Council leader's vision for Wigan's recovery after coronavirus lockdown
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How best to cope with the worst recession in three centuries, ensuring that the borough’s crop of school and college-leavers don’t become a “lost generation,” and adapting to new ways of working and living through a greener and more digital economy were just some of the topics covered in a far-ranging recovery framework presented by council leader David Molyneux.
He acknowledged that we will be emerging into “a very different world” when the lockdown ends and that the authority and its partners would have to be on the front foot to engineer as swift and successful a recovery as possible.
How successful will in part be due to how generous or penny-pinching the Government will be as far as financial rescue packages and other support are concerned.
The council had only just been emerging from more than a decade of austerity measures – for which its coping mechanisms had been nationally praised –when coronavirus threw the economy into even bigger chaos so that Wigan now faces a £20m shortfall.
But beyond that he said he wanted to see “the Wigan pound spent in Wigan” and as much help as possible from the local authority and partner organisations to be offered to help businesses bounce back, training to continue and those taking part in it having a job at the end.
He was full of praise for an army of more than 700 volunteers who had already got in the swing of helping out in the community - thanks to the much-vaunted Deal – long before the pandemic struck but who have stepped up a gear since. So too many local authority staff who have found themselves temporarily abandoning desk jobs to help out at recycling centres, care homes and even hospitals.
And he wants this willing spirit and flexibility to take Wigan forward after the virus has been vanquished and a new fairer economy is built.
He said: “Covid-19 has had such a profound impact on public services and we must accept that there will be no going back to how we operated prior to this crisis.
“Through the qualities and systems set up because of the success of The Deal, we have been able to form effective response plans and we will do the same through our recovery.
“The Deal principles helped us adapt and then thrive despite the challenges posed by 10 years of austerity, but this is a challenge like no other we have faced.
“We need to evolve once more to build a safer, greener and more secure society – with improved health outcomes and a growing and sustainable local economy.”
He said key areas to cover in short and long-term recovery plans were the intentions to:
l Protect and improve health and wellbeing;
l Support a sustainable economic recovery;
l Build on new strengths within our communities;
l Ensure children and young people return and thrive in their education/training; and
l Meet financial challenges and retain new and better ways of working.
Coun Molyneux said that new ways of working had proved effective as part of the response to the pandemic and these will be maintained. This means more people working remotely at least some of the time which has the double advantage of social distancing and being of benefit to the environment due to reduced commuting.
He said: “We have encouraged home-working for a number of years so it is not new to us, but we will encourage it more in future.”
But he said the biggest challenge in the months and years ahead will be the recession and how best to bring about an economic recovery.
The leader said: “We don’t want a lost generation. There are young people reaching the end of their academic courses looking at the jobs market and those in apprenticeships who will be wondering what comes next and we and our partner organisations will all have to pull together to ensure the best possible outcomes for them.
“This recession is going to be challenging and we have to be geared up to face it.”
Before the outbreak, the council had been finalising its “community wealth-building partnership” which aims to focus public sector purchasing in the borough to support local businesses and supply chains and foster locally based sectors.
Coun Molyneux said this was needed more than ever now and high quality skills training and apprenticeships will be prioritised to avoid that “lost generation.”
It will aim to grow the low carbon economy to deliver new employment and enable the borough to become less reliant on fossil fuels over the next five to 10 years.
This will form an important part of recovery plans to help create sustainable economic growth and mitigate against losses with the pandemic estimated to cost the council around £40m.
Coun Molyneux said: “Through setting out our five priority areas we hope to reassure residents across the borough that we will continue – along with all our partners – to provide them with the support and services they need, as we have done throughout this crisis.”
He said that the council is working on a revised budget for the year with changes expected to its capital programme to reflect the unprecedented financial challenge, set against a backdrop of some authorities across the country considering s114 notices – effectively filing for bankruptcy.
As far as Government aid is concerned, Coun Molyneux said there had to be a fair funding review, adding: “Politics have to go through the window on this. There must be a level playing field in terms of gauging help according to levels of deprivation - and Wigan is one of those which has one of the higher levels.
“I don’t want local government to be an easy target for the Government to start clawing back some of the money they are doling out at the moment. We have put our claim forward for Covid-related expenditure and hope that we come out of it OK.”
Asked whether he believed talk that Boris Johnson is not considering austerity measures, the leader said: “I appreciate it is a big challenge for the Government too. I am not sure how he is going to play it.”
Coun Molyneux said that the borough’s cultural ambitions will also play a key role in the council’s manifesto, The Fire Within, coming to the fore to promote arts, performance and creativity. Culture will remain an important part of plans to rejuvenate the borough’s town and district centres, he said.
The proposals will now be shared with elected members before being formally presented at the next meeting of the cabinet.
Residents will have the chance to comment and share their views in the coming weeks.
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