Localism, Narrative and Myth

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Law School


There can be can no doubt that the current Government aim to increase the ability of local communities to make decisions for themselves. The 2011 Localism Bill currently making its way through Parliament promises to give communities 'a right to challenge' the ways in which public services are currently provided, a 'right to buy' community assets if they are threatened with closure and a 'right to build' if sufficient votes can be gathered in local referenda. Yet there is no legal definition of either 'communities' or 'the local' in the 2011 Localism Bill and there was no White Paper discussing the context or rationale for the legislative intervention. Instead, the concept of 'the local' and the political logic of localism are assumed to be widely understood. It is this apparent understanding, which is rarely evident on a closer examination of legal and administrative practice, which forms the basis of enquiry for this research.

Using the 'data' gathered from stories, films and photographs created for this project, we will investigate whether there are any common themes or recurring understandings that inform ideas of 'the local' in the arts. In particular, we will consider whether the construction of 'the local' is singular and unitary as the Localism Bill and other legal and administrative provisions seem to suggest or whether, as research in social science indicates, ideas of locality are relational, multiple and dynamic. We will consider whether 'the local' can be enclosed, with each locality atomistic and separate from the next, or whether localities are relational, integrating with each other and places and sites of decision-making at regional, national and global scales.

The iterative methodology we will use to investigate these research questions is innovative and has been designed to reflect this tension between the unitary and overlapping understandings of the local. Drawing on the narratives of the local, both oral and visual, the analysis and results from the semi-structured interviews with the creative participants we will determine whether these representations of 'the local' are different and/or better conceptions of the local than those routinely employed in policy and media debates. Given the saliency of this political project, we will also investigate whether narrative constructions of 'the local' can give any political justification for the logic of localism, that communities should make local decisions.

In addition to two co-authored academic papers and a project report, our research findings will be presented on the blog to be established under Antonia Layard's ESRC Fellowship on Localism, Law and Governance. This includes both the findings from the research and (with the creative participants consent) the visual and oral renditions of the local. Visitors to the blog will be able to watch the films and hear the stories as well as reading how we have analysed them, see the questionnaire and read a summary of the findings. In this way we intend to make the research process transparent and, by providing a facility for comments, interactive.

We will disseminate the report to policymakers and practitioners concerned with localism and narrative (including with the RTPI, Centre for Cities, CABE, the New Local Government Network, the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), Shelter, CPRE, the Historic Towns Forum, Arts Councils, Creative Partnerships and the BBC). We already have links with many of these organisations and we will incorporate our findings into the policy and dissemination events that are already to be coordinated for the PI's Fellowship. This will add value to this AHRC research as well as providing productive linkages across Research Councils programmes.

Planned Impact

In addition to undertaking rigorous academic research and methodological innovation, this project is designed to contribute directly to policy debates on localism. These are frequently covered in the media (and in many pubs and offices) with policymakers, practitioners and communities often still working out how to define and represent 'the local' or a single neighbourhood or locality. As such this research project will benefit all those interested in understanding what different constituencies mean by 'the local'.

While storytellers and filmmakers have long engaged with narratives on place and the local, so far little of these traditions has found its way into mainstream debates on localism and and related (though arguably distinct) concepts of 'the Big Society'. This project aims to fill this gap. By engaging directly with literary and storytelling festivals, filmmakers and photographers, we aim to amplify these voices that otherwise might be overlooked. This brings an important and traditional strand of the debate to public attention and facilitates the engagement of these contributions to these debates.

As well as helping to articulate how 'the local' can be understood and represented, the project will also enage with debates on the political logic of localism. Proposing this philosophy, advocates suggest that local decision-making should be prioritised over governance on the other scales with little justification, frequently stating that 'locals know best'. Similarly, the 2011 Localism Bill has not, for instance, been preceded as is conventional, by a White Paper, consequently the Government has not set out a single rationale for localism, instead this can be gleaned from disparate policy papers or speeches recorded in Hansard during the Bill's debates.

In designing this project, we have deliberately chosen not to seek institutional partners at this stage, preferring to facilitate a 'creative-led' approach which considers how the local is understood and represented in narrative, both aural and visual, from the 'bottom up'. However, once the results of this research project are understood they will be disseminated through the network, blog and policy events organised by Layard as part of her ESRC Fellowship on Localism, Law and Governance, which aims to become a 'one stop shop' on stories and research related to Localism.

We will also disseminate our research findings and mail the project report to policymakers and practitioners concerned with localism in practice (including with the RTPI, Centre for Cities, CABE, the New Local Government Network, the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), Shelter, CPRE and the Historic Towns Forum). We already have links with many of these organizations and we will incorporate our findings into the policy and dissemination events that are already to be coordinated for the PI's Fellowship. Similarly, we will ensure that we use the full extent of Fyfe and Painter's contacts to disseminate the findings and methodologies in this project throughout a wide range of creative organisations including the BBC, Arts Council of Wales and Creative Partnerships. This will add value to this AHRC research as well as providing productive linkages across Research Councils programmes.


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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
AH/J006602/1 14/02/2012 31/08/2012 £31,945
AH/J006602/2 Transfer AH/J006602/1 01/09/2012 30/06/2013 £31,749
Description This project used arts based interventions to grapple with whether there might, or might not be, a local and if so, what this (or these) might be. The project was designed to be methodologically innovative. It drew on narratives to provide 'data' from audience members and, through questionnaires, from the creative participants, through which to interrogate academic and narrative understandings of 'the local'. The aim was always to draw out plural understandings from different participants and creative practices, interrogating the tension between singular and multiple understandings of the local.
In particular, by drawing on innovative methods and situating the engagement with creative practitioners at the heart of the project, this research has contributed to the development of a distinctive Connected Communities approach to research by promoting productive engagement with communities of creative practitioners from the 'bottom up'. The 'data' was co-produced, facilitated by an outline specification but resting primarily on the creative talents of the storytellers, filmmakers and photographers who engaged with the participants directly, without academic mediators.

There is also an ongoing policy angle to this research, as it was specifically formulated to consider these understandings of 'the local' in light of the current UK Government's localism agenda, including the Localism Act 2011. The final, journal writing stage of this research, interrogated these relationships between governance of and by the local more explicitly.
Exploitation Route The understanding that 'the local'; itself can be absent, is significant, we think. This is written up in 'There is no local, here' (Bernstein et al, 2014). Further, the use of methodology can be adapted or re-used. It is described in Layard and Ramsdan (2014) for Sage Methods.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice

URL http://localismnarrativemyth.weebly.com/
Description The findings from this project informed the ESRC Seminar Series Neighbourhood Ways of Knowing and Working in collaboration with DCLG. They also continue to inform my collaborations concerned with local government and governance. Once current project - public space and the urban right to roam (currently funded by the University of Bristol - draws on work about "the local" to think about governance of "public space". While in many ways the concepts are quite different, the research in this project demonstrated that to engage in a local, we often need to meet somewhere physically together. If public spaces to connect don't exist then, as one respondent said in a quote that became the title of a research output: "There is no local here, love". In my current public space work I'm working informally with the GLA offering advice and comments on their developing Public London Charter strategy.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Title Localism, Narrative and Myth 
Description This case provides a description of a project that used storytelling and photography to present understandings of 'the local', and the responses audience members gave to these presentations. Employing art as a lens through which to see and think, we set out to better understand why we might use arts-based methods of inquiry in academic research and how to take the 'data' from these artistic interventions and make them usable to policymakers. Since we used methods (storytelling and photography) that are not usually combined with legal analysis, we aimed to better understand the importance of flexibility and creativity to be able to fundamentally change research orientation and strategy when in the field. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2014 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact This provides a way of using narrative - storytelling - for arts-led research. 
URL http://methods.sagepub.com/case/localism-narrative-and-myth
Title Storytelling as method 
Description Using storytelling as a method for arts-led research. As the project developed, we realized that what we valued as researchers was not so much the analysis of narratives and stories we heard, but the stories that people told about their own experiences of and feelings about their local, whether they were creative participants or members of the audience or local communities. We were interested in the way people perceived, understood and articulated the local through their own particular lenses, rather than how the local was demonstrated through stories and folk tales. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This was a rather experimental use of storytelling, which yielded useful research methods. Arts-based interventions consequently allowed us to gather data that initially appeared to stand in stark contrast to the kind of material and data that is required by policy makers. The two different worlds of policy-making and qualitative research often appear to be oppositional: policymakers require researchers to provide them with simplified portrayals of social and political life so that they can create policy that can be carried out at a macro, broad national level. Qualitative researchers, on the other hand "normally have a diametrically opposed view of simplification" (Donmoyer, 2012). Perhaps the most important aspect we found was that the interventions generated a whole new research question. Rather than examining a unitary or multiple conceptions of the local, we needed to look at spatial and social variability. We found the idea of 'the local' more robust than we had assumed. In some localities it was socially incorporated and spatialised. But not everywhere has a local.