In the last in this mini-series to celebrate some of the remarkable sites which www.talkaboutlocal.org has worked with over the past few years I take a look at the vibrant Kington Blackboard.
Voter apathy in local elections is a well-known situation up and down the country – less than 50% in many places during the 2011 local elections.
But the difference in the Shropshire village of Kington was that people were getting fed up of their entirely co-opted council – a situation that had been in place for ten years.
They wanted to do something about it as Emma Phillips explained.
The town council was in disarray and people felt that they took decisions without consultation. People were unhappy so we felt setting up a website was a good way to change the situation.
That decision in 2009 put in process a chain of events which this year saw a total of 23 people standing in the 15 seats and resulted in a fully elected council.
But the path to the democratic turnaround hadn’t been a straightforward one – and a curiously seasonal tale of commerce, Christmas lights, electricity blackouts and the inevitable appearance of a real-life Scrooge proved to be the unlikely turning point.
Rumours of a dispute between the town council and traders in settling the previous year’s bill for the traditional Christmas light display were reaching the Kington Blackboard – would the show go on?
“A lot of people used the Blackboard to make their feelings known, more and more people came on to talk about it”.
A posting to the site on November 30 announced that the stand-off was over. The Chamber of Trade claimed.
“At a Chamber meeting last night (23rd Nov) it was recognised that if left to the Council,there would be no Lights. Kington Town Council were first advised in May by the Chamber, that it would be having nothing to with the Lights and it was only at their last meeting in November, that a decision was made to offer a contract to an outside organisation to put up the lights. Having already decided not to enter into any financial arrangements with the Council,the Chamber decided that for this year,members and supporters would put up the Lights without input from the Council.”
It seemed that the show would go on and the lights bedecked the streets as usual.
But only briefly. A person the site nicknamed Scrooge made the first of his many appearances in the town’s lights saga. One night the lights went out and the villagers learned there had been complaints made to the sub-contractors and the electricity authority over the validity and safety of the displays.
After checks established the lights were properly erected, the show did indeed go on.
But it was the shining of light into the workings of local bureaucracy that ended up illuminating the community for a far longer period than the yuletide display.
Having achieved its primary aim in changing the council’s relationship with the local community, the Blackboard’s current challenge is keeping the site interesting and relevant.
Emma and volunteer Hannah James are the main authors of material on the site as well as undertaking moderation of comments and postings to ensure nothing “racist, religious, sexist, political or slanderous”.
They are carrying out a review of activity over the next couple of months and coming up with ideas for the site’s future.
“Things have changed radically since we have a fully elected council. It’s much more pro-active and listening.
“Momentum is the difficult thing and now it’s hard to keep it going because there isn’t a contentious issue and people have got what they wanted with a fully elected council.
“We would like it to carry on so we are looking at how to make sure it stays in the public eye.”
* Visit Kington Blackboard at http://www.kingtonblackboard.org.