The National Cyber Security Centre picked its London HQ building not because it was the best or most cost-efficient location – but because the agency “prioritised image over cost”, a Parliamentary committee has said.
NCSC’s HQ in the English capital’s Nova South development, a glitzy commercial building near Westminster, was procured in breach of GCHQ’s own rules on leasing commercial buildings.
Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) said in a report that NCSC “ignored warnings” over the cost and suitability of its new base when it set itself in mandarin-friendly Victoria. Rather than picking “a ‘tech hub’ such as Shoreditch”, as recommended by their own consultants, NCSC’s founders threw their teddies out of the pram until they got an HQ in the altogether more refined location of Westminster.
“Moreover, as the change in location criterion was driven by the need for the NCSC to be more Whitehall-facing than industry-facing, ‘image’ should have then become proportionately less important,” thundered the irate MPs of the ISC, which investigated the property deal. The committee published its full report on the embarrassingly wasteful bunfight yesterday.
Even though GCHQ (which supplied NCSC’s founding personnel) had commissioned property consultants to scout out London’s available commercial buildings, NCSC’s founders knew where they wanted to set up shop – and when their consultants gave the wrong answer, the spies started moving the goalposts and calling in ministerial favours.
Panicked by the prospect of being dumped in Shoreditch, or at the very least being assigned to Canary Wharf alongside such household names as the Pensions Ombudsman and the Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, GCHQ threw a wobbly. It was simply essential, declared the spies after the consultants recommended east London, that the fledgling NCSC be housed near to Westminster.
Unimpressed by the spies’ histrionics, Sir Mark Lyall-Grant, then national security adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron, refused to sign off on their proposed Nova South location – prompting GCHQ to call on the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, to overrule him. Lyall-Grant was GCHQ’s “principal accounting officer”, meaning the final decision on property rental should have been his. Yet NCSC was Osborne’s project, the Chancellor having announced the new centre’s creation in 2016, and he wasn’t going to stand for his new baby being born into hipster heaven.
Shoreditch and Old Street, long promoted by London’s tech sector as trendy places full of innovation and expertise, was once a grimy area full of tired old buildings until so-called gentrification. While spies might not have wanted to rub shoulders with the bearded brigade, Nova South reportedly comes in at £6.4m a year.
Stung by the ISC criticism, NCSC wheeled out current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who made a statement to Parliament yesterday saying: “As the public-facing part of GCHQ and the UK’s lead technical authority on cyber security, the NCSC required a workspace which balanced the need for accessibility and operational capability to defend the UK against cyber threats effectively.”
He also said “lessons will be learned”, for what it’s worth. ®
Your correspondent has visited Nova South. On the inside it looks like any other office building, though it’s across the road from Victoria Station which is mildly handy – as is the number of coffee shops and restaurants on the building’s ground floor.