In Plymouth, a determined group is fighting to save trees from being cut down in the city centre. They’re called STRAW, an acronym for Save the TRees of Armada Way.
A small and local campaign it may be, but we recently noticed that it was sending a significant number of people to our ‘contact your representatives’ site WriteToThem. Curiosity piqued, we got in touch to find out more.
Ali from STRAW was glad to talk to us. “The campaign started last September”, she explained, “when I learned that Plymouth City Council planned to regenerate Armada Way, a wide pedestrianised area which was covered in trees and runs through the heart of the city. It’s an area I live near, and was very fond of.
“It was clear that some of the trees would have to be cut down in order to implement the design, and I was surprised I hadn’t heard about this plan before, since it looked like it was definitely going ahead, and quite soon.”
A campaign is born
What do you do when you find out that an unwanted change is planned in your own neighbourhood? Gather other people who feel the same, and go on a fact-finding mission, that’s what!
And indeed, Ali explains: “I realised that I had no power on my own, so I decided I’d try and find out if other people knew about the plan and whether they were happy about it.
“Not long after, we discovered it wasn’t the case that some trees would be felled in order for the council to realise their new design. It was 99% of the 137 trees!
“Most of them were healthy, and most had been planted in the 80s, so they were trees which people had a real connection to. They’d grown up with them. They were like a little green oasis from quite a harsh urban landscape – an urban forest.”
Democracy in action
Once these startling facts had been pinned down, the group needed to take action. Their website provides multiple opportunities for activism: posters you can print out, a chance to donate, a petition to sign, and facts about the trees. Oh, and that link to WriteToThem!
“The campaign was really one of public awareness”, says Ali. “But we also asked the people of Plymouth to contact the decision-makers and let them know how they felt about what was planned, and that they were unhappy that they had not been consulted on it.
“We figured that if enough people wrote, they would realise what a bad decision it was. Democracy in action!”
First steps into politics
Since it’s a local campaign, STRAW encourages supporters to contact their councillors rather than their MP. WriteToThem doesn’t need you to know who your reps are before you email them, which proved very useful.
“Many people had no idea who their councillors were, and had certainly never written to them before. If nothing else, the campaign has got a lot more people in Plymouth to pay attention to local politics,” says Ali.
“The thought of having to look up who your councillor is before writing to them is a real barrier for people. WriteToThem makes it so easy, I really think it made a difference.
“We saw it a bit like a protest. Rather than blocking the streets, we filled councillors’ inboxes with passionate messages – not to be vexatious but to show our strength of feeling. We heard that Plymouth City Council have never had anywhere like the amount of correspondence as they had on this issue. We didn’t get many responses but we knew we’d got our message over.”
An ongoing campaign
STRAW had a significant initial success: “In November, at a council meeting, the council passed a motion to pause the project to review it, to determine whether any more trees could be worked into the design.
“This was two months before we presented them our petition, and was directly as a result of their being inundated with emails!”
But unfortunately, there was a huge setback when the plan went ahead regardless.
“We’re now in a legal case with the council over the way the Armada Way project has been handled,” says Ali, “and we are fighting to save the 20 trees which weren’t cut down in March as a result of a last minute injunction we managed to obtain.”
Sad news, but it’s great to hear they’re still fighting on. and Ali reckons that even if STRAW didn’t achieve everything it had hoped for, their actions have still had a net positive effect.
“We’re hoping that the campaign will mean that there’s better public consultation in the future. We’ve demonstrated that local people really do care about how their city looks; they want a voice and they care about urban trees and the many benefits mature urban trees bring.
“We’d like the council to better consult not only with local people but local stakeholder groups and local experts, most of whom have been overlooked in recent years.”
There’s been a growing understanding of the importance of trees within the urban landscape, and particularly in the context of the climate emergency.
They provide useful shade as the temperature rises; they decrease carbon, help mitigate flooding, increase biodiversity by providing homes for insects, birds and other creatures; and of course they simply make harsh city streets seem more appealing. A tree provides a natural place under which to place a table and chair, for example, reclaiming street use for people rather than traffic.
A tool for campaigners
With all this in mind, small neighbourhood campaigns to preserve trees seem all the more vital, and we’re pleased that our services can help. Would Ali recommend that others use WriteToThem as part of their campaigning toolkit?
“Absolutely. WriteToThem really is so useful; it’s a wonderful tool.
“And if you’re campaigning about a situation that lots of people feel passionately about, it can only help if we make our elected officials aware of how we feel.”
Many thanks to Ali for sharing STRAW’s story. If you’d like to get involved, you can find out more on their website.
At FixMyStreet there’s nothing we like better than to see….well, streets being fixed!
And we especially like it when people share a couple of good ‘before and after’ photos. It proves the system is working, and also helps more people discover FixMyStreet and understand what it can do.
Here’s one that we spotted recently. First the Oxfordshire Cycling Network posted a delighted tweet to show that a path had been repaired –
– upon which, Oxford city councillor Anna Railton replied to say she’d reported it on FixMyStreet, with an image of how it had been previously:
We were interested to hear more about how a councillor uses FixMyStreet, so we asked Anna, who said: “I use it quite a lot. The location plus photo combination, and the fact you don’t have to work out where to send it, is invaluable.
“It’s very good in two (or more) tier authorities where I don’t always have direct access to the right officers.”
Anna’s right when she says that FixMyStreet routes reports to the right authority to deal with them: even if you live in an area that has, say, a city council and a county council, it knows which one deals with which types of issue — and sends your reports to National Highways where appropriate, too.
But councillors don’t have to do all the hard work themselves: everyone in the area can also, of course, report anything that needs putting right, giving the council the benefit of many eyes on the ground as people go about their daily business.
“I do plug it a lot with residents!” says Anna.
Councillors can also find the FixMyStreet local alerts very handy in their work. This free service sends you an email every time a new report is made within a defined area.
Not only can they see what new issues are being reported, but over time they can also get a good overview of what problems are most common, or recurring. One option is to sign up for all reports within a specific ward, which is ideal for councillors — or anyone who’s interested in their own neighbourhood.
Thanks very much to Anna for letting us know how she uses FixMyStreet: we hope we can help bring many more smooth rides for the cyclists of Oxfordshire.
The climate emergency is, of course, a massive concern, and that’s why we often urge you to contact your MPs and councillors to demand faster, better, greener progress.
And that’s important — but also, we really should take the time to give positive feedback, thanking those councils and politicians who are doing the right thing.
This year, we’re taking part in the Climate Coalition’s Good News Day which, since 2015, has asked “organisations, institutions, household names and millions of people to use the power of green hearts to join together and ask politicians to put aside their differences and tackle the climate crisis.”
Here’s how you can get involved
- On Friday February 12, use our Climate Action Plans database to search for your local council and see if they have a plan in place.
- If they have, drop your councillors a line on our WriteToThem service to let them know you appreciate it.
Local authorities and councillors who are taking action need to know they’re supported in their actions, some of which may be radical or taking them into new territories — so let’s thank them for everything they’ve done so far, and maybe give them the support to go further, too.
- If they haven’t? Let them know you care about any climate-related action the council have taken, and urge them to get a wider plan approved.
- Maximise the power of your action by shouting about it on social media. Use the hashtag #ShowTheLove, and use a picture of a green heart (we’ve added links to some royalty-free images below you can download or copy and paste) to join in with the national Good News Day movement. Or, if you want to go all out, make your own crafty green heart: there are some ideas on the Climate Coalition’s worksheet and on cafod.org.uk.
- If you’d like to do more, see the Climate Coalition’s collection of downloadable resources.
If you’re on a roll…
There are other ways you can #showthelove, too.
We think the prompt to ‘ask politicians to put aside their differences and tackle the climate crisis‘ is a particularly important one, so:
- You could also use WriteToThem to email your MP with this message…
- …or go public and tweet them!
And finally, there is encouragement to share everything your own organisation is doing to help the climate. With that in mind:
- Here’s mySociety’s own environment policy — which any other organisation is welcome to copy and adapt for your own needs.
- And a reminder of our post showing the various ways in which our services can be used to help the climate.
- If you’re one of our many friend and partner organisations in the UK and around the world, please consider joining Good News Day and getting the word out to your own followers.
Green heart pictures
Pictures on Unsplash are free to use and you don’t even have to credit the photographer, although if we’re talking about showing the love, we should of course do the same for the creative people whose work we benefit from!
Just like many others, we at mySociety have been appalled and shocked at the Grenfell Tower fire which struck last week. That shock has only deepened over the weekend as the confirmed death toll has risen and more facts have emerged.
As both the public and the media search for the ‘why’ behind the story, strands are emerging which point to political mismanagement, inequality, long-term neglect and deprivation, shortsighted cost-cutting, rule bending, and following the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law.
Residents of the tower had raised multiple concerns about the risk of fire, only to have their requests dismissed. As our CEO Mark Cridge says, ‘Simply put, this is a totemic example of what happens when citizens fail to have influence over those with power.’
Everything mySociety does is about giving citizens more influence over those with power, so that puts Grenfell very much within our purview.
We recognise that there are deep, intractable issues around this terrible incident. We’ll be thinking more deeply about what we can do in the long term, and we’ll be returning with further thoughts once we’ve had a chance to discuss the best way forward.
But for the moment, we have services which you might wish to make use of right away.
If you want to help campaign
The first instinct of many, after an event like this, is to campaign for change or justice.
At this stage, facts are still emerging. If there’s information that you think might help, but which hasn’t yet been covered, you can use Freedom of Information to lodge a request with a relevant public body, on our site WhatDoTheyKnow.
Note that this is not necessarily a speedy process (while authorities must provide the information if they hold it, in most cases*, the process can take up to 20 working days); if you have personal concerns, see below for our advice on getting quick answers — but if there is information which you think should be in the public domain and which does not yet appear to have been requested, you may wish to lodge your own FOI request. It’s very easy, and WhatDoTheyKnow also publishes the whole correspondence online, meaning the information is then available to all.
In fact, over the last few days, many have already used this avenue to request information:
- Request to see the tender for the provision of cladding
- How missing and unaccounted-for people have been counted
- Details of insurance on the tower
- Numbers and demographics of tenants
- Income and repairs expenditure
- Details of the 2013 emergency fire test
- Date of the last fire test
- Further details on the cladding, fire alarm and sprinklers
If any of these requests are of particular interest, you can use the ‘follow’ button to receive an email when they are updated, e.g. when a response comes in.
Or if you would like to make your own request (remembering that you shouldn’t replicate anything that’s already been requested — just follow those requests if you want the answers) here are some relevant authorities:
- Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea The council in which Grenfell Tower is situated
- London Fire Brigade The service which ran rescue and firefighting operations
- Kensington and Chelsea TMO The Tenant Management Organisation, or Arms-Length Management Organisation (ALMO) which managed the tower
- Metropolitan Police
- All ALMOs (for those who wish to ask for information about other blocks)
- All Housing Associations Note that, unless publicly owned, housing associations are not subject to FOI; however they are included on the site for the reasons you will see at the top of each housing association’s page on WhatDoTheyKnow, like this one.
Also: while only publicly-funded organisations are covered by the FOI Act, note that you can ask any council for, say, contracts, minutes of meetings or sums paid to contractors or housing associations, which may cover much of what you need.
Lobby for change
Another way to campaign is to contact your MP and make it clear what action you would like them to take, whether that is a question asked in Parliament or to push for new legislation. You can see who your MP is and send them an email on our site WriteToThem.
If you want quick answers
Your local representatives are there to offer help and answer questions.
If you live in a towerblock yourself, and especially one that has been recently retrofitted with cladding, you may, understandably, be worried. In fact, some of the requests on WhatDoTheyKnow reflect just that concern:
- Cladding on other tower blocks – reassurance needed
- Is Katherine’s Court in Spring Boroughs similar cladding to Grenfell Tower
- High Rise blocks in Wood Vale
But like we’ve already said, FOI requests can take time. If your block is council-owned, you’ll get the quickest information — and hopefully, assurances — via your council, and you can get support from your local councillors. Even if your block is privately-run, you may find that they can help, with information about local legislation or suggestions for the best contacts to follow up.
WriteToThem also covers councillors. You don’t need to know who they are — just input your postcode and the site will guide you through the process of sending them an email.
What we will be doing
We’re still discussing the best way that mySociety can help, and we’ll be following up with a more considered response once we’ve come to some decisions.
Some ideas have already been suggested, from a FixMyTowerblock version of FixMyStreet, allowing residents to lodge concerns which would then be in the public domain (as well as being sent to the block’s management), to a site co-ordinating the needs of victims.
Whatever we do, we want to make sure it’s genuinely useful — whether that means using our own resources, or supporting others who use our Open Source code to power their own projects. So watch this space and we’ll let you know how our discussions go.
*Unless covered by an exemption.
WriteToThem allows you to email the people who represent you – even if you don’t know who they are. Input your postcode, and you’ll see all your representatives, from local councillors, to your MP and MEPs. You can then choose who you want to write to, and send off your message.
Never done anything like this before? You’re not alone. In fact, we ask all our users whether this is the first time they have contacted a representative. The number who say ‘yes’ is consistenly over 50%.
Kate found WriteToThem in the same way that many others do: searches for phrases such as ‘contact my local MP’ bring a lot of users to the site.
I first came across WriteToThem a few years ago when looking for my local MP’s contact details. It was the first time I had contacted an MP, apart from when I wrote a letter to Parliament as part of a secondary school project.
I chose WriteToThem because it had a full list of representatives, as well as a letter template.
The first time I used the site, I got an almost immediate response from my local MP.
That’s great. Of course, every MP is different, and we can’t guarantee that they’ll respond – but it’s good to hear that yours was on the ball. So, what do you contact your representatives about?
I only write to an MP when I feel that public service providers have acted unprofessionally or not helped in any way.
I have written about more support being given to single working parents. I have written about traffic wardens handing out unjustified parking fines to cars with permits displayed, and I have also written about the lack of housing.
Has it been useful?
I have had responses to every letter, and I have also seen results: one of my letters about single working mothers was sent from my local MP to Iain Duncan Smith, and since April there has been more support around child-care.
WriteToThem is a direct and simple way to contact representatives. The site is easy to use, and every time I have used it I have had a response from the MP either by letter or email.
It’s a good way to get your opinions heard by politicians, and a good way to encourage positive change within local and national politics.
Thanks very much to Kate for telling us how she uses WriteToThem.
This post is part of a mini-series, in which we meet people who regularly use mySociety’s websites.
- See also: our posts on FixMyStreet user, Steve and WhatDoTheyKnow user, Jonathan.
- If you are a regular user of any of our sites, do drop us a line – we’d love to profile you too.
Describe your idea:
Introduce volunteer citizen participation directly into the daily operation of elected politicians, on both national and local levels. Start with local councilors and: A) TASK TRACKER = simplified version of Request Tracker, or Basecamp, to track tasks that citizens ask councilors to work on and tasks that councilors work on otherwise; B) OPEN COMMITTEES – tool to have citizen discussing tasks/decisions and related documents that councilors work on in committees, with citizen ability to collectively comment on and edit documents. Couple of my local concilors are willing to start using it and i’ll work with them anyway. more here.
What problem does it solve?:
Problem of political representation, which is a broken way to conduct politics democratically. Since it doesn’t enable citizens to participate in it directly. This proposal would open the doors for the Internet Model, by introducing the concept of Open Process. With the tools for communication and cooperation we have available, our current political models are a problem in itself. They have been designed centuries ago and are quite inappropriate today. We can do far better. Example proposal of Open Process in academic publishing.
Type of idea: A brand new project
The last batch of councillor data arrived this morning, thanks very much to GovEval, so pratically every council (bar all Scottish councils and the 17 English councils that had boundary changes, for which we’re just awaiting a new version of Boundary-Line, Ordnance Survey’s product that says where constituency boundaries are) should now be contactable again through WriteToThem.
I’ve been doing some work on helping people promote our sites and the things on them – spurred by a request from a user who was holding a street party, we’ve made some posters and flyers for FixMyStreet (thanks to volunteer Ayesha Garrett for designing them), and we’ve started providing online tools to promote pledges on PledgeBank, including an up-to-date status image or text of a particular pledge, alongside the established, more offline, flyers.
The first new councillor details have begun to automatically arrive in our database, thanks to GovEval. 34 councils were reactiviated on WriteToThem today, from Alnwick to Wokingham. It would have been 38 but the other 4 councils have had boundary changes that we don’t have the data for yet.
16 of the 40 Welsh Assembly constituencies did not change their boundaries at the election (this took some time to work out, as the Press Association said it was 18, and the official report from the Boundary Commission for Wales said it was 17 🙂 ). Those 16 Assembly Members are now also reactiviated on WriteToThem, along with their regional AMs.
Other than that, I’ve continued tweaking Neighbourhood Fix-It and started some work on TheyWorkForYou – the first step of which is to deal with the large backlog of mail that’s accumulated, leading to a number of bugfixes. Apologies to anyone who was trying to look at Brian Wilson MLA‘s page and found themselves stuck in an infinite loop of being told there were two Brian Wilsons. We also had a couple of emails asking us why Gordon Brown didn’t have a voting record on equal gay rights like other MPs. This was easy to answer – he’s never voted in any division that is included by that PublicWhip policy – and so an MP’s page now states if they’ve been absent from every vote on a particular policy.
So, I’m about to start work on loading the next copy of the BoundaryLine electoral geography data into MaPit, which will give us 100% coverage of county councillors and fix some problems which we weren’t able to work around when we did this after last year’s election. But this is a tedious job and so I’m not going to talk about it now.
Instead I’ll draw your attention to Ratty, our rate-limiting service, which is of general usefulness but (so far as we know) hasn’t been used by anyone outside mySociety. Our major use for it is in the anti-abuse rules in the WriteToThem back-end. I’m about to head out for lunch,so I won’t explain how the thing works in detail, but if this is the sort of thing that you think might be useful to you, leave a comment or drop a mail to email@example.com with any questions or comments. Like almost all our code, Ratty is licenced under the Affero GPL.
Just a brief one today. MORI has recently done a poll chiefly on the subject of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Now, here at mySociety we don’t have any political views, so no comments on The Bomb itself; but MORI did ask another question which intrigued me:
And which, if any of the things on this list have you done in the last two or three years?
What How many Presented my views to a local councillor or MP 14 Written a letter to an editor 6 Urged someone outside my family to vote 16 Urged someone to get in touch with a local councillor or MP 12 Made a speech before an organised group 11 Been an officer of an organisation or club 8 Stood for public office 1 Taken an active part in a political campaign 3 Helped on fund raising drives 20 Voted in the last general election 68
So, 14% of British adults have “presented [their] views to” a councillor or MP in the past 2–3 years. I presume most people will have interpreted the question as including writing to their MPs; that gives us something like 6 million letter-writers over that period. On WriteToThem, about 75% of messages are for MPs, so if those 6 million people sent one letter each over the three years, that works out as about 2,000 messages/year/MP, or about ten per working day.
That’s a lot lower than typical estimates I’ve heard (~50/day/MP). Of course, the poll asked about people rather than letters, so doesn’t account for people sending several letters over the given time period. However, judging by the WriteToThem data, that’s not all that significant an effect:
[Plot of number of letters per author in WriteToThem, image gone]
— something like 90% of letters sent through WriteToThem to MPs and councillors are the only ones sent by that author. (Note that this measurement is quite crude; in particular, I have identified two letters as being from the same author if they share a common email address. Also, since we remove all personal data about authors from messages after a little while, it only shows a few weeks’ worth of data. A further complication is that if an MP or councillor responds by email and the constituent sends a further email, they’re likely to do it by replying to the email, so not showing up as a further communication on that plot.)
Anyway, if the crude data from WriteToThem are characteristic of all mail received by councillors and MPs, then MORI’s estimate of the number of people communicating with their MPs seems pretty low. Thoughts?