The miracle of Wigan – How a borough hit hard by austerity managed to come out victorious

In 2011, the council for Wigan was faced with the daunting inevitability of austerity. Somehow, and from somewhere, they would have to make a savings of £160m from their budgets. It was certain to decimate their local services and population. So many others had suffered from the remorseless effects of the Coalition government’s austerity measures, Wigan were certain to be no different. 

By today they have slashed over £140m in local spending but it hasn’t resulted in the terrible social effects that have been seen and felt elsewhere. In fact, measures of social well-being from life expectancy to happiness have improved. Wigan is a place of flourishing civic pride, a place where local innovation and the retrieval of a sense of social solidarity pulled people together to search a different way. It was what came to be known as the Wigan Deal. 

There were, broadly speaking, two central themes that underpinned the Wigan Deal.

The first one was focused on identifying problems early on and intervening to prevent people from ending up in a situation where they need to seek help from formal services in the first place. Instead of a top-down approach where service users were treated as subjects for interventions, they were seen as people with capability to do things themselves. The focus was not just figuring out what service users can’t do, but also what they can do. It was not just assessing what others thought they needed, but also asking them what they wanted. For example, one elderly resident used to be transported with a minibus to a day centre on a daily basis. It was clear that he did not enjoy this at all. A discussion with him revealed that he liked running and rugby. As a result, he was provided with a volunteer running buddy from a local community group alongside tickets to rugby games. As a result, his care costs were reduced from £2000 to £20 a week! Instead of just focusing on common problems service users have, the Wigan Deal seeks to tap into the individual interests and abilities they have. Another example is a 94 year old former teacher with dementia, who was supported by having her read stories to children in a near-by nursery alongside socialising with others who had also worked in education. The approach has been a success – the first five years of the program lead to 3000 fewer people depending on social services, resulting in substantial savings.

The second, integral idea that formed the nucleus of Wigan’s reforms was giving local community organisations a chance to participate in provision of services instead of solely relying on the public sector. A £10 million Deal For Communities Investment Fund was set up to help local community groups assume control and responsibility for supplying services and maintaining amenities such as libraries, community centres and sport facilities.

An example of this is the Beehive Community Centre in Wigan. It had previously been a neglected and underused centre in a deprived part of Wigan, providing services only twice a week. However, in a process that lasted seven months, it was transferred to the community and transformed into a vibrant generator of social capital offering various services to hundreds of visitors each week. It now provides the area with a café, children’s groups, fitness activities, advice services and room hires. This was all facilitated by a £10,000 deal provided by the Deal for Communities Investment Fund. The fund has been a success: it’s estimated that each £1 invested has yielded around £5.6 in public value and £2 in savings.

The central underlying principle of the Wigan Deal is the concept of partnership in which everyone is embedded into the responsibility of transforming Wigan. Whether this involves reducing pressure on services, searching creative resolutions to helping the elderly or recycling, every resident is treated as a participant, not as a “paying customer” whose relationship with the council is transactional, that of a taxpayer being provided with services. The council clearly articulates what it will provide for its residents, but also what it asks from them in return. This is a key part of the program – it sets out a coherent set of mutual obligations between the residents and the council. 

The result has been Wigan balancing budgets for adult and child social care while improving outcomes. The life expectancy in Wigan increased by 31 months for women and 19 months for men between 2011 to 2019, in contrast to the rest of England that witnessed a reduction of two months during the same period. The healthy life expectancy in the most deprived areas has increased by seven years.

The Deal has been popular: a survey in 2016 found that two thirds of residents were happy with how the council was serving the town. The Wigan council repaid their residents by freezing council taxes, in contrast to 97% of local councils in England who had increased theirs. It was a move that was hugely popular with locals and only further deepened the desire to participate in Wigan’s economic evolution.

Naturally this might tempt councils elsewhere to emulate the process. The precise solutions found in Wigan should be avoided as they reflect the particular and specific needs of Wigan. Instead councils should operate by applying local context when pursuing a better arrangement. It’s also harder to construct a sense of local civic attachment in areas of high housing insecurity as people are less likely to feel invested in places they see themselves as unlikely to be staying in for a long time. 

This is precisely what Wigan identified and tackled through this approach based on the principle of mutualism. By making everyone embedded in the town’s future, it replenished Wigan’s social capital by strengthening the sense of community. In a country where people’s attachment to places are increasingly vulnerable to market pressures, the Wigan council sought to create social bonds by making people willing volunteers in safeguarding the welfare of their town and protecting it – and the most vulnerable – from the worst of austerity. For those of us interested in matters of social cohesion and social bonds, there was a template laid out by Wigan in showing how taking pragmatic, yet caring steps to uphold the neighbourhood’s sense of “us” can entrench the feeling of local solidarity even as the worst of capitalism encircles menacingly. 

The story of this small town’s innovation shows that treating people as active participants capable of self-organising, rather than subjects to top-down interventions can transform our society from the ground-up. The world is changing, sometimes at an unsettlingly rapid pace – but the human instinct of neighbourliness and rootedness are evergreen characteristics that can still bring the better angels of our nature.

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