In response to the 2008 financial crisis, the UK government decided to implement austerity measures across the country to try to stabilise and revive the economy. Local authorities had to contend with significant cuts to their budgets. Reduced government spending impacted the north-west of England disproportionately, and Wigan in particular. Wigan was the third worst affected area in the country and one of seven local councils nationally to have its budget cut by over 40 percent between 2010 and 2017.
These cuts were substantially higher than in other parts of the country: “urban areas in the north of England saw their spending cut by an average of 20 percent, compared to 9 percent for those in the south-west, east and south-east of England”. The impact of these cuts in the Greater Manchester area, where Wigan is situated, are equivalent to GBP324 per person. By 2020, the total amount of cuts will reach GBP160 million and Wigan will no longer receive government grants, meaning it will lose all centralised government funding and will have to rely solely on local council tax and business rates to fund its budget.
Recognising the challenge it faced, Wigan Council decided that it needed a radical new approach if it was to continue serving the community. In 2014, it launched The Deal which is “an informal agreement between the council and everyone who lives or works [in Wigan], to work together to create a better borough”.
At its core, The Deal centres on a “new social relationship” between the council and local community. The council’s role in The Deal involves its pledge to freeze council tax and foster the development of community relationships, while it encourages residents to get actively involved in their local communities by recycling more, reporting local maintenance issues such as graffiti and illegal dumping, and volunteering in local groups.
The Deal is based on a number of principles that inform its approach. One of the primary principles is creating a “new relationship” between all members of the community – from the council, its employees, and public sector workers to residents, community groups and local businesses. Another principle is to take an asset-based approach to services, whereby community capabilities are deployed to promote self-reliance and independence. Similarly, providing services in local groups where people know and trust each other, rather than focusing on expensive public services that are less effective, is an important principle. Other key principles include having “an engaged workforce with core behaviours” and the “freedom and permission to innovate”.
The Deal aims to reduce costs by actively involving residents in the community, eliminating wasteful resource usage, and reducing demand for services like healthcare through prevention. Wigan Council has encouraged residents to access services online: in-person or phone interaction costs the council GBP9 and GBP5 respectively, significantly higher than online interactions at 15 pence. The MyAccount website enables residents to access information and services and has over 70,000 registered users. Similarly, the Report It app allows people to report local issues such as litter and pollution. Wigan Council also promotes the community provision of services. The Deal for Health and Wellness takes a community-based approach to health. Rather than focusing on treatment alone, prevention is an equally important aspect of healthcare.
Transferring responsibility to the community is both a result of reduced budgets and the recognition of the importance of people’s investment in their local area. For example, The Deal for the Future contains the Community Asset Transfer scheme, which hands over control and responsibility for some services to local groups. The council transfers ownership of certain former council-owned buildings to community organisations who run and manage them, providing services such as sporting facilities, allotments and libraries. Former chief executive, Donna Hall, says that “fundamentally [The Deal] signals a positive approach for individuals and communities that encourages self- reliance and independence through an equal partnership”.
Other examples of The Deal include The Deal for Communities projects, whereby the council invests in local community initiatives with the aim of getting projects up and running, so that community groups can take full control of certain services and facilities. Projects that have received investment from the council include: the Unify Credit Union, which is a “savings and loan cooperative providing affordable financial services to members of the public”; Healthy Arts, a series of workshops run by local artists for people with mental health needs or dementia; and the Wigan Athletic Community Trust, which gives vulnerable young people access to sports, education and recreational facilities.
The public impact
Despite the difficulties posed by significant budget reductions, Wigan Council has successfully managed to reduce its spending while improving outcomes for its residents. It has reduced its expenses, frozen council tax, kept services running, and improved the health and life expectancy of residents.
With over 40 percent cuts to its budget, it was essential for Wigan to find ways of reducing its spending on services. By February 2019, The Deal had saved Wigan Council GBP141.5 million “through efficiency measures, reforming services and reducing demand”. Moreover, it is on target to meet its total savings of GBP160 million by 2020 without further efficiency measures. One strategy for reducing savings was getting more residents to access information about services online.
To uphold its side of The Deal, the council has pledged not to increase council tax. Since 2014, council tax – widely criticised for its regressive nature, disproportionately burdening lower-income households – has been frozen in Wigan. This is a particularly notable achievement, which stands out in contrast to the rest of the country, where 97 percent of local authorities planned to increase council tax by an average of 4.5 percent in April 2019.. Donna Hall acknowledged that “people work really hard to pay that money. It's the largest proportion of tax a lot of our lower-paid residents actually pay, so making sure that we keep to our part of the deal and freeze it as we have done… [has] been really important to my politicians to make sure that we keep to that part of the deal.”
Residents’ part in The Deal involves getting involved in the community, which has seen community groups running certain services such as swimming pools, community centres and libraries. The Beehive Community Centre provides one example of a successful project that is run under the Community Asset Transfer. What had been an underused centre in an isolated part of the community was transferred to the community over a seven-month period to form a new space staffed by volunteers, offering services and activities for residents.
In addition to involving community groups in services, The Deal has seen Wigan invest GBP10 million in community projects through The Deal for Communities Investment Fund. The council invests in a variety of projects ranging from small investments of up to GBP2,000 to cultural education investments of up to GBP20,000. Money invested in projects has yielded positive returns, with an estimated GBP2 of savings for every GBP1 invested.
The Deal has had a positive impact results in social care and health in terms of wellbeing and budget reductions. Between 2011 and 2018, Wigan Council saved GBP25 million on adult social care after restructuring its services under The Deal. Wigan Council closed 20 day centres serving elderly people and people with learning difficulties, and tried to find out what interests those people had and how they could be served by the community.
In some cases, the cost of individual care packages dropped significantly. One daycare patient’s care costs fell from almost GBP2,000 to less than GBP20. He was “a man with dementia – who had previously spent every day being collected by minibus and taken to a day centre he hated – [and] 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.” This typifies the new approach of reducing costs by finding out and meeting people’s interests through the local community.
By 2018, the council had balanced budgets for its adult and child social care. Wigan Council’s deputy chief executive, Paul McKevitt, explained: “We’ve changed the type of care we facilitate, moving from a one-size-fits-all care package to one that builds on a person’s strengths. This is different for everyone, and in some cases it wouldn’t typically be recognised as a care package.”
As a result of achieving these positive outcomes, Wigan Council has been recognised by a number of organisations and won several awards. In 2013, it was praised for its asset-based approach by Nesta and the Local Government Association, becoming one of six “Creative Councils” for its “pioneering work in trialling radical new ways to deliver public services”. In 2016, the council was accredited with a one-star rating by Best Companies for its “very good” level of workplace engagement. In 2019, the Local Government Chronicle made Wigan the “Council of the Year” at its LGC Awards for “a level of excellence and innovation that takes its work well beyond basic service provision” and the lessons it can impart to other councils.
Although Wigan Council has achieved some positive results despite its funding cuts, it is worth noting some key challenges that remain. Wigan continues to experience higher level of deprivation and inequality in comparison to the rest of England. The council needs to continue to makes savings on a reduced budget and ensure that its ageing population is cared for. Moreover, it needs to reach adults and children who are not well-equipped to participate in work or education. So far, Wigan Council has shown great determination to change how it operates, and it will have to continue to think creatively to meet its ongoing challenges.
Written by Ella Jordan
Public Confidence Good
Public confidence in The Deal and its projects has been generally good, although there has been some criticism, saying that the council is cutting costs by transferring responsibility to citizens.
A borough survey in 2016 showed that 65 percent of residents were happy with the way the council runs things, 79 percent support the Community Investment Fund, and the number of residents who agreed that the council provide value for money increased by 8 percent from 42 to 50 percent.] A public consultation revealed that 83 percent of residents were supportive of The Deal’s principles. In 2018, Donna Hall said that “despite the challenges we have faced since 2012 we’ve seen resident satisfaction with the council rise by 50 percent”. Despite the increase in resident satisfaction with the council, some have voiced concerns that The Deal is burdening citizens with providing more of their own services with fewer resources.
Communicating to the public what the council has been doing has been important. Paul McKevitt explained that “we’re communicating in lots of different ways and making sure we demonstrate what we’ve achieved. To do this, we are using more social media, presentations at our public meetings and making sure the messages in our council tax leaflet and magazine are right. Key to our success has been achieving and communicating annually how we’ve been able to freeze council tax.”
Stakeholder Engagement Good
There is active involvement of stakeholders across the many aspects of The Deal, although there is less evidence to show that other stakeholders were involved in The Deal when it was first introduced.
The Deal was designed and implemented by Wigan Council, which had to explain clearly to stakeholders –such as council staff and the public – what it involved, as they had not been involved in its design. The council presented the new approach and emphasised how the council would spend its time and money supporting individuals rather than processing them. Staff were required to adapt to the new approach: Hall said that “we part company with people who don’t want to work in this system and help them get another job”. Owing to funding cuts, there has been a significant reduction in the number of staff working for the council: between July 2010 and June 2015, the number of council staff fell by 22.65 percent from 5,752 to 4,449.
Although its initial planning was not done in consultation with stakeholders, the nature of its operating structure is much more stakeholder-focused. Wigan Council involves members of the community at an individual and group level as well as consulting with local business. The council engages residents in a number of ways. The Deal in Action brings residents and council workers together on different projects in the community to create a “two way conversation” between residents and the council. The council also uses public consultations to gather feedback from residents. “In September last year, the council launched The Big Listening Project to engage with residents to find out what they would like the borough to look like in 2030. More than 6,000 people took part in the consultation and this feedback is now being used to develop The Deal 2030 which will be the borough’s strategy for the next 10 years.” Donna Hall stresses the importance of hearing from stakeholders, The Deal being “very much a partnership with, between citizen and state rather than everything being able to be fixed... with no limit on the cost”.
Political Commitment Strong
There has been strong political commitment for The Deal within Wigan Council. Paul McKevitt said that it was made possible by “a politically stable council, with a long-standing leader, prepared to take some difficult, long-term decisions”. Donna Hall was committed to finding a solution to budget cuts, explaining that “we knew we had to do something radically different”.
Clear Objectives Strong
The Deal’s central objective is of reducing spending on services while getting residents involved in their local communities. This involves setting goals for both council and citizens.
The council has set out its own objectives in “Our Part” of The Deal, including: “keep your Council Tax as one of the lowest; help communities to support each other; cut red tape and provide value for money; build services around you and your family; create opportunities for young people; [and] support the local economy to grow.” The Deal’s objectives for citizens – “Your Part” – include the following: “recycle more, recycle right; get involved in your community; get online; be healthy and be active; help protect children and the vulnerable; support your local businesses [and] have your say and tell us if we get it wrong”.
There are ancillary objectives that are neither precisely defined nor based on specific targets – other than a reduction in spending – but which do encompass a range of measurable childhood, health, and community outcomes, such as reducing childhood poverty, and increasing life expectancy and library usage.
The Deal has been somewhat experimental in its approach, rather than based on any existing model, although the council drew on a variety of sources when creating it.
Donna Hall explained how the council “kind of begged, stole and borrowed little bits of it and pulled it together, from the Nesta work, from Hilary Cottam’s work, from the fact we've got no money, so we had no choice really”. The Deal was not rigidly designed ahead of implementation, but instead “it’s evolved to become a contract between citizen and state which is completely different from any other local government model we've ever seen”.
There were some potential challenges facing Wigan Council when implementing The Deal. Its ambitious nature required a new form of engagement between the council and citizens that had not been evident elsewhere.
Not only did the council have to reduce spending but it also needed to get more done with fewer staff. McKevitt acknowledged that “for all this to happen, a lot had to change within the council. Having the right people was essential to moving fast enough. In addition, linked to reducing spend was reducing headcount. So we had a deal for staff. We recognised we were asking them to do more and work differently. In turn, we communicated that we would protect their terms and conditions, support and invest in them.”
Despite its own budget cuts, the council invested in the third sector to support communities’ development. Funding invested in community groups was budgeted on a four- to five-year basis, which allowed the council to invest in the community, although any projects that were ineffective could be stopped without affecting the overall financial plan.
Wigan Council is responsible for managing how The Deal is implemented across the public sector and the community. Increasingly, the council is shifting the top-down provision of services towards the community and moving away from “building-based services to flexible provision accessed within community settings”. It is currently in the process of scaling back, so that it has a small core of staff “providing strategic corporate and enabling support functions”. Donna Hall described how public services “need a much more modern, a much more listening, much more intuitive and in touch model”.
Wigan Council has some mechanisms in place to collect data that is related to The Deal’s objectives. However, these mechanisms were not specifically designed to measure how well The Deal is working.
The council’s report, State of the Borough 2017, contains many metrics related to The Deal’s objectives, which are broken down into three sections reflecting three life stages: Start Well, Live Well, and Age Well. In addition to the report, the council provides openly accessible data on issues such as council tax, council spending, waste services, and land assets as part of its aim to be as transparent as possible. In much the same way as in the 2017 report, the data is connected to The Deal but was not collected with the sole purpose of measuring its objectives.
There has been a reasonable alignment of interests between key actors involved in The Deal, The council has been instrumental in encouraging employee motivation and commitment to its work, while many community groups have been actively involved in achieving The Deal’s aims.
As part of The Deal, Wigan Council introduced BeWigan Behaviours and the BeWigan experience. The former establishes attitudes expected of staff, while the latter was an interactive tour of the council’s work and future. There are three behaviours that inform how staff should approach their work: “Be Positive, Be Accountable, be Courageous”. To build on these values, the BeWigan experience aims to develop trust between organisations and staff members across all levels. Its purpose, according to Hall, is to get staff “to challenge their own thinking about how they view residents, how they view communities and try to really rebuild that relationship back up with our public servants working in that place, to try not to judge them, but to try to help them”. This approach has proved popular with staff, 95 percent of whom rate it as “excellent” or “good”. Similarly, staff morale and engagement has improved and Wigan Council has been placed in the top quartile of The Times’ Best Companies to Work For.
Councillor David Molyneux acknowledged the fact that residents had also played an important part in making The Deal happen, saying: “I want to thank our residents for embracing it, for recycling, volunteering, and for helping to transform our borough. We would not be in this position without them.”