Wigan Council chief executive speaks of pride at landing top job and town hall priorities for the next decade

Wigan Council chief executive Alison McKenzie-Folan
Wigan Council chief executive Alison McKenzie-Folan

“To be successfully appointed as chief executive has been the proudest moment of my career”.

Those are the words of Alison McKenzie-Folan who has been in the top job at Wigan town hall, replacing Donna Hall, since March.

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Ms McKenzie-Folan has been appointed at a crucial time for the borough as the council faces a number of major challenges and is also setting out its priorities for the next decade.

She talked enthusiastically about how the local authority can play a major role in making the borough a better place to work and live and her most burning ambitions for her time as chief executive.

She also spoke about the culture she wants to create at the town hall and the way she wants civil servants, elected politicians, residents, businesses and community groups to be able to work together.

Ms McKenzie-Folan has worked in local government for 11 years following 18 years in the civil service, with her arrival in Wigan marking the transition point in her career.

She spoke of her pride at making it to the chief executive’s office but said it does not feel like a huge jump, having served under Ms Hall in the deputy CEO role for five years already.

Ms McKenzie-Folan said: “It’s really exciting. These 11 years in local government have been the most rewarding of my career spanning 30 years.

“You are so close to the residents and community you work alongside. You can feel a real difference being made and understand the real issues that are important to people.

“We have a great sense of being able to achieve for people and being close to those we serve.

“Donna and I have worked very closely together. She has been a fantastic role model for me. It has very much been a team effort in Wigan and we’ve worked really hard on The Deal. We’re now building on that strong legacy.”

The next chapter in the work started under Ms Hall began when the local authority recently held a massive listening exercise with more than 6,000 residents to produce The Deal 2030, setting out the things the council wants to focus on and that Wiganers have told civil servants are important to them for the next 11 years.

Ms McKenzie-Folan enthusiastically spoke about the major policies and ideas within the document and how it ties in with her vision of where the town hall should be heading.

She said: “My job is to work with Team Wigan to make sure we successfully achieve the outcomes in The Deal 2030.

“We want to focus on thriving town and district centres through having a retail offer, a residential offer, food and drink and entertainment.

“We know town centres have really changed over the last few years with the rise of the internet and we need to make sure they thrive. People don’t just use town centres for shopping, they are places to come together as communities.

“Linked to that is strongly supporting our cultural and sporting heritage. We really want to build on that.

“There’s also our green spaces. More than 70 per cent of our borough is beautiful open space, including Haigh Woodland Park and Pennington Flash. It’s the Greenheart, as we call it, and we want to celebrate it.

“The second big area is healthy communities. We’re doing really important work with our GPs, hospitals and the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and are coming together in our Healthier Wigan Partnership to ensure our residents and patients have the best quality care they can.

“We’re also looking at future generations. One of the most heart-warming elements of speaking to young people who will be our future adults in 2030 is their real passion for communities which care for each other and where they feel safe and the green agenda.

“We need to give young people the best start they can have for their future ambitions, dreams and aspirations. Linked to that is our skills agenda. We are regenerating our economy and we need to make sure children are equipped with the skills of the future and we understand what employers need and where the gaps are.

“The other big area I think is infrastructure. We are looking at how we invest in our rail and road and also our digital network. I’m still hopeful HS2 will come to this borough and it will help enormously.

“We have the best location in the North West and we need to build on that.”

However, these wide-ranging ambitions come up against a financial reality in which Wigan has had to make £140m of cuts over the past few years, making it one of the town halls worst hit by austerity in the country.

The immediate picture looks no brighter, with considerable uncertainty surrounding how local government will be funded and a likelihood that councils will soon have to survive entirely on business rates and council tax as the last central grants from Westminster are cut.

That has particularly concerning consequences for some of the most cost-consuming services town halls have to provide, with many local authorities already seriously struggling to balance the books.

Ms McKenzie-Folan is also keenly aware that environmental concerns have risen to the top of the agenda, with dire predictions if drastic action to cut carbon emissions is not made across the board almost immediately.

She said: “We’ve not got a settlement and from speaking to colleagues in the Local Government Association it’s highly unlikely we are going to get one soon.

“We also don’t have a fair funding settlement for adult social care and that remains a massive issue for all local authorities. We have an ageing population and while it is good residents are living longer it puts real pressure on services.

“The Government is also planning a business rates reset. We’ve also been doing a lot of work on Brexit over the last couple of months and we will be as ready as we can be. Nobody knows what the outcome will be, leaving with a deal or with no deal.

“We also know there’s a massive issue around a crisis in our climate, and we’ve got to take on board what young people particularly are telling us on this.

“Massive pressures remain but one of our big advantages is being part of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. We are still trying to build on devolution and will put further bids in for more budgets and more control for local people.”

A good example of the pressure on councils can be seen in the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, where the loss of green belt land for housing has horrified many campaigners.

Controversy has also raised its head in the form of db symmetry, which specialises in high-quality employment schemes, trying to build a massive logistics hub at junction 25, with the developer raising the prospect of boosting business rates coffers by £3m a year.

Given the challenges outlined above, Ms McKenzie-Folan sought to steer a path through what is becoming an economic, environmental and public opinion minefield.

She said: “We do need more houses. The population is growing and we haven’t got enough. It’s not just house-building though, it’s about looking at what we require: supported living for people with extra care needs, affordable housing.

“Wigan hasn’t gone down the route of St Helens or Warrington with warehouses and logistics, we’ve taken a different approach. Logistics is important to the borough but it’s one sector.

“We need to understand the impact of infrastructure and housing and also support growing parts of the industry. For Greater Manchester we’re looking at creative and digital businesses, advanced manufacturing, health and the environment. We need to think about what this means for Wigan and how we really take these opportunities, because they are areas where this conurbation has real strengths.”

As the council prepares for the 2020s Ms McKenzie-Folan stresses the importance of everyone playing their part and working together, in words which are remarkably similar to those Coun David Molyneux used when he took over in the political role of leader.

She also spoke about her style of leadership after her predecessor brought a distinctly different slant to the role of chief executive, making herself a figurehead for Wigan on local and national stages.

Ms McKenzie-Folan said: “As a chief executive you are a figurehead and you need to be there in good and bad times. You need to make sure you are accountable and responsible.

“It’s very important to work with the people democratically elected by the borough. We have a strong leader and cabinet, dedicated portfolio leads and passionate backbenchers and opposition groups.

“It’s my job to support all of the members in their role as councillors who have been elected to get the best for their residents. Of course I will be there at the front but at the same time my job is to support politicians to take lead roles as well.

“It’s really important to listen. We are public servants and need to have that proper engagement and discussion. We need to get that feedback, good or bad, from residents and build on it, changing things where we can.

“In The Deal 2030 there is more emphasis on certain areas because people were telling us about them all the time in the listening project.”

Numerous high-profile projects are going on at the moment in Wigan town centre but Ms McKenzie-Folan is determined the rest of the borough will not be left out under her leadership and the numerous proud communities across Wigan and Leigh will all get their fair share.

She said: “People tell us they are proud of where they live, their families and communities, and we’re going to celebrating that. “

“Every place in this borough matters.”