to offer.
There are good schools, streets crammed with independent businesses and Victorian market hall currently undergoing a £2 million redevelopment that (so the pitch goes) will turn it into a foodie paradise. There are three theatres, an expanding university campus and – perhaps the true sign of any up-and-coming area – an independent gin distillery. That’s called Little Quaker and is located down a cobbled yard, a stone’s throw from both a coffee roastery and a Syrian restaurant.
All the same, when a similar government move shifted the Office for National Statistics out of the capital to Newport, in South Wales, in 2005, 90 per cent of staff quit instead of relocating. A report by the Centre for Cities thinktank 12 years later found the move had ultimately “done little” for the local economy while actually hampering the organisation through the sheer loss of institutional experience.
Might the same happen here? Another look of perplexity from Scott.
“If staff do leave – and I still don’t see why they would – that makes this an even greater opportunity for people here,” she replies as we stand outside the town hall. “Just because this is the north doesn’t mean we don’t have the skills. Of course we do. ”
Exactly why chancellor Rishi Sunak chose the town for the new HQ remains unclear.
What we do know is it beat off competition from Newcastle, Leeds and Bradford. What we also know is that all three of those cities have Labour MPs and Labour local authorities. Darlington does not. The town – traditionally part of the Great Red Wall – voted for both a Conservative-led council and conservative MP, Peter Gibson, in 2019. Ben Houchen, the directly elected mayor of the wider Tees Valley, is the third point of a trio of Tories in power here.
A cynic might wonder if this was a simple case of jobs for the boys?
“I hear what you are saying with that question,” says Alan Marshall, the council’s cabinet member for economy. “But I think Darlington’s own strengths were recognised. We have great transport links here – trains that run direct to London; an airport 10 minutes away – a skilled workforce and we have a Department for Education office already in town. We have the expertise to accommodate the Treasury and hit the ground running.”
Whatever the case, few people here care about the potential politics at play. In fact, everyone The Independent speaks to is delighted at the announcement. Whisper it if you want but this may be the kind of thing that wins elections. If the north will be the key battleground next time the country goes to the polls – just as it was in 2019 – then this relocation has already guaranteed a considerable chunck of goodwill up here.
“Chuffed with it,” says Steve Roddy, a 55-year-old butcher with Mulholland and Son in the market. “Can’t wait to have them here. They’ll feel like millionaires moving to Darlington.”
A short walk away at The Cheese and Wine Shop, owner Claire Barnes is equally pleased.
“It will put Darlington on the map,” she says. “It will be a great opportunity for jobs hopefully. It will bring in people from out the area so it will help the hospitality and leisure industry.”
Can she reassure skeptical civil servants that the 240-mile relocation would be good for them. “Well, I relocated and I’ve never looked back,” the 33-year-old replies. “Although that was only from Middlesbrough.”
Much talk is already turning to where the new HQ might be, and when it will happen.
“It’s brilliant news but I think it would be a wasted opportunity if it wasn’t right in the centre,” says Jasmin Robson, owner of Hatch Luncheonette which, as it happens, is located right in the centre. “It has to be somewhere the staff can walk out and spend money on lunch and drinks after work – where that footfall will really boost local businesses and attract more to be opened.”
One suggestion– supported by the council – is for the town’s new Feethams House to be used.
The £8.5 million, five-storey, Grade A office complex was opened opposite the town hall in 2020 but, at present – save for being used as a vaccination centre – remains largely vacant. It’s council owned and Treasury staff could be in there by spring if wanted.
Another possibility would be for a purpose-built complex with the Central Park business and education site being mooted as a possible site. That’s a 10 minute walk out of the centre but closer to the main Victorian train station and already home to Teesside University’s National Horizon Centre.
Yet wherever it ends up being, the most important thing is that people from the North East are among staff taken on – that’s according to Nick Stringer, a 34-year-old company director, currently having his lunch in the town.
For him, if the vast majority of current civil servants do indeed decline to move, that’s no bad thing.
“I get that London is the capital and there are good reasons for government departments to be based there,” he says. “But if all there is [in government] is London staff, their views and experiences don’t reflect the rest of the country.”
The focus on the fact that the new campus will be good for Darlington, he suggests, obscures a perhaps more significant benefit – that it will actually be good for the whole of the UK.
“This will now be a Treasury that understands the world beyond London better, understands how people live in the regions,” he says. “How can that not be a good thing?”