It is estimated that public spending this financial year will be £840.7 billion. That is an increase of 3.6 per cent of the total of £811.8 billion in 2018-19. As inflation is currently 1.9 per cent, that means we are likely to see an increase in “real terms”. In 2009/10, the total level public spending was £634 billion. If we allow for inflation to get the “real terms” figure, that would be £835 billion for last year.

The upshot is that state spending continues at roughly the equivalant level of extravagance that we had under Gordon Brown – all the talk of “austerity” is nonsense. At least that is for central Government. Within the total, there is some variation. If we look at items of state spending for 2009 and for the current year, we can see some have risen very sharply. Debt interest is up from £31 billion to £52 billion. Then we have “net expenditure transfers to the EU” up from £6.4 billion to £15 billion – no austerity there. Some other areas have seen significant “real” increases – pensions (mostly as there are more pensioners), the NHS, overseas aid…

For councils, it is a bit different. Total local government expenditure this year is due to be £182 billion. In 2009/10, it was £162 billion. If it had been increased in line with inflation, it would have reached £213 billion by last year. There is lots of complexity beneath those figures, but I think it is fair to summarise that overall, central government has not had spending cuts, while local government has. I am the first to say that we stll have vast sums of wasteful and extravagant municipal spending. But let’s also throw the occasional bouquet. Savings have been found while the satisfaction rate with local services has generally held up pretty well.

Voting Conservative is generally a rather good idea if you want the mission to achieve value for money to be pursued in your town hall. But in general the response from councils, of all parties, to finding they have less money to spend has been positive. Some have just shrugged, cut front line services, and blamed central Government. However, most have risen to the challenge to be innovative, to find efficiencies, to reform the way they operate and reflect on what they do and what they achieve.

In this context I was pleased to see a report from the King’s Fund regarding Wigan Council. It says:

“Over a period of six years, public services in Wigan have been through a major process of transformation, based on the idea of building a different relationship with local people. The new approach to delivering services has become known as the ‘Wigan Deal’….The Wigan Deal is an example of ‘asset-based’ working, in which public services seek to build on the strengths and assets of individuals and communities to improve outcomes. Although other areas have explored similar approaches, Wigan is notable for the scale and consistency with which these ideas have been applied….a key part of the process has been closer working with the NHS, voluntary sector organisations and others to establish a common approach. A citizen-led approach to health and care…Wigan’s journey shows it is possible to achieve substantial savings while protecting or improving outcomes, but only if services are genuinely transformed and upfront investment is available to help bring about new ways of working.”

The council employs a thousand fewer people than it did in 2010. Some of the changes have been politically senstive. For instance, the report says that the “deal” involved closing day centres, providing a better alternative. The savings for adult social care were as follows:

  • “Reassessing all care packages to identify opportunities to deliver care in a more cost-effective way, making better use of individual assets and tailoring care to personal needs.
  • Moving away from a building-based model of day care support, which has meant that the number of day centres that the council operates has reduced from 14 to 4, with the council instead investing in community organisations providing a more diverse range of alternatives at less cost.
  • Redesigning supported accommodation based on multiple-occupancy housing, with care and support shared across several tenants, strengthened community connections and investment in assistive technology.”

While spending has gone down, the quality of the services provided has gone up:

“Healthy life expectancy has increased significantly, bucking the trend for stagnation seen in the England-wide figures. Care Quality Commission assessments indicate that the quality of social care services in Wigan has improved, and Wigan performs well compared with national and regional benchmarks at supporting people to leave hospital and to remain in the community rather than in long-term residential care.”

The council has switched from “a transactional commissioning model to a more collaborative one in which voluntary and community sector organisations are seen more as partners than service providers and are actively supported to develop and improve.” The approach is “to allow families to progressively take greater control over their lives, with professionals working as facilitators, helping participants to make their own plans and to strengthen their capabilities – including their ability to build positive relationships, to work, to be part of a community and to live a healthy life.” The staff feel they have “permission to innovate”. One social care manager was quoted as saying:

“It is having the freedom to work in a way that makes it better for our residents in Wigan. I have got freedom to work in a different way.”

James Winterbottom, the Director of Children’s Services for Wigan Council, gives a sense of the change with reference to case conferences in child protection. “In the past, case conferences were dominated by large groups of professionals meeting with parents, each taking their turn to describe their concerns about the family, ” says the report. “Everyone started to describe how terrible this family was… At the end of the meeting, everyone agreed the need for a child protection plan, and ideally the family would understand what this meant from being involved, but they did not have a clue what had happened to them.” Now we have fewer social workers and better outcomes:

“A similar meeting today might involve eight members of the child’s extended family and only two social care professionals….The answer is here in this family – how can we help you to resolve these issues? They own the issues. The whole family wanted to come to a solution. In the old model, that child could well have ended up in care.”

Innovation was applied to ensure enough foster care was available:

“The council on at least one occasion has offered to pay for an established foster carer to have their home extended because the family were willing to accommodate more children but could not do so because of space limitations. The council calculated that the cost of building an extension would be less than the cost of placing a child with an independent foster carer out of the area, and that this solution would also be better for the child. Interviewees told us that there is a culture of being open to trying out bold ideas like this where a case can be made for them.”

Red tape was cut:

“There was also a recognition that staff needed to be freed up to work differently, spending more time working directly with residents and service users. The bureaucratic burden needed to be reduced so that less time was spent on processes and procedures that did not directly contribute to improving outcomes. The intention has been to build a culture in which the ideas for improvement come from the front line, with managers then enabling changes to take place.”

Margaret Thatcher once described her aim for Britain “the State as servant and not as master”. Wigan may be run by Labour councillors. But it strikes me that is the principle they are seeking to apply. It is greatly to be welcomed.