I’m part of a group which is organising an event around the Big Society in the North. Today, on the day prior to the event, I undertook a “reconnaissance mission”, visiting the district of Eden in Cumbria, which is one of four communities (the others being Liverpool, Sutton & Cheam and Windsor & Maidenhead) which have been chosen by the Government as Big Society “Vanguard” areas.

The Train to Eden

Lots of thanks go to Lindsey Annison, long time rural broadband campaigner and stalwart of the Eden community, who undertook to show me around and introduce me to some of the key people who are making “Big Society” stuff happen in the area. I was keen to find out how the Big Society is working on the ground. It’s very early days for the initiative, and, from what I could gather, it seemed that people in the district are still a bit shell-shocked at having been chosen and being in the unaccustomed position of being in the national spotlight. So, I was interested to find out what it was they were doing that had won them their designation, what they thought themselves about having been chosen, and what their hopes were for the future. Beyond this, my visit had two specific aims;

Firstly, to try to anticipate some of the issues that might come up at the Big Society in the North Launch Planning Event the next day; and

Secondly, to explore the potential for using technology and social media to connect community initiatives up in the area, to amplify their work, to engage new people in their activities, and to connect them with best practice and avoid re-inventing wheels.

Lindsey met me at Appleby Station and took me to the Tufton Arms Hotel in the town, where we met with Carl Bendelow and Miles Mandelson. Later, we travelled to Kirkby Stephen to meet with local councillor, Glenys Lumley. One of the key issues all four of them were keen to get across was that a primary need was to identify common interests across the different communities of Eden. To an outsider they might seem to be fairly alike, but people in rural areas have very long memories, and differences between neighbouring communities such as Appleby and Kirkby Stephen date back to the fact that they were settlements originally established by different Viking fiefdoms.

Boots in Appleby

What was apparent was that the area has a long tradition of community self-organising. People are keen to stress that, while public funding would be nice, they have no intention of sitting back and waiting for it to be granted, if necessary, they will get off their behinds and do what they need for themselves. This has been manifest in the work which has gone into pushing forward the case for rural broadband, and in installing wireless networks and other forms of connectivity, including the famous Cybermoor Fibre-to-the-home project, in places.  The local Community Plans, put in place with the leadership of Eden District Council, have also been instrumental, and there were lots of kind words for Libby Bateman, Upper Eden Community Plan Officer.

Lack of connectivity and bandwidth locally were real concerns as barriers to getting people connected, online and collaborating. Lindsey had personal experience of engaging people without internet connections in Bolivia, and there was talk of needing to be more imaginative about learning from what communities with scarce resources had done elsewhere in the world. One of the ideas floated was the conversion of rarely-used telephone boxes into Electronic Village Noticeboards. Something similar has been done in Wray in Lancashire. Other things we discussed that might be done with technology in Eden include releasing information on where gritting lorries are / or have been, on the model of how Walsall Council did it last winter, this is not “nice to know” information, it can be vital in a rural area for people to get where they need to be for work purposes or in emergencies.

We discussed the flow of information into, around, and out of, the community. Again, connectivity and bandwidth is a severely limiting factor. Distance is a big issue in Eden, and even TV signals can be problematic, in an area where the analogue TV signal has already been turned off. Local people in Eden complain that their TV news is all either about the Newcastle area or about the Isle of Man. The local paper does its best, but it is struggling to serve the community. Local radio stations are based in Carlisle and give scant coverage to Eden. And the topography of the area means that radio signals can be at best patchy, and at worst non-existent.  Although there may be moves to established localised radio services, and these have the potential to play a big role in the Big Society, if they can overcome the geographic challenges, but it was felt that the long term solution to local communication problems lay in online provision once the connectivity issue was dealt with. But, a key obstacle to overcome here is in reaching those people who do not own, and do not want to own, a computer. We wondered whether there might be an opportunity in the future to supply people with pre-programmed internet radios, one of the pre-sets programmed to a local community station.

The Loki Stone in Kirkby Stephen Church

The Loki Stone in Kirkby Stephen Church

Local people feel strongly that decision-making has moved further away from them over the years. While Westminster is certainly very remote, so are Warrington, where a lot of regional decision-making takes place, and even Carlisle, where the County Council is based, and Penrith, the home of the District Council offices. There is a desire to use the Big Society initiative to localise decision-making, and, crucially, keep money in the area and allow it to circulate there. They want to be able to employ local contractors to do vital work, and to ensure money follows local priorities.

Some of the other initiatives which were explored in discussion that might be under-pinned by technology to make the Big Society work in the area included:

  • Car Sharing Scheme – the sparse nature of public transport forces people to rely on the car, but some people just don’t own a vehicle. A central point for requesting and offering lifts might help many people who are struggling to get around;
  • Village “Welcome Packs” online guides to the local area for people moving in, perhaps complemented by printed packs pushed through the door. (This might be a “Welcome to Your Square Mile” for the Big Society);
  • Using Social Networking to connect Second Home Owners into local communities. Many don’t have the time to build up local connections, but they might have skills they are prepared to use to help the local community while they are in its midst;
  • Putting Planning Applications online;
  • Using the Schools’ IT network and connectivity to connect local residents to broadband

I enjoyed my day in Eden, and hope to be back there again soon. It is clear that people are excited about being chosen as a vanguard community for the big society, but also fearful that their local spirit and enterprise might be usurped by people coming in from outside with ideas as to how things should be done. In an area with such an obvious tradition of people collectively doing things for themselves, they will not take kindly to any attempts to dictate models. But, it is also clear that they will welcome help, provided it is offered in the right spirit, goes with the grain of approaches they are comfortable with, and adds value to what they are seeking to do.

I believe there could be a big role for technology and social media in helping them achieve their goals, and in many other Big Society initiatives too.  Ensuring effective use of social media, to connect people together, engage them with initiatives, build platforms for collaboration, and connect with and share best practice is a bigger challenge in Eden than it might be in other communities because of the geographic, topographical, and connectivity issues. I believe that the spirit and enterprise of the people of Eden mean these are not insurmountable challenges.

Travelling back from Eden over the Ribblehead Viaduct