Learning to triumph over adversity: the Wolverhampton experience

8 Aug 16

City of Wolverhampton Council has succeeded in turning round a challenging financial position into one of strength. Here’s how they did it

If a week is a long time in politics, then three years feels like a lifetime in local government. Back in 2013 City of Wolverhampton Council was splashed all over the press with claims we were on the verge of bankruptcy; fast forward to 2016 and we’ve just come a highly commended joint second in prestigious Council of the Year awards. It’s quite a turnaround and one that we’re extremely proud of.

Wolverhampton hit the national headlines after being very honest and transparent about the scale of the cuts we were facing – £123m over five years. With large estimated redundancy numbers and an adversarial local paper piling on the negatives, it made grim reading.

Although the national headlines were not particularly welcomed, it was the truth to point out the scale of the challenge facing us and we stuck with it. It was a political strategy to tackle the issues head on; to publicly say: “This is the position the government has put us in, but we are dealing with it.”

Those early months were difficult and intense. We were lucky to have strong political leadership, particularly support from the leader and cabinet member for resources. Without it we wouldn’t have been able to make the difficult decisions and the key investments that are the basis of our new direction.

At the heart of the change has been the development of a streamlined, finance-driven and corporately owned financial strategy. We’re a very tight leadership team that meets at 9am every day for 30 minutes. If that sounds over the top, give it a try. None of the directors miss it unless they absolutely have to. It allows us to act quickly and together; we have a grip on what’s going on and a clear sense of direction.

Here are a few examples of the changes that have made a difference:

  • We’ve attracted £3.7bn of investment into city – including £992m into our city centre. This is having a major impact in terms of confidence as people start to see that the city is moving forward and means business. It’s backed by innovative partnership work and an appetite for borrowing.
  • The development of Yoo Recruit, our own recruitment agency, has helped us avoid exorbitant agency fees. After two years, it’s making a sizeable profit.
  • We reduced our leisure budget by £1.5m by adopting a more commercial approach. The award-winning service, now operated as WV Active, is more efficient, customer satisfaction is higher than before and staff surveys show improved motivation and morale.
  • In contrast to the public perception, we were confident that financially we were in a good – albeit challenging – position. Our accounts and value for money have always been given a clean bill of health and Eugene Sullivan, the former chief executive of the Audit Commission, gave us great feedback when we asked him for an honest assessment after the publicity storm.

Almost three years on and keen to keep improving, we invited in an LGA finance peer review team. Its report said: “There is visible and well-respected leadership – both political and managerial – that provides a clear and consistent message about the scale of the challenge and the imperatives of responding to it.”

The review highlighted that the finance team is “well regarded and respected by councillors and managers, and clearly plays an enabling role that supports transformation and the delivery of financial savings across directorates”. This gave us a fantastic boost.

I’m an optimist. I have to be, but I genuinely come to work with a spring in my step, because I believe you can still do a lot with £217m. Our finance strategy is similar to that of many councils: it’s all about efficiency and we are working on demand management, income generation and commercialisation, outcome-based service planning and digital transformation. Of course it’s important to get the balance between these aspects right and the LGA finance peer review team has made suggestions that will maintain the focus on excellence and keep up the momentum.

We already have an approved plan for next year’s £22m budget challenge and are now developing detailed plans for the following two financial years, buoyed by the fact that in last year’s outturn we beat our budget reduction target by £9.4m.

We are ambitious for the council and the city. Imagine – in little over a year the council reduced the number of looked after children in our care from over 800 to under 650 and children’s services as a whole overachieved against their 2015/16 budget by £3.4m. Something I’m sure any council would be very proud of. This helps our long-term planning and keeps the focus on making every pound go further.

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