The bicycle diaries
18 March, 2005

Anna Randle, Head of Policy, NLGN
Local Government Chronicle

Have you ever tried to explain New Localism to a Turkish mini cab driver from South London at 6am on a Monday morning?

Heading towards the south coast, loaded up with the kit needed to survive life in West Sussex for a month – bicycle included – I try to find a way of making sense of what I am doing to this interested but baffled driver. As we get further from London, the roads getting narrower and the scenery greener, the project I am undertaking makes less sense to me too.

The idea: research localism in action in three localities. Spend three months living in West Sussex, Wakefield and Birmingham, witnessing for myself the challenges of making localism work in practice. Find out how these councils are engaging with communities, working with partners and delivering more locally responsive services. And along the way pick up as much as I can about the local context – B&Bs, rural bus services, cycle routes and where to find a decent coffee included.

As we wind through the countryside searching for my new temporary home near Chichester, I can tell the cabbie is not convinced. And as I clutch my scribbled directions, I am also clutching at the dregs of my own resolve. Perhaps I should have conducted the research from London? Perhaps I should have hired a car? Perhaps I should have found somewhere to live nearer to West Sussex County Hall?

However the next few weeks are going to convince me that this was the right way to research localism in practice. West Sussex County Council, along with many other councils around the country, is developing new ways of working more locally. Area Committees are being established, with some devolved functions, with the aim of bringing governance and services closer to citizens.

During the month, I live and breathe West Sussex. I shadow and interview officers and members. I interview local partners. I spend my evenings driving across the county with the director in charge of community engagement to consult with councillors about the form and functions of the new arrangements. And along the way, I locate the nearest Costa Coffee, find the vintage clothes shops and enjoy the daily cycle along the Chichester Canal to work and back.

In the process I come to understand the challenges of developing effective local responses within a two-tier system. The delicate balance being sought between the strategic and local. The need to work closely with all partners – from districts and parishes to police and health. The need councillors feel for a new role and structures for meaningful engagement with citizens.

West Sussex is trying to create a model which is sensitive to local circumstances, but also informed by the experiences of other councils developing similar models. The research in Wakefield and Birmingham, and the report to be published this spring, should help. ODPM has supported the work, with the aim of helping all councils develop capacity for delivering on the requirements of New Localism. With recent ODPM strategy papers pointing the way to greater devolution, this agenda will only become more important.

Despite responding to similar challenges, the models being developed by the three case study councils are very different. As indeed are the experiences of living in each area. As the project progresses, my understanding of the complexities of making localism real in communities increases day by day. Not sure the Turkish cabbie ever got it though.

For further details on the Localism Project, email