GUEST BLOG

We faced Covid-19 with kindness, compassion & love. Now we’re preparing for our biggest challenge yet
Alison McKenzie-Folan, Chief Executive, Wigan Council, 22 June, 2020

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There have been smiles and tears, exhilaration and complete exhaustion.

The past months seem like a year and the normality of the time before the pandemic seems a lifetime ago.

Yet in such a short time we have achieved so much.

More than 600 of our staff have been redeployed to frontline services to support our humanitarian response in our communities and our wonderful care homes.

Our seven community hubs have delivered more than 23,000 food parcels, 3,000 people have been supported in our communities and we responded to more than 5,000 calls and web enquiries asking for help.

We advised more than 2,000 local businesses and distributed 4,300 business grants totalling £51 million.

In just a few weeks we created a new hospital discharge unit, a rapid response homecare service as well as a homeless hub in a town centre hotel.

Through Greater Manchester we worked 24/7 to purchase our own PPE to protect our frontline workers and carers in all our care homes and we succeeded.

Our armed forces HQ became our logistics hub and was supported by an army of volunteer veterans, and our frontline workers kept the everyday essentials running with 99% of bins collected throughout the pandemic and our registrars compassionately helped the many tragically bereaved.

But despite all that we have done in Wigan to get through this crisis the brutal reality is our biggest challenge may yet lie ahead with a recession set to devastate post-industrial northern communities like ours.

In anticipation of that challenge we have pulled a wide-ranging broad plan together to lead our borough of 320,000 residents through a society changed by the pandemic.

Instead of talking of ‘building back’ we talk of reimagining our future – an acknowledgement from our political leadership that we cannot go back to life as it once was.

It’s also recognition that the financial challenges facing us are such that we must fundamentally change as a council to meet them.

The Wigan Deal has become widely known in local government networks as our response to the challenges set by austerity.

Over the past decade instead of simply cutting budgets we nurtured the relationship between citizen and state and harnessed the powers within communities to find better solutions than we ever could, while meeting our budget challenges.

Yet with our society altered by Covid-19, and the looming profound recession, we anticipate an even greater test than the decade of austerity we have just emerged from with a predicted £25m savings needed for next year alone through loss of income and additional pressures.

We therefore need another shift in our approach to not just see us survive but to seize new opportunities to create a more equal, greener, secure and kinder place for our residents in the decades ahead.

A fairer economy, with local resilient supply chains, a more sustainable transport network, a healthier population and communities which continue to look out for and support each other can be a bright legacy to build after this sorrowful time.

Our borough partnership for community wealth building was formed just prior to the pandemic lockdown. With local partners we will use our procurement power to rebuild the local economy and support sustainable local supply chains.

Our SMEs, which make up the vast majority of our local economy, are particularly at risk and levels of unemployment unseen in a generation are a real possibility.

We must therefore make every public sector pound work hard for the local area and use our economic power to sustain sectors which generate social, environmental and economic benefits locally.

We will support the development of the low carbon economy in the borough to deliver local economic growth and employment opportunities.

We have already started the work to significantly improve our walking and cycling network backed by our Greater Manchester colleagues, Andy Burnham and Chris Boardman, and we will encourage the use of electric vehicles with increased charging points across the borough.

Our neighbourhood model has proven throughout the crisis to be the ideal way to deliver public services – a joined up approach with voluntary and community organisations and public sector partners based in a community as close to and as responsive to local need as possible – and we will continue to build on this.

It was through the kindness of people in our neighbourhoods that many were helped throughout the crisis and we now have an additional 800 more volunteers who stepped forward to help their fellow neighbours in the pandemic.

We even have officially the friendliest street in Britain in 2020 in Wigan!

Pemberton Road in Wigan won the title in a competition run by not-for-profit group ‘In Good Company’ – a testament to our great community spirit here in the north.

Our cultural manifesto ‘The Fire Within’ will be reignited to harness our community’s collective creativity with an emphasis on healing and re-connecting through the power of art.

A workforce culture encouraging remote and flexible working was already embedded prior to the lockdown and we will maintain a more physically remote but digitally connected workforce, with the benefits of a reduced carbon footprint and greater efficiencies.

And we will also be flexible in preparation for future Covid-19 waves and other crises with experienced teams ready to step up to support key sectors especially in health and social care to provide that future resilience.

We have not just looked at the ‘what’ but also the ‘how’ – and set out eight principles of how we will meet this challenge.

This will involve a deeper application of our Deal principles with partnership working as strong as ever, engaging with our residents to shape our approach, and continuing to give our brilliant staff permission to innovate.

This week we are launching a new Big Listening project to understand the impact of Covid-19 on the lives of our residents and help us build a co-created refreshed plan for the future.

We also look to the Government to repay the vital role Wigan Council, and councils across the country carried out, with an appropriate financial settlement.

The country would quite simply not have been able to cope without our many unsung local government heroes.

So, we are ready to go again here in Wigan Borough and take on the next challenge.

Forging our own path with creativity, humanity, energy and lots of kindness and love.

Alison McKenzie-Folan is the Chief Executive at Wigan Council. You can read Wigan Council’s ‘Recovery Principles and Priorities’ plan https://www.wigan.gov.uk/Docs/PDF/Council/The-Deal/Recovery-Principles-and-Priorities.pdf” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>here.