Amanda Taylor

News and views about Cambridge and Cambridgeshire politics, especially Queen Edith's Learn more

Social media: how it can freshen up our local democracy

by admin on 18 July, 2012

Puffles the Dragon Fairy in the chair

The first time I ever attended a council meeting (1970s, Labour-run Leeds Town Hall), the radio and papers took a keen interest in municipal goings-on, to the extent that they would even visit councillors at home to interview them. When I became a councillor myself in Cambridge in the 1990s, the press had their own table in the meeting room and usually turned up to report, even on quite dry topics.

By the mid-2000s, the local paper, the Cambridge News, had relocated to the sticks, and there were many meetings at the Guildhall with no journalists at all, let alone members of the public. Often, local government was given to a new reporter, meaning each new person had to get to know everyone and everything from scratch each time. Then they would move on… Many did a lot of their work over the phone from their offices in Milton.

Things are better now than five years ago. Since the demise of Cambridge First, Cambridge only really has one local paper, but the local government reporter, Chris Havergal, is experienced, knows who’s who and what’s what, and gets out and about, even to the extremities of the city.

Another big change is the new media – people who aren’t professional journalists but turn up to speak or just listen, and provide a commentary via blogs and social media. For example, last Monday’s Cambridge South Area meeting, held in Cherry Hinton, was attended not only by the professional reporter Chris Havergal of the Cambridge News, but by three local bloggers apart from myself: Richard Taylor, Chris Rand and Puffles’s Bestest Buddy, Antony Carpen. Puffles, in case you’re wondering, is a baby dragon, and pops up all over the places, from the Beer Festival to the Council Chamber. Yes, social media can be a little quirky – but hey, we need to think out of the box.

We covered the proceedings on websites and also tweeted mini-summaries of what went on. Altogether, there were five of us tweeting the police priority-setting and parking discussion.

Does it matter? Well yes, I think it does. Public engagement with local democracy is said to be on the wane, if not actually dying. Going to meetings is on the decline.

This is not just because the subject matter is boring! I’ve found if there is something meaty on the agenda and you inform people, there is usually a good attendance – though it’s often not representative. There’s a variety of reasons why people don’t go to meetings – transport, mobility, childcare… Social media are accessible in the home, so you don’t actually have to go to a meeting to contribute.

Twitter and Facebook are two-way communication tools. Indeed, one of the priorities discussed on Monday started off with a Tweet: I tweeted something about speed limits in March this year, and had an instant reply from a man in Church End asking if anything could be done about speeding in his street. He couldn’t attend the meeting as he had children at home in bed, but I was able to raise his concerns thanks to the Tweet. Six days later, it had been made a police priority.

For those who like to follow these things, here is a round-up of the media present the other night, both old and new:

  • Cambridge News: @ChrisHavergalCN
  • Queen Edith’s Online:
  • Richard Taylor: @RTaylorUK
  • Finally and most intriguingly, Puffles the Dragon Fairy:, @Puffles 2010

Thanks, everyone!

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