diamond geezer

 Thursday, July 11, 2013

Three years ago, in a very subjective manner, I compiled a ranked list of London's borough tourism websites. The boroughs with the most visitor-friendly information on their website earned five stars, and the boroughs who ignored visitors earned no stars. Here's 2010's list.

★★★★★: City of London, Hammersmith and Fulham, Richmond
★★★★: Harrow, Hounslow, Islington, Newham, Southwark
★★★: Barking & Dagenham, Brent, Camden, Croydon, Greenwich, Haringey, Havering, Hillingdon, Kingston, Lambeth, Lewisham, Merton
★★: Bromley, Ealing, Kensington & Chelsea, Redbridge
★: Bexley, Enfield, Sutton, Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest
0: Barnet, Hackney, Wandsworth, Westminster

Some boroughs like to have a web presence that draws tourists in, should anyone be interested, or outlines places of interest for the benefit of local residents. These sites attempt to reinforce the idea that a borough has history, or culture, or some sort of life, and is therefore a desirable place to be. Other boroughs have moved on. They see their websites solely as opportunities to feature council services and to engage with those who already live there. More and more council websites have been narrowing their focus in this way recently, cutting out the faff and concentrating on bin collections and council tax. That may be a better way of hitting key delivery targets, and it probably saves them money, but it also makes these councils out to be dull joyless places inhabited by drones.

So I've revisited these 33 tourist-facing websites, or hunted down their replacements, and the amount of degradation that's occurred is disappointing. Several councils appear to have given up all pretence of making their websites interesting, or useful to a wider audience. They're no longer making the most of what they've got, merely retreating into a shell of minimal delivery options and feelgood council messages. You might be very pleased that your local council no longer wastes your taxes on hiring unnecessary staff writing promotional puff, or you might be surprised how little interest some councils take in drumming up business for their borough. Here's 2013's list.

★★★★★: Camden (↑2), City of London, Richmond
★★★★: Brent (↑1), Hackney (↑4), Kensington & Chelsea (↑2)
★★★: Bexley (↑2), Bromley (↑1), Ealing (↑1), Hammersmith and Fulham (↓2), Haringey, Havering, Hounslow (↓1), Kingston, Lewisham, Merton, Newham (↓1)
★★: Barking & Dagenham (↓1), Greenwich (↓1), Hillingdon (↓1), Islington (↓2), Redbridge, Southwark (↓2), Sutton (↑1)
★: Enfield, Harrow (↓3), Lambeth (↓2), Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest
0: Barnet, Croydon (↓3), Wandsworth, Westminster

There's been a lot of change in the last three years. The majority of London council websites have utterly transformed to a new template, with a number of tourist-facing aspects going to the wall. The general movement in my league table is down, to a lower quality experience, but a few boroughs stand out as still making an exemplary effort. Take a look at the 5★ and 4★ boroughs to see how a bespoke presence can still make considerable impact. Camden, Richmond, Brent, Hackney et al actually care how their borough is perceived, and have made a fine effort to appeal to residents and potential visitors alike. Many other boroughs, alas, have gone into tourist-friendly freefall.

Hammersmith and Fulham's former table-topping sites have been shunted off into a virtual graveyard to rot quietly. Newham peaked for the Olympics, but they've since stalled and even removed some of their better content. Greenwich have come up with some bonkers structure whereby they refuse to list their tourist attractions on one page but instead hide them in an A-Z accessible only one letter at a time. Barking & Dagenham, Islington and Southwark have restructured in such a way as to hide their visitor options deep in the belly of a more tedious site. Ealing have concealed their Tourism and travel pages within the Advice and benefits section, where you'd never think to look. Lambeth and (especially) Croydon have fallen victim to the mantra of "council services are king", and sidelined everything else about the borough. And then there's Harrow.

Three years ago Harrow had a bespoke Visit Harrow website. I was a bit surprised, because the borough's not one of London's most interesting, but at least somebody on the council had to chutzpah to beat the drum. Since then the Harrow website has scaled back to a thin services-only model, designed to some bland directory-based content model, and the plug has been pulled on poor old Visit Harrow. Instead we have a single content-inadequate page, which lists a handful of the attractions in the borough, some of which are questionable commercial enterprises. Item number two in the list is the 'Tithe Barn', which accidentally links to a wedding venue in Hampshire. Item number three is Harrow Museum, a worthy inclusion, except the list of visiting times is scarcely formatted and the first sublink is blank. Item number six is an Italian restaurant, item seven a hotel and item eight a Bollywood cinema, whose collective inclusion looks like carte blanche council approval for commercial ventures. Harrow's tourism website is unspeakably worse than what existed before, and yet presumably somewhere there's an accountant who's very proud. No other borough has quite fallen so far in content and reputation, and if this website is your responsibility I hope you're suitably ashamed.

There are more important things in life than London borough tourism websites, obviously. But these are centres of population the size of Newcastle, Brighton or Plymouth, none of whom would dream of abandoning a "Visit..." promotional campaign. These website withdrawals are indicative of the rollback of the state, downsizing to basic functionality solely to save money. At least some boroughs are still trying to engage and enlighten, creating a sense of community online by shining a spotlight on local events and heritage. Whether we'll still be able to say the same in 2016, I have my doubts.

Update: It turns out Ealing does have its own bespoke "Welcome to Ealing" website, called ealingtogether.co.uk. It's got details of events, attractions, heritage and accommodation, and it's exactly the sort of thing a London borough should be doing. It probably deserves a 4★ rating, except that it's not linked anywhere from the ealing.gov.uk website, and I never realised it existed until the council tweeted at me, plus some of the links don't work, like the link to Gunnersbury Museum (server not found), while the accommodation page links to Visit London who claim that Hanwell doesn't exist, so I'm only giving it 3★. But let's have more like this please.

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