Where to go with Save Bloomsbury? I want to know what you think I should write about.
When I started out with Save Bloomsbury, it was more of a whim than anything else. I just wanted a way to expose how shockingly Camden’s officers were treating complaints about litter in Bloomsbury.
But the immediate response from both the community and council fairly quickly proved that the power of stories and investigation is a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, I feel regrets about how harshly I assassinated and exposed Camden’s officers and managers in those early days. One of the main lessons of Save Bloomsbury is that Camden’s failings are rarely due to the actions of Camden’s individual employees, but thanks to a wider system that encourages and rewards incompetence. Attacking Camden’s employees personally often only makes them angry about their own entrapment in a system that engenders failure.
But the raison-d’être of Save Bloomsbury is still to watch carefully how Camden behaves, to investigate their failings, and to cast those failings into stories that people actually read.
Articles on this website receive excellent coverage for this type of ‘blog’ – not just through being read on the site itself, but by being quoted elsewhere. My coverage on the Belgrove House Monstrosity has topped 2,500 views so far, but had far wider influence through being quoted in The Times, Financial Times, Architects’ Journal, and a whole host of other publications. We know that developers often struggle to get as many views on the entirety of the websites that they set up.
But it’s not really the wide audience that the site reaches but the focused audience of Bloomsbury residents, and Camden’s officers and councillors, along with developers that matters. We saw last year that within minutes of an article being published, the developer of Belgrove House was talking to Camden’s planners about its implications on the phone. Try effecting that sort of response by sending a complaint or writing to your councillor. Save Bloomsbury is an indirect way of raising day-to-day concerns, but one that counterintuitively is far more efficient and effective than Camden’s prescribed procedures.
But I’m interested in what readers think about what’s written here: what is done well and not so well. What is covered thoroughly and what is neglected. Without invoking the negative connotations of this notorious buzzword, I want SB to be a place that is truly representative of what residents think, not just an echo chamber consisting of one person.
Obviously doing this is difficult. People often ask me to write about topics that I feel just aren’t going to stimulate interest or do anything more than cheese a single officer off. Sometimes someone will ask me to write an article out of the blue then never follow it up, and I don’t know if it’s really something important. Having access to statistics on my site, I can see what people tend to read and what they don’t.
And yet oddly, an article like this one that was published in the Independent isn’t read as widely on this site, only receiving 241 views on SB itself, despite no doubt receiving thousands if not tens of thousands in the Independent. There are two types of readers on SB: those interested in controversy, sexy headlines, and exposés, and those in it for the long haul, reading from start to finish lengthy articles on the more important topics for those living in Bloomsbury. Perhaps unfortunately, it’s the first group that drives traffic to this site.
Naturally then, there are two types of articles: short stories that expose this that and the other, and longer articles that address more complicated topics.
One thing I always contend with is the frequency of writing. I tend to stick to about one article per week, because writing too much will just clog the inboxes of my subscribers. Because those articles end up off my site, I don’t actually know if they’re being read fully or not. Do you read them from start to end, or just the ones that interest you? Would you mind if more articles appeared, or if instead a weekly round-up appeared in your inbox?
I suppose if you don’t read those emails from start to end you won’t be reading this question… oh well.
For me, it is just important that what is happening here is documented for anyone who wants to know and learn about it, both now and long in the future. I have set up this website so that even if I were to disappear overnight, this site would live on for decades as a sort of strange time capsule of the opinions of one remarkable community. We often forget living here just how important the history of this place is, and that we are all a living part of its history. We are all normal people who together make up an extraordinary community living in an extraordinary place – one that is genuinely famous throughout the world.
Think about how interesting it would be to spend a day or a week in Georgian Bloomsbury, to observe their mannerisms, ways of life, and commonly held opinions. Or to go back to Roman London and observe those opinions and habits. Elizabethan Bloomsbury is just the same – we all feel ordinary, but in a hundred years time our part in history will be just as extraordinary and interesting.
Yet as we all know the quality and depth of news coverage in Central London is not so great. The Camden New Journal is definitely skewed to the north of the borough, and focuses far more on news stories than opinion and investigation. The London Evening Standard is simply on another planet and doesn’t cover anything of interest here. There is a gap in the ‘media’ market for in-depth opinion, investigation, and feature articles in Central London, despite it being one of the most interesting places in the country to do this sort of work.
Perhaps sites like this one at least partially fill that gap. But could it go further? Could SB evolve into something like a news site for features, satire, opinion, and investigations? A ‘Bloomsbury Voice’ rather than a ‘Save Bloomsbury’.
One thing I am keen on doing is writing a ‘Camden Survival Guide’: guidance pages letting residents of Camden know how to deal with the worst aspects of Camden Council. Getting Camden to do things properly is a bit of a science, and over time I have learned what not to do, and things that are more helpful. This shared pool of knowledge is something hidden among different community groups and leaders, and publishing it for all to access will surely help countless lives.
I have noticed that this site now ranks so highly in Google that searching for things like Camden Noise Complaint returns an SB result immediately after all of Camden’s pages. About 100 people every week searching for that query end up reading my article, no doubt gaining useful knowledge in the process.
One thing I think is absolutely vital for the survival of this area is mobilising all the ‘armchair conservationists’ in Bloomsbury: all those ordinary people who really care about the area and want to do something to see it saved, but don’t know how. The problem is that I don’t know how either. I’ve often thought whether the BCAAC could involve community members at arm’s length as ‘heritage guardians’, individuals who just keep an eye on their street and surrounds, picking up on planning breaches, and giving feedback on applications. This sort of micro-management of communities and neighbourhoods is something that Georgia Gould herself passionately advocates as a key long term goal for Camden over the coming years.
How Camden – notorious for extinguishing the fire of its ‘passionate’ community groups – could mobilise its community groups is admittedly opaque to me. Perhaps we can beat Camden to it and show them how it’s done.
But then there are also questions of politics. To many now, continuing down the route of activism in the conventional sense is a cul-de-sac – we go through the same cycle over and over again, only to end up in the same place: ignored and belittled. Are things about to get political?
Over a year or so I have been talking with opposition leaders Oliver Cooper (Conservative) and Flick Rea (Liberal Democrat) and have been impressed by their enthusiasm and above all, their common sense. They seem to know the cause of the problems we face better than even us. If we want to commit to real change, perhaps it is time to convert the natural motivation of Bloomsbury’s communities into political action.
For many that would be difficult to justify. But I am certainly going to begin investigating and reporting on how and why our local politicians have abandoned us, and whether there is anything we can do except throw them out.
One thing’s for sure – voting Labour at the next local elections is only going to lock us into years more of being ignored.
But would political action even suffice? So much of what is wrong with Camden comes down to non-political matters – Camden’s out-of-control planning department, or the utter incompetence of its officers in dealing with routine problems. For these things, only legal action would be effective.
The enormity of the problem is something that perhaps leads many to despair. But we have to remember that there will come a point in the future when Bloomsbury’s communities and heritage are properly respected, and even championed. The question is: do we wait for someone else to effect those changes, or bring them about ourselves?
Please leave any thoughts in the comments below rather than email me direct! (Never mind, everyone is emailing me instead: firstname.lastname@example.org)