OUR towns and villages are strong communities because each of us plays a part. In Britain we are rightly proud of the fact that we are free, and that includes being active citizens in our communities. As we approach International Labour Day on May 1, we remember the sacrifices of those who fought for our freedom, including the trade unionists – including many from our area such as the Ascott Martyrs – 16 women imprisoned for their part in forming a trade union then pardoned by Queen Victoria; or the Bliss Mill strikers who fought 100 years ago for decent conditions. Also we should remember the many people who run our civic and voluntary organisations, from parish and town councillors to Rotarians and Scouts, so many people contribute to the life of our country and district.
Often I think of the internet as a tool for business. I am a publisher by day as well as a councillor and it has transformed the way the doctors I serve receive and use information, to our massive benefit. But it can also be a way for communities and neighbours to come together. It is not enough of course just to have endless ranting conversations with like-minded people on social media – the dangerous "echo chamber" which feeds us what we want to hear and not what is actually happening in the world! But the same social media can provide a platform for people getting together to do good things and to share.
Our councils have made a move to involve people this way. The County council website offers ways to report highways problems using FixMyStreet https://fixmystreet.oxfordshire.gov.uk – plenty a pothole has been fixed as a result. The district planning website lets anyone look up proposed developments in their area and comment on the work proposed at https://publicaccess.westoxon.gov.uk/online-applications. Witney Town Council has an app for mobile phones – in its early stages still, but providing news about local events. I like a mobile phone app called Trolleywise, which gives you a way of reporting lost shopping trolleys and reuniting them with their shops!
Facebook offers many organisations a way to do their work better – Witney Refugee Action Group is one example, and LibFest another. Specific pages like Witney Memories offer a chance to share and remember people and places. Councillors have pages through which they can gather comments, share news, and receive requests for help or advice. Cogges and Newland Community Association is not the only resident group using Facebook for a similar purpose.
There are also community sites such as Streetbank and Streetlife, as well as new ones like HelpfulPeeps, where neighbours can come together to share skills, time and things online and in the real world. Buying, sharing and selling sites like Gumtree and Freecycle offer a way people can get rid of unwanted items and pick up bargains or free things, rather than chuck them out. One that is new to me is Olio https://olioex.com/ which offers a chance to reduce waste and share unwanted food, involving local shops as well.
All of these new ways to become active digital citizens need to be put in context however. We need our schools and libraries to offer support so people can use them properly, and access to the internet for those with none at home. We also need urgent action on the woefully weak mobile signals and non-existent fast broadband across much of our district. And all of this digital stuff is not a replacement for activity, but a tool to help the active citizens of West Oxfordshire going out and doing great things on behalf of our district.