Alston Cybermoor - Circulating information to help a community thrive
The small parish of Alston Moor in northern England has developed a community development strategy based on social enterprise, and uses the ESF to keep crucial information flowing using modern media.
England’s highest market town, Alston, sits isolated atop the Pennine moors at an altitude of 300m, 32 km north-west of nearest town of any size, Penrith. Together with the nearby villages of Nenthead and Garrigill, it is home to 2,200 people. From Roman till Victorian times it relied on mining coal, lead, silver, zinc and fluorspar. Nowadays, lying as it does within a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, tourism is the driving force of the economy. But faced with the relentless withdrawal of public services, it has developed a strategy to do things for itself. It now has a thriving social enterprise sector which supplies many of the needs that conventional suppliers, public or private, don’t find worthwhile.
The community plan
The town’s local development plan has been devised by the Alston Moor Partnership (AMP), a consultative body that works closely with the local authorities. AMP was established in 2001 and incorporated as a non-profit company in 2004. It is a mixed public-private partnership, and its board of 15, which is elected at the annual general meeting, consists of 6 members from the community, 5 from private busi¬nesses, 1 from the Alston Moor Business Associa-tion, 1 from Alston Moor Parish Council, 1 from Eden District Council and 1 from Cumbria County Council. Based in a shop on Alston’s Front Street, it holds regular ‘big ideas meetings’ at which the public can propose new ideas for improving the area’s living conditions and prosperity. But the partnership’s budget is nowhere big enough to take forward all the proposals, and local administrative and voluntary capacity is limited, so they do not automatically become a reality. Fortunately, a lot of entrepreneurial people live in the area, so projects often get under way with no formality. And AMP has recently created the paid post of projects officer, which will speed up implementation.
As a successor to the previous plan published in 2002, the Alston Moor Community Plan 2011 – 2016 was drawn up in 2011 and revised in 2012. It prioritises actions under the headings of the economy, the health service, education and lifelong learning, opportunities for young people, affordable homes, local facilities, communications, the environment, agriculture, transport, fuel, elderly and disabled people, and mobility needs. The partnership believes that local service provision is best, so plans to submit bids to take over services as and when they come up for tender. Actions on the list include preserving the townscape, improving local branding, signing and tourist facilities. It also wants to develop a source of revenue for the community, possibly a wood fuel or renewable energy project (a windfarm project was proposed in 2007 but aroused a lot of dissent). A controversial proposal is to free up a source of housing by allowing barns to be converted for permanent residential use rather than only for holiday lets, as current planning regulations dictate.
The Alston Moor area is covered by the Solway, Border and Eden LEADER initiative, which built community capacity through the establishment of its Local Action Group. However it is now winding down and, owing to the need to find matching funding, has mostly funded small projects rather than taken a strategic approach.
This community action takes place within the context of the British government’s ’localism’ agenda which led to the establishment of a set of ‘community rights’ in 2012. These include rights to be involved in planning decisions, to take over unused public assets such as libraries, and to challenge closures of institutions such as pubs. Locality, the UK’s leading network of multipurpose, community-led organisations, offers local groups direct support worth £9,500 plus grants of up to £7,000 to prepare neighbourhood plans, and has so far helped nearly 400 groups to do this.
Social Enterprise Town
Alston Moor has developed a social enterprise culture, as a way of becoming more resilient in the face of the steady withdrawal of public services. Britain as a whole has witnessed a boom in social enterprises over the last ten years, and there are now reckoned to be 70,000 nation-wide. Alston Moor alone is home to 19 of them, which together employ more than 50 people and turn over £1.5m (€1.8m). Alston’s achievement is attracting a lot of interest since winning the first ever Social Enterprise Town of the Year award in 2012.
Social enterprises provide residents with a wide range of services that would otherwise not exist. Daily needs are met by a bakery and a wholefood shop. The villagers of Nenthead have taken over their village shop and post office, raising £10,000 (€12,000) by selling shares to the public. They also operate the playground and public toilets and run a community snowplough. They are currently con¬verting a disused Method¬ist chapel into a multifunctional building for community and business use. Tourists are catered for by the South Tynedale Railway Preservation Society, which runs England’s highest narrow gauge railway and attracts over 40,000 visitors each year. Specialist businesses include a film-maker and a gymnasium. Social enterprise has now become a mainstream common-sense choice for the local people when it comes to providing a service or retaining a facility that is only marginally profitable.
A modern economy relies on the rapid transmission of information, and one particularly important co-operative has taken a strategic initiative in this area. Cybermoor is a community-owned co-operative that addresses the issues of digital inclusion. It works with a number of technologies:
- Broadband: Cybermoor was founded in 2002 to provide a broadband internet service, which commercial providers had declined to do. So far it has been wifi based, delivering speed of 2 Mbps. However it is currently being upgraded to fibre optic cable, which is being laid to serve 300 properties, including remote farms. This will offer a speed of 20 Mbps at the start, and more in the future. Such connectivity is essential to rural businesses, for instance enabling knowledge workers to work from home instead of commuting – and has led to a 25% rise in house prices.
- Health: as part of the EU-supported Ambient Assisted Living (AAL) programme, Cybermoor is piloting a service that allows informal carers to monitor the wellbeing of their relatives by video (telemonitoring). In a related area, a video link has also been installed between the hospitals in Alston and Carlisle, which saves patients from having to travel the 48 km between the two towns
- Flying Shepherd: in 2011 Cybermoor conducted a pilot evaluation of a drone which farmers on the exposed hills can use to watch their sheep and locate strays. Although the technology is currently too expensive for all but the largest farmers to afford, it could also find a use with the emergency services, for instance for finding walkers lost on the fells.
- Open data: Cybermoor is investigating a ‘community data explorer’ to help communities to make practical use of the masses of unintelligible open-access data that public authorities are now making available.
Two projects to promote community journalism
At the moment Cybermoor is delivering an ESF-supported training course for community journalists. Particularly in a dispersed settlement, the community webpage (http://www.cybermoor.org) is a vital tool for staying in touch with what’s going on. It keeps the wheel of the economy turning by offering a directory enabling residents to find 164 businesses, 93 public and community services, 61 community groups and 70 Cybermoor services, as well as publicising liftsharing offers and requests and enabling booking of the wheelchair accessible community minibus. There is news, an events calendar, a photo gallery and webcam views.
This online information enables citizens to participate – but participation can be two-edged. In its early stages the quality of posts could sometimes be low, and there was a problem of destructive comments ('trolling'). Cybermoor had long wanted to do something to improve the quality of the content on the website, and after several failed applications gained £10,000 (€12,000) of European Social Fund support for a training programme in community journal-ism. This three-day course covers journalistic good practice, story-writing, photo¬graphy, video, interviewing and online publish¬ing. It culminates in the award of a certificate of the Institute of Community Reporters. Eight trainees have taken the course, and they will in turn train others. They come from a variety of backgrounds – some already published blogs, others not – and the feedback has been fantastic.
The course is funded from the ESF's Community Learning and Skills Grants programme, which offers grants of up to £12,000 (€14,000) to help “small not-for-profit community groups to undertake activity that helps engage and progress individuals that are considered 'hard to reach'”. Some £2m (€2.4m) was dispersed in this way during 1012-13 in the North-West of England.
One problem in accessing ESF funding has been the additional costs implicit in ensuring that the community benefits from the training delivered. The limited input metrics used to evaluate proposals, such as strict limits on permissible costs per hour of training delivered – make it very difficult to compete with commercial organisations delivering standardised information technology training.
Cybermoor was also awarded one of five grants of £10,000 from the Carnegie Trust to train a community reporter, working in partnership with the CN group, which publishes seven newspapers in Cumbria. Carnegie, which received 80 applications, reasons that as more and more of the news we consume comes to us over the web, local news is being ignored – and that risks opening up a democratic deficit. It will evaluate the five projects in order to move policy forward on innovative ways to produce news for what the press terms ‘hyperlocal’ media.
As part of the ESF Learning Grant, Cybermoor has also been able to deliver a training programme on a range of IT topics including social media, eBay, security, Skype, desktop publishing, new technology (smart phones, iPads, Kindles etc.) and spreadsheets (2 levels). There are also longer courses in social media and media training (audio and video interviewing and production).
Alston Moor Partnership: http://alstonmoorpartnership.co.uk/
Alston Moor Community Plan: http://alstonmoorpartnership.co.uk/community/community_plan.html
Alston Moor draft Marketing Strategy: http://alstonmoorpartnership.co.uk/projects/marketing_events/marketing_alstonmoor.html
Community Rights: http://mycommunityrights.org.uk/
Neighbourhood planning policy: https://www.gov.uk/neighbourhood-planning
ESF Community Grants: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/esf/funding-opportunities/community-grants/
Alston CA9 3RF
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