It has been six years since we launched the Wigan Deal to forge a new relationship with our residents and communities. It’s been a similar period of time since we started creating a new ‘place-based model’ for integrated public service delivery in our borough.
In the past few weeks we have been incredibly grateful for both.
When the full extent of the COVID-19 crisis began we quickly needed a practical way of supporting the communities that span the 70 square miles of our borough and the vulnerable residents that are part of our 320,000 population.
Our place-based model working in partnership with our strong community network was our foundation. This model is made up of seven ‘service delivery footprints’ together covering the whole of the borough each with a 30,000 to 50,000 population. This size is intentional, so that each footprint is small enough to effectively serve its community but large enough to deliver economies of scale.
Each service delivery footprint (SDF) has its own manager who acts as a convenor for the public services and community-based organisations in that place. In normal times the SDF manager would host weekly ‘huddles’ where representatives, such as police, fire, community health, GPs, the Department for work and Pensions and a range of council services, meet to discuss cases and collaborate on solutions. This model serves to break down silos and work closely with residents as well as community groups and community leaders and the assets in those neighbourhoods.
Around this footprint we have a healthy network of trusted community groups, community interest companies and social enterprises, many supported by investment through the Deal to address health and social inequalities in the borough. In the COVID-19 emergency that has unfolded, we quickly and gratefully utilised these existing structures of place-based working and a strong network of community and voluntary organisations.
We created seven co-ordination hubs and harnessed the energy, skill and knowledge of our voluntary and community sector and our residents.
What this meant in practice as we reacted to COVID-19 was that we immediately had frontline workers from across the public sector responding to the crisis in the communities they were serving and communicating daily to each other.
We had daily check-ins with community and voluntary organisations and, if required, offered them support to help keep them going as self-isolation and social distancing measures brought huge uncertainty.
Cross-party elected members were integral to the response, generating neighbourhood volunteers to look after their vulnerable neighbours.
A main contact – the SDF manager for each locality – was put in place, a base administrator to provide co-ordination, a nominated trusted community organisation to be a volunteer hub, a direct connection to foodbanks to channel donations and distribution and an extended network of community centres and groups.
We had direct contact with local health providers through GP practices, primary network leads and community link workers – crucial if we were to have effective co-ordination in our response to those on the shielded list and those self-isolating – providing both social and medical support.
We utilised established relationships with local businesses for suppliers, transport, volunteers and logistics support.
Our redeployment of council employees is now focused on our SDF approach to help with deliveries, coordination and health and safety.
On a broader scale we have established a new helpline for vulnerable residents and put postcards through the doors of residents we already know are likely to need support. All these requests for help will be routed through the community hub network and we are encouraging all our residents to #BeKind.
Our #BeKind movement was launched before the COVID-19 crisis but is proving to be a perfect rallying call for people to pull together and look after one another. Our place-based principles have created a functioning critical response among frontline services with the safety net of the community and voluntary sector ensuring vulnerable residents are kept safe.
It is the epitome of a community-based partnership model.
With so much valuable volunteering already taking place on a neighbourhood level, through family and friends, in streets and estates, we recognised it was vital we got the balance right. We wanted to strengthen and empower this and not interfere or be a block.
We hope our approach will see us through the difficult weeks and months ahead and further on as we look to rebuild our local economies and pick up the myriad of challenges this crisis will leave behind.
In this period of uncertainty, anxiety and isolation, people are finding renewed value in communities and in local public institutions.
In Wigan we know that it will only be through deeper collaboration between communities and the local state that we will succeed and look to a brighter future.
Alison Mckenzie-Folan is the chief executive of Wigan Council