I wish I could boast that the Wigan Deal was a fully-formed plan ready to be taken off the shelf to deal with austerity, but this was not the case. We began our journey of public service reform through some external influences, local experiences and a sheer dogged determination to protect residents as best we could, faced with a proposed 40 per cent reduction in our budgets over 10 years. I had been Chairman of Finance during the Thatcher years and had no wish to repeat that experience. So what were we to do?
We had secured the services of Hilary Cottam in a project in Wigan’s most deprived community working with a cross-departmental team to develop community resilience. By helping families resolve problems before they became a crisis, we could see the value of community development and early intervention both in financial savings and improving outcomes for people.
Around this time several local organisations began to respond to the needs of those who slip through the cracks in the welfare system. One, Compassion in Action, began by supplying food and toys for Christmas to hard-pressed families. It has since expanded its range of activities to support ex-offenders, recovering addicts and those with mental health issues. How could the Council encourage more such valuable contributions?
To enable change to happen we needed have the right culture, resources, public support and a steady nerve to follow an untrodden path. Staff were the key to success, and we encouraged them to be innovative (and not to fear mistakes), take a different, “asset-based approach” and have a different kind of conversation finding out what was needed not just what was available. They needed to work across traditional boundaries in neighbourhoods. To help this, the Chief Executive and I did road shows for groups of staff both to explain but, more important, to hear feedback. We had built up reserves to be used for “invest to save” not prop up budgets.
To support community groups where many authorities reduced this discretionary spend, we increased the funding through the Community Investment Fund where we could ask the question, what will more money do to help local people. We also arranged road shows for local neighbourhoods to explain both what the Deal meant in general and particularly in their area. Feedback was sometimes lively but worthwhile to show we were listening. One of our intentions was not to pass on our financial problems to local residents already suffering from the impact of austerity by raising the grossly unfair Council Tax. For six years we have maintained our local call only increasing by the Social Care precepts.
The Wigan Deal is still evolving to reflect both changing needs and public response. We believe our approach to service delivery, working through and with local people and communities, has not just enabled us to come through our financial challenges but also benefitted lives in the Borough. These reforms need to reflect place and cannot be achieved by top down central government directives.
LGiU members can read our briefing on What lessons can be learned from the Wigan Deal?