EXCLUSIVE: Mike Hughes talks to Alex Burghart at the Darlington Economic Campus to hear more about expansion plans in the town


Not too long ago, the idea of the Government setting up regional hubs to Level Up the country was seen as spin - a token gesture that might end up with a rotating team of civil servants dropping into an office block every other week.

Darlington is the one place in the UK that turns that on its head.

Belfast, Cardiff and Salford have also been chosen to be part of the ‘Government Hubs Programme’, but Darlington is the crown jewel – with the plans now fully in for the third Government building in the town, this time it’s a new-build on the site of an eyesore former car park on Brunswick Street, facing St Cuthberts across the A167 and with the fire station and the police station as neighbours.

The new site will form part of a full Government campus of three buildings, including Feethams House and Bishopsgate House, and will increase the total number of Darlington-based civil servants working to over 2,300.

More than 800 civil servants are currently based in Darlington across the Treasury, the Department for Education, the Department for Business and Trade, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities, the Office for National Statistics, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Competition and Markets Authority, the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.

Beat that, Belfast.

It all means the Government has seen something special about our town – it has certainly noticed that it is part of a combined authority run by a Tory mayor and that it is on the East Coast main line, so those two big boxes are ticked – and it is sending key staff including the Chancellor and the PM to work here.

The Northern Echo: How the new site will lookHow the new site will look

So for the big announcement that the Government Property Agency has submitted a planning application to Darlington Borough Council to build the new four-storey hub, Parliamentary Secretary in the Cabinet Office Alex Burghart was in town to see it all for himself and look happy standing in a derelict car park.

The MP for Brentwood and Ongar has had a range of Parliamentary roles, including being Minister for Skills, before taking his current role in October 2022, encompassing such responsibilities as AI in the public sector, aspects of the COVID-19 Inquiry and Grenfell Tower Inquiry and day-to-day management of cross-cutting functions across Government.

He was genuinely impressed by what he found, and the commitment being made to doing a proper job of it all and showing how Levelling Up can work.

Sitting in the Ministerial office at DEC, he told me: “We didn’t want to set something up on the edge of town in some sort of former industrial park where it was a bit out of sight and out of mind. We wanted something that a lot of people would go past every day and say the government is here and it’s part of our town.

“As someone who has been watching this quite closely for a number of years now, it was only spring 2021 when the Chancellor said we were going to place the campus here in Darlington. When you think that’s only three years ago, and we had the disruption of Covid at the same time and then the war in Ukraine and yet we’re sitting in a building which has got a lot of very, very capable civil servants and a really fantastic modern office space going to be built.

“It’s a hub for policy making for the whole country, and that’s really exciting.”

The chancellor he mentions was, of course, Rishi Sunak, whose Richmond constituency starts just a few miles down the road. That makes it handy for the Friday trips to DEC, but Alex says his boss’s blueprint for spreading out government runs much deeper than breaking up his journey home.

“When the Prime Minister was chancellor, he had a real vision for what could happen here. It was obviously part of Levelling Up, but he didn’t want anything tokenistic. That’s why this is the first ‘second HQ’ that the Treasury has ever had in its long, long history. A lot of thought went into where that might be, but we wanted it to be way out of London.

The Northern Echo: Alex Burghart at DECAlex Burghart at DEC

“We needed an area with very good transport links, some strong universities in the broader region and where there was already some civil service experience - with about 750 people in Department for Education.

“We wanted it to be somewhere we could do something really new – and now a few short years into that journey we’re going to have about 2,300 people based in Darlington. That’s about three times what there was before we started this – and the vast majority of them are going to be locally recruited which is just what we set out to do.”

The split between local recruits and relocation should end up as about 80:20, so 20 per cent of the staff at the new expanded campus will be Government staff moving offices, and 80 per cent will be recruited from the region. One big plus is that many of the 20 per centers will have moved down to London to take up jobs and then have an unexpected opportunity to return to come home and continue growing their careers here.

Their stories and those of the local recruits will power the whole shift away from centralised government.

Alex adds: “What we are starting to get already is Treasury workers who are based in an environment where future manufacturing is happening. It gives them that additional perspective and that’s exactly what Levelling up was about - making sure that all of the viewpoints in the country are reflected.

“It’s not just Westminster trying to distribute opportunity, it’s also about Westminster itself benefitting from the opportunities that are all over the country.”