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Donna Hall: Wigan took decisive action to avoid fate of Northants

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Reading about the financial crisis engulfing Northamptonshire CC is painful for me and I’m sure most chief executives in local government. The predicament Northamptonshire currently faces may be unique, issuing the first section 114 notice in nearly two decades, but the challenges they face are very familiar.

Deep funding reductions coupled with rising demand in children’s social services and adult social care has created a perfect storm for councils across the country.

In 2012 Wigan MBC was the third worst affected council by austerity, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Wigan too could have been facing bankruptcy if we had not reacted with a plan which completely changed the way we operate. We realised that closing a few libraries, changing bin collections and reducing school crossing patrols was merely surface dressing and would not have closed a £160m budget gap.

We needed something big and radical. We needed to fundamentally change the relationship between citizen and state. This new way of working, which we call The Deal, focused on driving out demand through working with residents.

Most of our social service resources go on a ‘chaotic’ 3% of the population, so we focused on the 22% who are ‘just coping’, preventing further deterioration into complex dependency.

Through The Deal we stopped doing things to people – it doesn’t work and costs a fortune. We started doing things with people. In adult social care we enabled our staff to have different conversations that focused on what mattered to residents rather than what was the matter with them.

We connected lonely people into social networks on their doorstep that were free or very cheap. Some packages of social care reduced from over £1,000 a week to £17 a week with a happier, more connected resident.

Rather than cutting budgets to the third sector we invested in them to the tune of £7.5m. We realised our community groups could deliver the services we once did but in a much better way because they knew their communities. Local swimming pools, libraries and community centres are now being run by the community for the community.

So far we have saved £125m and kept council tax rises low. While The Deal signalled a positive approach for our communities, in financial terms it was and remains about demand reduction. We are not alone, the hand many councils have been dealt has been a tough one and many have reacted with courage and taken risks. It is often when you are faced with the biggest challenges that you feel brave enough to make such fundamental changes.

We look back with huge relief that we acted so early on and decisively. Sadly for the likes of Northamptonshire, and possibly others, the damage wreaked by cuts to local government may be beyond repair.

Donna Hall, chief executive, Wigan MBC

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