The rise of the ‘hyperlocal’ website is of critical importance to the planner, developer and local authority. Not only do hyperlocal websites play an extremely constructive role in promoting and debating local issues, they have considerable campaigning potential and such warrant an understanding by the profession.
The term ‘hyperlocal’, which originates from the US, describes online local services, which are usually run by local communities and residents’ groups.
Typical content is as follows:
- Community news
- Sports news
- Events (meetings of local clubs or societies, community celebrations, key council meetings)
- News of planning decisions or disputes, Local Plan and Neighbourhood Planning developments
- News from local courts, police and schools
- News submitted by local residents
- Articles by local residents
- Election coverage
- Borough and parish council news
- Details of MPs, councillors and candidates
- Discussion forums
- Information about local authority consultations
- Information about local groups including residents’ associations
- Information about local businesses
- A range of local campaigns, often concerning local authority services, planning or construction work
- Photo gallery
- Bus timetables
- Local guides
- Waste collection information
Hyperlocal websites tend to fill the gap left by local newspapers, and thus are both functional, informing people of local news and information, and also emotional, in giving people a sense of local belonging. They provide a new means whereby people can form an attachment not just to their city, town or village, but also to their neighbourhood and street.
Hyperlocals may be run by individual bloggers, small businesses or, in the case of Streetview and About My Area, national organisations. They each have in common the aim of improving the provision of local news, providing information and increasing opportunities for members of their communities to connect.
Williams, Barnett, Harte, and Townend have produced some very thorough research into the emergence of hyperlocal websites. In a comprehensive survey which explored, among other subjects, the reasons for forming a hyperlocal website, they identify that approximately 70% are instigated on the basis of active community participation; over half see their service as local journalism, and over half as an expression of active citizenship. In terms of online activity, nearly three quarters had covered local campaigns instigated by others, while over a third had instigated campaigns themselves. This frequently involved holding local authorities to account or forcing democracy in innovative ways. Campaigning tended to focus on failures by service-providers, the need for environmental improvements, cuts to local public services, improvements to local amenities, and local council accountability and planning disputes.
Campaigns around planning tend to focus on large scale developments, protecting green spaces, or protecting local businesses challenged by national chain stores. Campaigning for improvements to local infrastructure was also common, particularly in relation to local roads, train lines, cycle paths.
Aspects of Localism including Neighbourhood Planning, Community Right to Build and Community Asset Transfer frequently feature on hyperlocal websites, though Williams, Barnett, Harte, and Townend determine that, ‘The numerous campaigns mentioned against these…suggest concern in some communities about how democratic they actually are in practice.’
With so many online services (some of them blogs and Facebook pages rather than websites) coming under the rarely used category of hyperlocal, it is difficult to ascertain how many exist. A UK based website, Local Web List summarised, in September 2016, that there existed 546 in England,
The research by Williams, Barnett, Harte, and Townend reveals that there is a broad distribution of audience sizes amongst UK hyperlocal sites, with the great majority of sites having relatively small audiences. Just two of the websites surveyed claimed a monthly average of over 100,000 unique users, while 33 claimed between 10,000 and 100,000 and the remaining 55 below 10,000.
The future of hyperlocal sites is unclear. Some of the most proactive sites have already burned themselves out, overwhelmed by information and opportunities to campaign but struggling to do so with only volunteers to run the service. Those running and using the sites have high expectations for future development. This includes the use of GEO RSS feeds to provide local information via an app, increased use of video and audio, and pressure to carry out investigative reporting and use of Freedom of Information requests. The BBC, the Guardian newspaper and the Government’s Technology Strategy Board have made tentative steps to preserve local sites, but in many cases this has been met with objections on the basis that the raison être is that of community ownership.
On the other hand, as efficiencies increase, simple template websites become more readily available and as the retired generation becomes increasingly IT literate, their potential impact on development is likely to increase further. There is no doubt that producing around 2,500 news stories a week across the UK, hyperlocal websites have a role to play in planning and ongoing dialogue between a developer and a community.
Penny Norton’s third book Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice contains some of the most recent thinking on consultation and will be published in early 2021.