Trend-bucking council defies the savage cuts

Wigan should be used as a role model in how it has managed to slash tens of millions from its budgets without the borough missing out on key cultural public services.
Wigan Town HallWigan Town Hall
Wigan Town Hall

That was the claim today as it was revealed that museums, libraries and leisure centres in England have seen their council funding plunge by almost a third since 2010, with officials warning of more “difficult decisions” to come.

But while many parts of the country have seen mass closures of such institutions, Wigan has managed to maintain virtually all such services, perhaps by reducing staff and/or hours or, through the council’s Deal, by handing over the running of operations to volunteers, trusts, charities and other organisations.

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Tyldesley Baths, for instance, is now the Pelican Centre and a registered charity. Beech Hill Library did close but has been replaced with a Book Cycle outlet where people can still obtain books for free. Significant investment has been made in leisure destinations and centres including Haigh Woodland Park, Howe Bridge and Robin Park with future plans in the pipeline regarding a leisure centre in Standish.

Since austerity measures were first introduced during the recession, Wigan Council has been forced to chop £100m from its budget and at least another £60m has yet to go in the coming years.

New analysis by the Press Association (PA) has found that cuts averaging 29 per cent have been made by local authorities to budgets for cultural services, which also includes money earmarked for community centres and theatres.

But Wigan Council chief executive Donna Hall said: “Unlike many other councils across the UK, we’ve managed to keep all of our libraries, leisure centres and museums open by taking a different approach through The Deal.

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“When advised that budgets were going to decrease significantly back in 2010, many councils made decisions to close buildings and cut services to make savings. Wigan Council felt that this approach would not only unfairly impact on the lives of residents, but would also fail to provide longer term savings.

“Through The Deal, Wigan Council has saved £100m while retaining and even improving services with more community groups and individuals helping to run services traditionally run by the council. Examples include, Beech Hill bookcycle which replaced the local library but continues to provide free books to the community and Aspull library, which is now being run by the community. In addition we’ve invested £5m to date through the Community Investment Fund and we’re about to open another £2.5m for community groups and volunteers for local projects that are making a difference to local people.

“The Pelican centre in Tyldesley is a fantastic example of what can be achieved working differently. The facility was saved from closure in 2012 when a group of dedicated volunteers and a small number of staff agreed to take it over. It’s gone from strength to strength and thanks to a recent council grant it’s now delivering vital services for the whole community.

“We have also significantly invested in our leisure centres and key destination parks such a Howe Bridge and Haigh, as we recognise the long term importance of them in supporting people to be active and connected within local communities, and in improving physical and mental health and wellbeing.”

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The PA used new government data to compare the change in council day-to-day expenditure across the decade, and in almost every area the amount of spending has dropped. When adjusted for inflation, total expenditure on cultural services across England has fallen by just over £1bn since 2010.