The Donna Hall interview: ‘I have loved it - the best eight years of my working life’
The highest-profile public servant in Wigan’s history has spoken openly of the highs and lows of her eight-year time in the borough’s top job.
In an outspoken exclusive interview former chief executive Donna Hall described her time at the town hall as the highlight of her working life but also met her critics head-on.
She spoke of her pride at her role in transforming the council’s fortunes while making savage cuts totalling some £160m, steering the borough through some of the choppiest economic waters in its history.
Ms Hall, who left just over a week ago for retirement, also talked about The Deal, in which council tax has been frozen in return for Wiganers taking a much more active role in their communities and which will probably end up being her defining legacy as it had attracted national and overseas attention.
However, she had strong words for those who have opposed her and her ideas and condemned what she called a culture of “appalling” bullying among some Wigan politicians, acknowledging that some of her darkest days in the post cannot even be spoken about as they are subject to ongoing legal cases and police investigations.
Despite that, she said her deepest feeling on her final day in the job was sadness to be leaving.
She said: “I have loved it at Wigan. It has been the best eight years of my working life, with brilliant people and brilliant staff.
“Wigan has always had a good reputation as a council. I started at Leeds City Council in the ‘80s and everybody looked up to Wigan. Coming here has been the pinnacle of my career.
“It’s a great place. I love the dry sense of humour, its grim determination to carry on despite the worst circumstances which I think comes from its mining history and the sense of community. I could never work in a big city because you don’t get that feeling.
“I’ve got confidence the council will carry on doing great things and the things I’ve started aren’t going to be rubbished.”
Ms Hall’s road to Wigan Council took her through local authority jobs in Blackburn, Chorley and Salford and she arrived in the borough as deputy to Joyce Redfearn before gaining the top position.
She got her hands on the helm at a difficult moment, with Wigan facing some of the harshest cuts of any town hall in the country.
And she reveals there was much room for improvement in the culture she found in the local authority too.
She said: “One of the highlights has been getting to know the 5,000 staff, building a good relationship and improving morale. We’ve a very different feeling now.
“When I arrived our slogan was Challenging Times. There was this gloom because austerity had just started. There was nothing like The Deal, no corporate plan, not much of a relationship with residents and we were clunky. It took too long to do things and frontline staff could sometimes get stifled by layers of management and bureaucracy.
“A journalist came up and said we were the third-worst-affected council in the country and we didn’t actually know that. We realised we had to do something different.”
It was the response to the bleak economic picture that would ultimately define Ms Hall’s time in Wigan, but also something that would put her on a collision course with those believing a Labour-run council were giving in to the Conservatives by making cuts and redundancies and others sceptical about whether The Deal actually works.
Implementing it has also had a few bumps in the road, notably going against a public consultation to bring in three-weekly black bin collections to boost recycling.
She admitted restructuring had given her some of her toughest days in office but had a bracing response for critics, dealing out a few home truths to other local authorities in the process.
She said: “When we got the financial settlement we knew it would be really hard. Making people redundant is horrible, no-one wants to do that. You are dealing with people’s lives and mortgages.
“I had so many sleepless nights thinking how we were going to do it. I heard people ask if we were just putting a brave face on austerity. But with the exception of a few people they love The Deal. Even the Conservative leader says it’s hard to criticise.
“We’ve been through a really tough time and come out the other side with community groups doing amazing, innovative work. This is the future because councils don’t have the money they used to have.
“The single best thing I’ve ever done in my life is give permission to innovate to the frontline staff. They know what is the right thing to do and I’ve empowered them.
“I will be the first person to say austerity has been a nightmare for Wigan. It has had a devastating impact on residents. I’ve seen it, with the increase in homelessness, the increase in people using foodbanks, people struggling to get mental health help as quickly as they should. That is all down to the economic downturn.
“I often think: what is the alternative to what we’ve done? I look around and see councils sending staff home on compulsory unpaid leave, which is not great for morale. I see them hiking council tax to the maximum, and that’s not acceptable. I see them borrowing loads of money from dodgy sources which we haven’t done. I see them closing libraries. Why on earth would you close a library? It’s the heart of the community, its hub.”
Ms Hall’s reference to those who most trenchantly oppose The Deal brings her to the most controversial aspect of her reign, for which she has her harshest words.
She lost a major court case and received heavy criticism from a top judge over a by-election for independent representative Coun Steve Jones’ Bryn seat which was quashed and has had repeated fiery clashes with opposition politicians and activists.
Indeed things have reached such a pitch that Greater Manchester Police (GMP) are involved and some of those involved may yet end up in court.
She says Wigan has a reputation for very poor political behaviour which goes ahead of it and called for severe action to be taken.
She said: “Some of the bullying and abuse my staff have had has been appalling and abhorrent. I’ve stood up to the bullies and that has been at some personal cost to me and my family.
“I’ve felt very protective of staff because I feel we are all one family at the council. Changes are needed to standards in public life and I feel councillors should have the same system as MPs. We’ve given evidence to a parliamentary select committee about what has gone on in Wigan.
“Wigan is known as one of the worst places for member behaviour and it has been like that for 20 years, so it’s not about me or anything I’ve done. It’s about a small number of people. It makes Wigan a tough gig.”
Ms Hall has adopted a rather different, more hands-on approach to leading the council, whether that is donning a rainbow outfit and waving a flag in the parade at Wigan Pride or going out to meet the groups of volunteers looking after wildlife havens.
She has also emerged as a cheerleader for The Deal and the borough, regularly speaking at conferences and earning plaudits across the world of local government.
She said: “It’s something that has happened by accident. I think we’ve been in the limelight because of The Deal, not me. It has been described as the only coherent council response to austerity and there has been a lot of interest. The Scandinavian countries love it.”
Her determination to support the grassroots was perhaps summed up by her final day in office.
She said: “I went for lunch with one of our best apprentices Joseph Shaw who I first met in a children’s home. He wanted access to a computer because for some reason they didn’t have any. He started off in the looked-after care system, did an apprenticeship in the council and now works here. I’m the past and he’s the future.”
Ms Hall revealed she has deep roots in the area but confessed she was not sure that was necessarily a good thing for leading Wigan Council as her background and career straddle the borough’s deepest divide.
She said: “My dad was born in Leigh and all his family were from there. Whenever I hear people from there I visualise my dad and see his mannerisms.
“I think my dad would have turned in his grave if he had known I had led Wigan. His family were all born-and-bred Leythers and Wigan was the dark side.”
She is now heading to a voluntary role chairing the New Local Government Network think tank, where she says she will be passing on plenty of the things she has learned in Wigan to other town halls.
She is also delighted that her deputy Alison McKenzie-Folan has stepped up to the chief executive’s role after the authority decided not to recruit externally.
She said: “The council has made a brilliant appointment and I’ve got confidence it will go on doing great things. I feel it is in safe hands.”