Friday, 28 April 2017

Logging their opinion

A new trend for ‘hyperlocal’ websites focusing on the nitty gritty of community life is stretching residents’ influence beyond traditional tenants’ groups and meetings. Alex Klaushofer logged on to find out why they are so popular and what social landlords can learn.

A quiet revolution is taking place across Britain. A new generation of websites run by local communities and residents’ groups are springing up all over the internet. These sites highlight failures by service-providers, campaign for environmental improvements and build community spirit. Known as ‘hyperlocals’, they focus on local areas in unprecedented levels of detail, providing a forum for debate which extends right down to particular streets.

Hyperlocal guru William Perrin, founder-director of Talk About Local, an organisation which trains communities to start their own websites, estimates there are currently about 150 sites run entirely by local people for no profit in the UK, and a further 100 are backed by commercial operations including Community Times, a publisher of community magazines, and Trinity Mirror, which has launched its own network of hyperlocals. ‘All over the country, people are starting to find a voice for their community. You see a new one every week to 10 days - it’s a growing trend,’ states Mr Perrin.

Many hyperlocals attract impressive visitor numbers considering the tiny areas they cover. The Fountain Area Residents’ Association’s website (see box: An inspirational site, overleaf), attracts a modest 200 unique users a month. Meanwhile, Stoke-on-Trent hyperlocal Pits n Pots, receives 500,000 page views every four weeks, and Parwich - a site that serves a remote Derbyshire village with 500 residents - can get 1,200 visitors on a busy day.

Despite these kind of numbers, social landlords have generally been slow to pay attention to the potential of the hyperlocal movement, especially as a means of tenant empowerment, says Mr Perrin.

It’s a new area and the opportunities are ‘enormous’, he says. ‘It’s a new way of creating a powerful dialogue between residents that also involves landlords.’ What makes these kind of sites powerful and different, he thinks, is the way they bypass the traditional structures for residents to raise their issues, allowing people to express their views more freely than they would on forums run by landlords.

Mr Perrin became interested in hyperlocals four years ago when he started a website called King’s Cross Environment to highlight problems affecting residents who live behind one of the capital’s busiest stations. Like other residents, he was fed up with the broken infrastructure, burnt-out cars and general mess which spoilt local life. He soon found that raising problems on the website encouraged the council and other bodies responsible for services in the neighbourhood to do something about them.

Weapon of publicity

‘I realised that if I made a public dialogue by putting it on the web, things seemed to get fixed a bit quicker,’ he explains. ‘We were making a private dialogue into a public one, and other people could join in.’ He attributes the fixing of one street light, which had stayed broken for 163 days, to the pressure created by the online publicity.

The approach is typical of the way hyperlocals are exploiting the power of the web to make things happen. In February this year, Mark Ellam founded Florence Residents’ Association in a bid to improve community life in the Longton South area of Stoke-on-Trent. A long-standing resident, Mr Ellam had become increasingly dismayed by the way derelict buildings were left to degenerate, while local people had nowhere to meet.

‘I live in the community, and I’m passionate about it. I’ve lived in it for 30 years, and watched it decline,’ he says. ‘Not many people talk to each other.’

One campaign run through the website has taken up complaints from the residents of a local council-run home for the elderly. They say that the glass canopy which covers the central courtyard has not been cleaned since it was put up 13 years ago, and the algae is blocking their light - but council contractor Kier is taking its time to do the work. ‘There’s been a number of promised dates,’ says Mr Ellam. ‘They’ve failed each time.’

‘We have been looking at how we can work more closely to integrate our service and improve response rates to tenants,’ responds a spokeswoman for Kier, which is working in partnership with Stoke-on-Trent Council to provide a more rapid, comprehensive response to tenants.

‘The new service, initially being piloted to 6,000 properties in the heart of the city, will aim to answer tenant queries from a single point of contact. We are excited by the enhanced support we can now deliver. We have conducted a mini trial of this work involving 300 properties and the feedback we’ve received so far has been very positive.’

A robust approach adopted by some hyperlocals highlights service failures and can achieve results, but it doesn’t always win them friends. The editors of Pits n Pots, a blog covering Stoke-on-Trent known for its controversial style, admit that the site’s scrutiny of the council has not always gone down well. Its founder Tony Walleley recalls how, on one occasion, he was forcibly ejected from a council meeting. Mr Walleley denies that Pits n Pots is anti-council.

‘We’re passionate about Stoke-on-Trent, but we can’t help reporting some of the calamitous cock-ups,’ he says. He cites as an example the disclosure that a council-run scheme to help businesses through the credit crunch benefited just one firm. Inside Housing twice requested a response from Stoke-on-Trent Council, but did not receive any feedback.

In some cases, service providers including local authorities and social landlords are starting to see the benefit of local people getting together online. In July, the Florence Residents’ Association’s website was re-launched as Longton South, having expanded to cover six other local residents’ associations and community groups. The site now covers an area in which more than half of the residents are council tenants.

The council’s regeneration department is so interested in the development that it wants to link the Longton South site with other local websites. Florence Residents’ Association’s founder Mr Ellam wants to do this in a way that does not dilute the website’s reason for being - it’s hyperlocality. ‘It’s got to be local, otherwise you won’t get the interest of the community,’ he says.

Local insight

‘Granularity’ - e-expert jargon for a website’s ability to report on and highlight what’s going on at a very local level - is the key to hyperlocals’ success. Dave Harte, who edits Bournville Village, a website covering the Bournville ward of Birmingham, which includes homes owned and managed by Bournville Village Trust, says that the housing association tends not to be criticised. The council’s failure to replace diseased trees in one street because of the higher costs of planting a paved area, however, elicited strong feeling and some frantic web activity. The result is that after an online discussion with the relevant councillor, trees are now being planted in Willow Road.

‘We might have had an impact on changing council’s policy on planting trees in the pavement,’ says Mr Harte. ‘In some ways it’s trivial, but it’s the kind of thing that gets residents uptight.’

It’s not an issue that traditional local media would have covered, he adds: ‘The newspaper might be interested in it at the point at which it becomes a row between two councillors, but not at the point of influencing policy.’

As a senior lecturer in social media at Birmingham City University who follows online trends, Mr Harte attributes the rise of hyperlocals largely to the ease and cheapness with which websites can be created. Typically, community websites are started on blogging platforms which are easy to learn and free to use. Run by volunteers, they have no wage bills, and the purchase of a dedicated domain name creates only basic running costs. ‘One of the reasons it is quite a powerful movement is that, if you can sustain it in terms of manpower, the web-hosting costs are minimal,’ he says.

One housing association that has realised the power of resident engagement via the internet is north west-based Contour Housing Group. It has been working with social enterprise People’s Voice Media to train residents in Callon in Preston, and Huncoat in Accrington, to set up their own websites and become online reporters. ‘It’s about getting to the heart of communities, finding out if residents have issues and feeding that back within our organisation and to partners like the local authority,’ says Ross Hemmings, regeneration investment officer at Contour.

If social landlords are to encourage tenant participation through the development of hyperlocals, one challenge they face is how to involve residents who lack the skills and confidence to get online. Government figures show that 10 million adults in the UK have never used the internet, and four million of those are among the most socially and economically disadvantaged. London-based landlord Peabody recently ran a pilot project called Networx to encourage more people to access information and services online.

Based in existing computer suites on three of its London estates, younger residents trained older residents in web skills. ‘Some of them have never used a computer before, and everything seemed really daunting,’ says youth project facilitator Sabrina Jantuah, who ran the project. ‘But when they were shown a few basic things they realised it was quite simple.’

Ms Jantuah welcomes the idea of hyperlocal sites for social housing tenants. ‘It’s a great idea,’ she says. ‘The more ways there are of talking, the better. Not everyone can get to meetings.’

Social landlords wanting to harness the potential of the hyperlocal movement will also need to perform something of a balancing act, enabling the sites, but not controlling what is effectively a grassroots form of communication. According to Mr Perrin, the future for housing hyperlocals must be resident-led. ‘The web doesn’t work very well top-down,’ he says.

An inspirational site

FARA - the website of the Fountain Area Residents’ Association in Haringey, north London - started life on social networking site myspace three years ago.

Wanting a more interactive forum, founder and local resident Wendy Keenan taught herself some new web skills and migrated the site to Wikispace, an online tool that allows people to create their own simple websites. ‘Wikispace allows people to have dialogue with each other,’ she says.
‘The most important thing is that people need to feel they have agency.’

FARA, which covers an area with around 700 households, deals with issues from contentious planning proposals to the creation of a community garden. Online discussions have also helped to bring a disused community centre back into service as a venue for Residents’ Association meetings.

Ms Keenan admits that getting the website known and attracting visitors, particularly older, less computer-literate residents, has been a challenge. She has used traditional face-to-face ways of publicising it through meetings, events and simply talking to local people.

‘That is really hard,’ she says. ‘I think the most important thing is to be patient. It feels like it’s not going to work. But, slowly you find there’s a lot more people paying attention than you’re aware of.’

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