Community Websites "Inspiring and Terrifying"

Influence on local councils and beyond is clear

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According to the BBC website in an item published today, local newspapers may be struggling - but politicians are now being held to account in new ways.

They say "the miffed tapping of computer keyboards is the revolutionary sound as web warriors attempt to make a difference to their neighbourhoods."

James Hatts founded the London SE1 website with the intention of providing an ultra-local news service, similar to the Neighbour Net sites.

"The point is to provide the most comprehensive news possible", he said.

"Even with relatively good local newspapers, there is a vast store of local stories, both in terms of politics and community life, that would otherwise go unreported."

The BBC item pointedly ignored the largest network of community web sites in London which meant that a failed to give a true picture of the size and scope of this kind of media in the capital. Nevertheless it did provide some insights into how people are using the internet to effect change in their communities.

According to the report, William Perrin was moved set up the King's Cross Environment website in North London when the police failed to arrive after a car "stuffed with fireworks" parked in front of his house exploded.

He realised he was living in a police no-go area. "I faced that classic middle class dilemma - do I move, or do I get stuck in?" He launched his site eight years ago and it is now an online community of 400 which has helped to obtain £1m compensation to be spent on community projects for disruption caused by Network Rail.

His site is also credited with having fought a Mexican multi-billion-pound cement company, Cemex, which was dumping 30 tons of gravel every day making a huge racket. According to Mr Perrin, "Every morning they used to dump 30 tons of gravel - it was like an aircraft taking off."

After a six-month battle Cemex made almost a dozen alterations to their plant, including building acoustic shields, even providing staff with rubber shovels to reduce sound.

Another community site was set up by Hugh Flouch when Haringey Council mooted pedestrianising Wood Green High Street. According to Mr Flouch, his site now has 2,500 members. He used the site to organise a petition to visit every local street likely to be affected by knock-on traffic.

"The council were just not listening to the community", he said. "By the end of that year we had 500 members. Now we are touching 2,500."

However, Haringey Council dispute this and insist the site did not influence council policy. Mr Flouch says his local MP is now a regular contributor to the site and that "connecting people through the internet can have a profound effect on neighbourhoods.

"Not everyone wants to turn up at a cold church hall for meetings. With these sites people can log on for five minutes at lunchtime - it's much more flexible."

In a recent lecture, Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian newspaper, talked about the perceived threat of community websites to "traditional" journalists.

He said: "Depending on your point of view, you [journalists] may find new ways of connecting and informing communities inspiring or terrifying.

"I think it is both. And it is good to be forced to think about what journalism is and who can do it."

And, as we have seen in many cases on the Neighbour Net forums, members freely give expertise to others.

Our sites are often invaluable to canvas opinion on local issues, to point out mistakes and injustices committed by locals councils and organisations, for the police to hold on-line discussions and a multitude of other local uses.

February 25, 2010