Page last updated at 06:37 GMT, Thursday, 25 February 2010

Local websites tackling councils and the multinationals

By Ed Davey
BBC News, London


Community websites in London 'popular'

Local newspapers may be struggling - but politicians are now being held to account in new ways.

There is no flashing of bulbs nor chanting of protesters; instead the miffed tapping of computer keyboards is the revolutionary sound as web warriors attempt to make a difference to their neighbourhoods.

It started with a big bang and ended with a humble community website helping to change the ways of a corporate giant.

William Perrin, who set up the King's Cross Environment website in north London, recalled: "Someone stuffed a car full of fireworks in front of my house and set alight to it.

"The car exploded - but the police did not come. I realised then I was living in a police no-go area."

But Mr Perrin, 38, did not flee for leafy, safe suburbia climes. He explained: "I faced that classic middle class dilemma - do I move, or do I get stuck in?

"So I got heavily involved in community issues."

He did not content himself with turning up at meetings.

Once the smoke had cleared from the pyrotechnics he launched his website, and eight years later it is an online community of 400 with impressive scalps under its belt.

The council were just not listening to the community. They have started listening
Hugh Flouch, HarringayOnline

They helped win £1m compensation to be spent on community projects for disruption caused by Network Rail.

But perhaps their greatest accomplishment to date - the battle with Mexican multi-billion-pound cement firm Cemex - also began with an unholy racket.

Mr Perrin said: "Every morning they used to dump 30 tons of gravel - it was like an aircraft taking off.

"We did a lot of work and eventually they changed their behaviour."

After a six-month battle Cemex made almost a dozen alterations to their plant, including building acoustic shields.

They even provided staff with rubber shovels to reduce sound.

Mr Perrin added: "I'm now in their company video as an example of what happens if you annoy the neighbours!"

It is thought there are up to 40 such not-for-profit websites in London. One of them was set up by Hugh Flouch when Haringey Council mooted pedestrianising Wood Green High Street.

Hugh Flouch
Mr Flouch says his site now has 2,500 members

The website was used 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."

It amounts to a hefty proportion of the electorate in Mr Flouch's ward.

"That's why they started listening", he said.

The site's power is disputed by the council. A Haringey spokeswoman insisted the site was not influencing council policy.

But local MP David Lammy is now a regular contributor.

And Mr Flouch, 50, continued: "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 Rushbridger, 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."

Knitting to cider

Not all website owners consider themselves as journalists. Mr Perrin said: "I'm not a journalist by any stretch of the imagination - it's a label I actually resist."

But James Hatts founded the London SE1 website with the intention of providing an ultra-local news service.

"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."

Like many community sites, London SE1 does not just tackle issues.

Annette Albert
Annette Albert says it's 'fantastic' when her site brings about change

Societies as varied as a knitting circle and a cider-making group formed through its pages.

And members freely give expertise to others.

"Someone wrote about being bullied at work", Mr Hatts recalled. "An expert in employment law came forward and was able to help.

"It was a heart-warming moment of community support."

For Annette Albert, who runs the W14 London website, the heart-warming moment is seeing physical changes their virtual meeting place brings about.

Despite being set up in August 2009, the website has already fought council plans to redevelop an estate and successfully lobbied the authority to renovate a derelict building.

"It feels fantastic", she said. "It shows what the community can achieve."

Are local websites the best way to find out what's going on near you? Or do you prefer the more traditional media like newspapers and radio? Email us at BBC London

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