Doing the Wigan walk

Under Donna Hall Wigan Council has proven itself one of the best in the country at not only adapting to austerity but actually improving some its services

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Donna Hall is recalling a lightbulb moment at Wigan Council, where she has been chief executive since 2011.

“We mapped out our interactions with a real family over a 20-year period and realised that as a system we’d spent over £250,000 a year intervening in their lives,” she says. “And the most heartbreaking thing was that they ended up in a worse position than what they started in.

“There had been hundreds of case meetings, interventions and plans. They’d been in and out of hospital, children’s social care and the justice system. But none of that money was actually being invested in them – we were just taking them through a system which was based on restraint and control.”

“People don’t want the most expensive care package. They need to be asked what they want.”

This was one of many realisations that contributed to a major cultural shift within the authority, which during Hall’s tenure has re-configured its relationship with Wigan residents. Changes have taken place across the council, according to Hall – who recently announced she would be retiring next year – although the process is not yet complete.

She says: “We completely bought into the idea that we should stop processing people and decided to turn the old approach on its head. Instead of spending 80 per cent of our time assessing and processing people – as we were previously – we now spend 80 per cent of our time and money supporting the individual.

“Some of our staff were quite nervous about working in this different way – if they don’t have a clipboard separating them and a resident they can feel a bit lost. We part company with people who don’t want to work in this system and help them get another job. We also appoint people on their attitude and compassion – we want staff to be courageous, positive and accountable to residents.”

Hall’s time at Wigan Town Hall has coincided with some of the most challenging circumstances for local authorities in recent memory. Previously chief executive at Chorley Council and deputy chief executive at Blackburn, she arrived at Wigan just as councils were being hit with swingeing funding cuts. Shortly after she came into post, her authority was named the third worst affected by austerity – with only Liverpool and Tower Hamlets faring worse. Her team was faced with the challenge of finding £160 million in savings.

Realising that closing libraries and tweaking bin collections would barely scratch the surface, they resolved instead to make fundamental changes to the way the council operates. What they developed became known as the Deal – an informal agreement between the council and those who live and work in Wigan to improve the borough.

As a Local Government Association (LGA) peer review put it last year: “The council describes the Deal as an informal contract with residents but the concept is bigger and wider than that and extends to how the council operates internally and externally.

“The aim is one of developing and encouraging communities to do more for themselves, as well as each part understanding and supporting the contribution of others.

“The Deal is an exemplar for local government in transforming how the council works both in terms of service delivery, reducing demand and also for its own internal working practices.”

Residents are asked to do things like recycle more, look after their health, use online services and volunteer in their communities. In return, the council pledges to keep council tax low and treat residents as individuals – designing flexible services which help people live the best life they can.

The results have been so impressive that the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, led by mayor Andy Burnham, is encouraging other councils to learn from Wigan’s example.

Rather than cutting funding to the third sector, the council invested in it and allowed passionate community groups to take on key assets. Isolated people have been linked into social networks on their doorstep which were free or very cheap – significantly reducing the cost of some social care packages and resulting in happier, more connected residents.

Old resource-heavy residential units for people with disabilities and autism have been closed and replaced with purpose-built accommodation, where instead of being warehoused people are given their own front door and independence with specialist support.

Although the Deal is about treating people as individuals it is also about demand reduction. And it’s working: at a time when pressure on services is rising, the council managed to balance its 2017-18 adult social care budget – one of only a handful of councils to do so.

Wigan has closed no libraries and despite having to find a further £27 million in savings over the next three financial years, there are no planned cuts to frontline services.

Hall says: “One man who had been living in a residential unit and who is obsessed with cowboys and rodeos recently went to Dallas on his own for his holidays. This is someone who people thought would be unable to catch the bus into Wigan on his own when he lived in a residential unit. It’s that simple – talk to people as if they are people, find out what they need and then try to make that happen for them.”

One of the first things Wigan Council did when faced with finding such mind-blowing savings seemed counter-intuitive. A community investment fund was created that put £10 million into local projects – a sum that has resulted in double the return over five years.

One recipient, Wigan Warblers choir, meets in a pub and is attended by people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma. Singing increases lung capacity, which improves health. Other funded projects include a rugby league memories group, community cafés, gardening groups and a community farm.

Swimming pools, bowling greens and community centres were among the assets transferred to enthusiastic people within the community, while the charity Book Cycle took on several of the town’s libraries.

When the council decided to close around 20 day centres for elderly people and those with learning disabilities that were deemed no longer fit for purpose, social workers instead tried to find out what residents enjoy and link them to appropriate groups.

In one case, a man with dementia – who had previously spent every day being collected by minibus and taken to a day centre he hated – was found to enjoy running and watching rugby league. His new support package involved being set up with a running buddy from a local club and being given a season ticket for Wigan Warriors rugby league club. The cost dropped from close to £2,000 a week to less than £20.

Hall says: “It’s as simple and profound as sitting with the person and finding out about them and what they need. I think people can get wrapped up in this process of diagnosis and risk assessment and referral. That’s where all our money is going – all that cost and we’re not seeing the whole person.

“People don’t necessarily want the most expensive care package. They need to be asked what they want.”

Wigan’s work with vulnerable families now unfolds in much the same way. Most social services resources are spent on just 3 per cent of the population, so the council focused its attention on the 22 per cent who are deemed “just coping” in an effort to keep them out of crisis.

Seven place-based teams were set up across the borough, in which council staff work closely with GPs, alcohol and drug workers, schools and the police, communicating daily about residents with support needs.

Instead of endlessly being processed and referred on, people are asked what they need – with help then offered in a bespoke way.

Last year, Wigan and Leigh Homes, previously run as an arms-length management organisation for social housing, was brought back into council management – saving the council £5 million in VAT overnight and giving the authority more control over the stock.

The council says almost 5,000 potential homeless cases were prevented in the past year alone through early intervention, with those deemed at risk
of losing their home offered support to help them maintain their tenancy, keep their job and children.

Hall is also chief executive of Wigan Clinical Commissioning Group, which is on board with the new process – as are the local NHS trust and police. Within GP surgeries there are now staff who understand all the social groups in their community and can link patients in to what is available if they come in with non-medical issues such as isolation, debt or stress.

Hall says: “Relationships are key. Every family that we work with now has a key worker who builds up a relationship with them and is their point of contact. Previously a family may have had 50 different people coming up the drive but none knew them or the kids. They might be able to talk about a child in a case conference but they don’t know the colour of their hair.”

The LGA noted that Wigan’s efforts have so far been impressive but added: “To an extent the Deal has been about addressing some of the difficult consequences of worklessness and deprivation, including poor physical and mental health, which have caused a reliance on the public sector, particularly the council and the NHS. The next step will be taking the approach to a greater level of prevention, and making inroads into deprivation.”

Whoever takes over as chief executive will be faced with this challenge, but Hall is no in no doubt that austerity has actually led to improvements at Wigan Council.

“It’s quite unusual for a Labour council to say austerity has improved things – but in some ways it has for Wigan,” she admits. “Of course, if we had more money we could do more. But austerity changed our mindset about the role of local government within a community, and we now connect with residents in a different way.

“We had to be brave about the things that didn’t work and that helped us achieve a lot of the savings. We’ve worked hard to redefine our relationship with residents. We now aim for a human connection – that’s what we’ve been doing for the last few years.”


‘Local government cannot run a deficit’

Councils are not like health services, local authority expert Graham Atkins tells Ciara Leeming

Councils have become more efficient under austerity – but maintaining service quality will be challenging.

That is the view of Graham Atkins, who tracks performance and annual spending on public services for the Institute for Government think tank.

“Overall, local authorities have become more efficient since 2010 by reducing costs but we are hearing mainly about staff being asked to do more of the same and less about overall service reform,” he says.

“The issue is that this seems unsustainable. Those early efficiencies are now becoming service cuts and local government is running out of ways to become more efficient.”

Since 2010, central government has cut grants to councils by around half, with further reductions possible in next year’s spending review.

Local authorities have so far cut their overall spending by about 25 per cent, increasing council tax and devolved business rates to make up some of the shortfall.

Atkins says spending is increasingly being focused on people who are most at need – with child services budgets, for example, being swallowed up by child protection and looked-after children, while children’s centres and youth services are being cut back.

Children’s and adult social services – both legal requirements – have been largely protected, while areas such as planning and arts and culture have seen cuts of between 25 and 40 per cent on average.

Efficiency – meaning the cost of service provision goes down while the authority maintains the standard of services – has been achieved in part through the public sector pay cap, which helped keep wage bills down.

However, Atkins points out the high levels of staff vacancies in social services at a time when the number of child protection plans is going up. It’s taking longer for staff to see people on care plans and fewer adults are receiving care packages. And the number of friends and family caring for older relatives is going up.

He says: “The really important context is that unlike other public services, local government cannot run a deficit. Councils have to find ways to deliver essential services and not go over budget. This is a very unusual position. An NHS trust, in contrast, can be bailed out by the Department of Health and Social Care.

“Some councils haven’t been able to withstand the financial pressures they find themselves under. One example is Northamptonshire, which has issued a section 114 notice for two years now, meaning they can only spend money on services which are legally required.

“It’s fair to say local government overall has been made more efficient since these cuts began. People may argue over whether that is a good or bad thing but the government said it wanted to improve the efficiency of local authorities and it has.”

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