Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

Public toilets and public interest and what it means for scrutiny

Posted on 1st June 2010 by

It was a toilet a bit like this, just without the sign. By Phinphonephotos on Flickr

This weekend I’ve had my head stuck on working out what I can do next on the digital scrutiny project. And then I remembered a toilet.

I used to be a local reporter in north London. Each week, after we’d put the paper to bed, I’d walk round my ‘patch’. It was a picturesque place called Highgate. I’d often need what one might euphemistically refer to as a ‘comfort break’. There was only one public toilet in the middle of Highgate Village, so it became a er, regular calling point.

Sadly for me, it didn’t take all that long before the local council announced its closure as part of a series of budget cuts. This led to a few protests from locals who were unhappy to be losing a treasured local service, but no one seemed to think it was that interesting a local newspaper story.

A bit of a story I and another reporter wrote about the toilet, taken from teh Ham&High website.

Well, that is apart from me. I was enraged. My own personal pit stop had been taken away. Where would I be going to the toilet now? I furiously filed story after story about the loo closure. I think at one stage I got the nickname ‘toilet boy’. I even filed a Freedom of Information request asking for any correspondence about the lost loo.

Splash
The mickey-taking, however, stopped when my toilet-based Freedom of Information request got a reply from the council. Contained in a bundle of papers was a gem: a letter from the councillor in charge of Camden Council‘s environment department pleading with Mr Livingstone to give him the money needed to keep the toilet open, for fear its closure would hurt his chances of being re-elected. It made that week’s splash, if you’ll pardon the appalling pun.

Flushed with pride
I was obviously chuffed: a story I’d chosen to work on that others felt wasn’t important had ended up being quite, well a little bit, important. The councillor did lose the next election – along with quite a few other Labour councillors. The loo earned a reprieve, when the new council was elected and, under the name Pond Squre, is still in the list of Camden Council loos.

But, in truth, I didn’t deserve that much praise. I’d only pursued the story because it mattered to me. Its closure was a pain in the arse and I was annoyed. The moral of the tale, of course, is that it doesn’t take much at all to find out what’s going on, if you care and ask the right questions.

Bog standard
Sadly, local reporters are rarely the people who can do this stuff. They have to worry about deadlines, filling pages of copy and often don’t even live in the area they report on (I didn’t). That doesn’t mean they can’t do important work, but it’s citizens, the people affected, who need to take the lead, because it really matters to them.

So the next bit of the project will be to try to isolate a question – almost certainly about swimming pools on Where Can We Swim? – and pursue it with similar vigour to the toilet issue. I’ll have to care about it, but – importantly – I need to find others who do, too. There are a few that spring to mind – not least whether Birmingham really needs a 50m pool – but I’ll be trying very hard, very soon to work out what it is. Then it’s a matter of applying the skills I’m picking up through the project to see just how well this sort of stuff can work.

Scrutinising sporting facilities – and why it matters

Posted on 6th May 2010 by

Following my blog post about scrutinising swimming pools I’ve now got myself a website that I hope can act as a place where I can gather information about how good/bad swimming facilities are and how they can get better.

The Where Can We Swim website

I’ve started blogging on the site, but I’ve also put together a wiki – that still needs some work – where anyone can contribute to a debate over the condition of swimming pools in the city. I’m hoping I can also collect some basic information about swimming pools in the city and use this to compare it to other cities.

I’m interested in seeing how these two very simple tools can add to a debate over the provision of swimming in the run up to the 2012 London Olympics. It seems a long time ago now, but when the bid for the games was made its strongest suit was the sporting legacy it would leave behind. That wasn’t just in London; there was a commitment to improve facilities across the UK.

What’s this got to do with scrutiny?

It seems to me that we should all be involved in evaluating the sporting legacy that the Olympic Games in London is providing. In Birmingham, for example, there was a lot of noise about a project to build an Olympic-sized swimming pool for the city that would be in place before the 2012 games. That noise hasn’t amounted to much at the moment, except a lot of people who are unhappy about where it’s going and others, including the Amateur Swimming Association, who are peeved that it has been held up.

What did the Olympics ever do for us?

Imagine, for a moment, what will happen in two years’ time when the Olympics is all over. We’ll be left with a few gold medals and – perhaps – some nice new facilities. But will the legacy, trumpeted by the Olympic Games bid team, have been fulfilled? And who gets to decide whether or not it has been?

Since the facilities have been built for us, I reckon that we should be the ones who get to decide. But how on earth does one go about that? A big survey? A phone vote on Radio 5? And what, exactly, will be the point? If we’ve missed the boat and we don’t get the legacy we think we deserve and were promised who can we blame?

That’s why I think the idea of scrutinising the Olympic legacy ourselves (and when I say ‘ourselves’ I mean anyone who cares) is so crucial. How should the funding we’ve got be spent?  What is wrong with the facilities we have and how would you build new ones?

In a sense, bodies like the Amateur Swimming Association and our own politicians will do this anyway. But surely interested citizens, who care about the facilities they use, could become involved in that kind of scrutiny at a local level. Given that we’re about to get a new government and there’s been a financial crisis, there’s a lot to be vigilant about. That’s what I hope the Where Can We Swim site can start, in a very small way, to be about. It’s really just a very modest exploration of what happens when one person asks a question about one particular aspect of a local service.

Central Birmingham Social Media Surgeries for April, May and June

Posted on 24th February 2010 by

Surgeons and patients at February's surgery at thestudio

We’ve just booked up three new dates for the Central Birmingham Social Media Surgeries – April 7, May 6 and June 8 – with the lovely people at thestudio, in Cannon Street, off New Street.

It’s great news, because we’ve been able to extend our original arrangement where we get the space in thestudio for free. It seems that the management at thestudio is quite happy with it, too – as long as we remember to buy a few drinks at the bar and clear off at 7pm, as we’re supposed to. We’ll issue reminders for these events closer to the dates, but if you’re looking for the next surgery it will be on March 9.

Have a look here for more details.