Connecting Communities in Lewisham

How it began

I hadn't been working for the Estates Environment Team at Lewisham Council for long before I came across an article in The Big Issue about an online community in Manchester known as Redbricks.

The idea was intriguing and one that I thought would work well in Lewisham. A couple of months passed before myself and my manager had a chat about getting computers, residents and housing estates working together for the good of all concerned. This brought me back to the article and so I endeavored to track it down.

Finding the article led to me discovering the website address and subsequently a chance to find out more about the work that this group had done. As useful as the site was, it didn't allow me to actually find out how the whole project was put together and so with a phone number that I'd seen on the website, I gave them a call and spoke at length to one of the key people there. He told me about the project, what they had achieved, how they had achieved it and the sort of things I'd need to do in order to get this off the ground in Lewisham

Moving things forward

Armed with this information I set forth to try and establish an online community in the London Borough of Lewisham - easier said than done. As this was quite new ground that I was venturing on, I soon found that I was continually repeating myself to people in order to explain what the project could achieve and why we were trying to achieve it.

Putting it succinctly, what we were trying to set up was a well functioning, user friendly network of computers, that would give residents access to the internet as well as their own community intranet from the comfort of their own homes. By community intranet, I mean a unique website that only the residents of a particular estate can have access to and participate in, to find all manner of local information. This could include information on residents meetings, local jobs, local businesses, bus and train times through to what local entertainment there was in the area and whatever else people wanted to see and share with everybody else.

We were doing this firstly because the intranet can be seen as an enhancement to tenant and residents meetings and participation as more people will have access to what's been said as its put online. Ownership and control of the intranet would also be firmly rooted in the community, allowing greater access to the councils electronic services amongst many others which would help to instil a sense of empowerment to the local residents. The intranet also offers a very low marginal cost for additional content including educational and health items, entertainment, email and online games. This idea also helps to knit a community, tackle social exclusion and develop a sense of community regeneration.

Getting people involved

The crucial factor to success is getting the people that this project most affects involved. To do this we'd have to demonstrate what it was we were doing and how this would benefit them. With redbricksonline, Lewisham Council held an exhibition in the local community centre on the Winslade estate, New Cross Gate, Lewisham. This estate was chosen for several reasons. Firstly it was involved in a £50 million New Deal for Communities (NDC) programme. Lewisham Council had submitted an Expression of Interest to the Department of Education and Employment (DfEE) for funding as part of the Wired Up Communities initiative which had to be linked to another funding stream - hence the New Cross Gate location. Secondly, this is quite an isolated estate and providing online, up to date local information to people would go some way to improving this situation. Thirdly, the layout of the estate and lack of main roads made this estate one that would be relatively easy to 'network'. As an extra bonus, there was The Reuse Warehouse nearby, this is a recycling organisation who will be helping supply the project with second hand refurbished computers. Also, and by coincidence, there stood a disused neighbourhood office in the centre of the estate which we are now utilising for the purposes of turning it into a cyber centre. This centre, when ready, will be used by local residents to surf the net, email friends and family and also learn new skills. It will also act as a centre to recruit people from the estate into the computer network.

The exhibition

With redbricksonline working in a consultancy capacity, we put together a two day exhibition that demonstrated the internet generally whilst also showing how people could start building their own intranet. The exhibition also demonstrated the use of webcams and how they could be used in a crime preventative manner. Prior to this event we had circulated a leaflet notifying people of what it was about and how they could get involved. The publicity for the event was heightened by a visit from the mayor who firmly supports this idea within the borough.

Door knocking

To keep the momentum of the project going, we followed up the exhibition with a small questionnaire designed to find out who attended, what computer knowledge they had etc. which we took around the entire estate (approx. 450 flats). This was useful in many respects as it established further interest in the project from those that hadn't attended the exhibition and also allowed us to make a basic skill and interest audit. Many people favoured the idea of having their own computer which they could use from their own home whilst others wanted to play an active role in the project.

'Online' Newsletter

The next step will be to produce a hard copy newsletter. This will make sure that everyone on the estate is aware of the project and what it can achieve for them and their estate. It will give any one who has yet to hear of the project a chance to find out further information and what they need to do if they want to get involved. It is hoped that this newsletter will be a temporary measure before a full working community intranet is up and running and supplying vast amounts of local information to all those who participate.

A lot of work still needs to be done and what I've just outlined above only touches on the issues affecting the project as a whole. There are still many other issues to address regarding funding, setting up the network and content of the intranet amongst many others, but things have started in New Cross Gate which we will develop across the entire borough in the future. To help further these developments, an independent consortium of Lewisham Council staff, local residents and other online communities such as redbricks has been put together under the umbrella title of This will help to facilitate future online communities and supply advice and information to other groups and parties wishing to start similar projects.

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