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David Smith says Wigan MBC has much in common with its Premier league football team. Jon Hanlon finds out how the f...
David Smith says Wigan MBC has much in common with its Premier league football team. Jon Hanlon finds out how the finance and IT director keeps his eye on the ball

Wigan MBC's director of finance and IT David Smith is celebrating Wigan Athletic's ascendancy to the Premier League for the first time in the football club's history.

He is primarily a rugby league fan and a season ticket holder for Wigan Warriors but, like the rest of the town, Mr Smith is celebrating the proverbial fairy-tale promotion less than three decades after the club first joined the football league.

Along with many at the council, Mr Smith hopes visits from big-name teams like Manchester United will help local people think big and may even rub off on the council.

It is hoped that the feel-good factor could benefit the whole town because sport is such a central part of Wigan's identity. It is also an integral part of Mr Smith's work, as he is the council's appointed director on the board of Wigan Football Company Ltd, which owns the stadium of Wigan Warriors and Wigan Athletic FC.

However, Mr Smith is no fair-weather fan or corporate profiteer. He cites holding the Rugby League Challenge Cup after Wigan beat St Helens in 2002 and the Arriva Trains Cup when Leigh Centurions beat Hull Kingston Rovers last year as two of his proudest moments.

There are parallels between the town's top-performing sports teams and its top- performing council, ranked 'excellent' by the Audit Commission three years running.

The theory that people's low expectation can lead to a belief that any service is a good service is summarily dismissed by Mr Smith, who says: 'Some inspectors have said that the people of Wigan have low expectations, but I say come and sit with me in the west stand and you will see that is not the case. It is patronising to say people in Wigan have low expectations.

'We are not well resourced, but we have made the most of what we have got, and we are going to keep going as far as we can. Of course, there are no guarantees, but we are working hard. We are setting high standards for ourselves and ensuring we are open and honest in everything we do.'

Mr Smith is clearly proud of the council's achievements, which include a charter mark for the revenues and benefits service, and a number of regeneration schemes.

He adds: 'The council is working with the Royal National Institute for the Deaf in order to achieve the Louder than Words charter, which shows best practice towards deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

'This is a staff-led initiative and a number of staff have learnt sign language. In some ways, it comes down to pretty simple things, like making sure there are signs around the place.'

Mr Smith is enthusiastic about changes which are taking place at the council, including a public/private partnership project to build a new shopping centre, the Grand Arcade.

The nearby town of Leigh is being developed, with a sports village to encompass a new stadium for the super-league club Leigh Centurions, which will share the ground with local football team Leigh RMI.

New offices are being built, as well as a base for the sixth form college and the area around Wigan Pier is being redeveloped.

Mr Smith is also an important player on the national scene, as one of the core financial advisers to the Local Government

Association. He has just finished a tenure as president of the Society of Municipal Treasurers and was a member of the Department for Education & Skills' education funding strategy group - an area of policy he still feels passionate about.

'We oppose the direct schools grant because it weakens the link between schools and other council services, like social services. The government sees it as giving schools more autonomy, but there is a tension between democratic accountability and the extent to which schools are accountable through their governing bodies. Our relations with local schools are excellent and they appreciate the service we provide.'

As an adviser to the LGA, Mr Smith is an authority on the local government funding review being carried out by Sir Michael Lyons, as well as the pressures on councils to make efficiency savings as a result of the

Gershon review.

He adds: 'The impact of the Gershon review will start to come through in the autumn. The 2006-07 spending review will be fairly tough. Deputy prime minister John Prescott will have to be as successful as he was last year in ensuring there is the cash available for local government.'

He points out that the majority of councils are spending more than their share of the spending assessment. Wigan is spending 2.5% more than the spending settlement and Mr Smith knows there is a risk that, like others, the council could soon be expected to tighten its belt.

No matter what happens on the local government landscape, Mr Smith retains a keen interest in the detail of local government finance policy.

His career began when he was taking a geography degree, and began talking to staff at the City & County of Swansea about the way tenants were selected for council housing.

His initial interest was then fired by a thesis on local government spending as part of a PhD at Cambridge University.

This fascination with the way local government finance works has led to roles as an adviser to the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of District Councils, as well as on discrete areas such as the revenue support grant and housing finance. He also chaired the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy's review of local income tax.

All this means that the people of Wigan can rest assured as far as the council's finances are concerned, which is probably more than can be said for the hopes of Wigan Athletic in the Premiership next season.

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