Out in the field
25 March, 2005

Anna Randle, Head of Policy, NLGN
Local Government Chronicle

The localism odyssey continues. Fresh from a month researching localism on the frontline in West Sussex, I arrive in Wakefield for my second case study.

I am rather looking forward to a month in Wakefield. After my experience in West Sussex, I am armed with more knowledge and understanding of the issues facing councils and how the localism agenda feels from their perspective. I am interested in how a fast-improving council is interpreting localism for itself, working with partners, engaging with communities and making services more responsive, all the while under the gaze of the inspectors. And I feel more confident that I have the personal resources to locate essentials in a new area, including the supermarket, shopping centre and a place to buy a decent coffee.

The first shock is to find that the cottage I am to live in is eight miles outside Wakefield town, in one of the more rural corners of the District. Faced with the choice between an intermittent rural bus service, which does provide free copies of Metro but doesn’t provide many actual buses, and my trusty bicycle, I realise I am about to get very fit.

However, this is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the cottage is on a beautiful farm bordering the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. My landlady is incredibly welcoming and invites me to even spend an evening in the farmhouse with the family. Upon finding that the farmer is on the local parish council, I spend hours quizzing him – to his amazement – about how the local government system fits together in the District.

This welcoming informality is something which I come to recognise as a feature of the way things work in Wakefield. The council is undergoing a huge improvement programme, reflected in a move from CPA categories ‘poor’ to ‘fair’ in two years. Yet it is doing this in a strikingly inclusive way.

Realising that improving the council is synonymous with improving the District, the Local Strategic Partnership and Community Strategy are vital to both. In interviewing council members and officers, partners from police, health, colleges and business, I find that they all share the same agenda. Although the council plays a leadership role, the other partners engage with the LSP and take ownership of its targets.

It is not just at the centre and among partners themselves that partnership is working. The LSP is being promoted to the community, with Open Days and communication strategies. In addition, the model is to be taken out and developed at more local levels too. ‘Mini LSPs’, or area-based partnerships of councillors and other key stakeholders, will replace existing area committees of councillors. They will not have devolved budgets, but will lead on joined-up community engagement and provide a link between the overall LSP strategy and local action by all partners.

It is clear that this is deeply embedded partnership working, and it provides an interesting contrast with an area committee approach. It suggests a model of achieving community engagement and responsive services without actual devolution of budgets.

During my month in Wakefield I am thoroughly welcomed by both the council and its partners. Beyond formal interviews, I meet them constantly: dinners, awards events, meetings, in streets and corridors. I could get used to this local government life, which seems to consist of a great deal of socialising – although I was assured that I was simply lucky my visit coincided with a particularly busy month in the Wakefield social calendar.

I also get used to the sixteen mile round trip on my bike each day, freewheeling down the hill into town in the mornings and fighting my way uphill on the way back. I become familiar with the sculptures dotting the sculpture park, and rather fond of the farm cat. But I do have one observation for the Community Strategy. A decent coffee? Nowhere to be found.