Andrew Bibby



Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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Telecottages and telecentres

This extract comprises three chapters taken from Teleworking: Thirteen Journeys to the Future of Work by Andrew Bibby, published Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Nov 1995.

Journey 9: Talgarth, Powys

A recent issue of the Telecottage Association's magazine includes a map of the British Isles, marking the location of well over a hundred telecottages. The geographical range is impressive: from Mevagissey Telecottage in Cornwall to Isles Telecroft in Shetland, East Kent Telecottage to Ness Telecottage near Stornoway, and in Ireland from the Information Technology Centre in Letterkenny, Co Donegal to Comharchumann Chleire Teo on the Irish-speaking Clear Island south-west of Cork.

These local initiatives have a great deal which they don't share in common. They differ in how they describe themselves: some prefer the term telecentre, or electronic village hall, or teleworking centre. They differ in their legal structure: some are run as commercial businesses, some are registered charities, many occupy the middle ground as part of the community-based voluntary sector. Some are based in schools, some in libraries and village halls, others in shop premises or self-contained buildings. Telecottages differ, too, in the services they offer: IT training, printing, business services, employment provision.

But nonetheless, the British and Irish telecottages clearly constitute a movement, and a movement which has grown very quickly. A similar map produced by the Telecottage Association early in 1993 showed only 63 locations. Go back a further two or three years, and the telecottage idea was still primarily one of expectation rather than reality. A press release in 1991 spoke proudly of "six centres in operation with another known 30 projects waiting in the wings".

This history can be traced back further, to an influential conference on telecommunications and rural economic regeneration held in Cirencester in 1989 and organised by Acre, the Association of Rural Community Councils in England. One of the speakers at the conference was Ashley Dobbs, whose career to date had spanned underwater photography, documentary film-making and property restoration and development, and who has since gone on to develop a 'televillage' at Crickhowell in Powys. (He is also currently the Telecottage Association's chairman.) Ashley Dobbs had attended a conference in Germany in late 1988 organised by the European Council for the Village and Small Town, and had come into contact with Scandinavian ideas for the development of community teleservice centres. Ashley returned to Britain to set up 'Telecottages UK', part of an early attempt to create Telecottages International, -TCI.

Ashley Dobbs publicised the example of the telecottage opened in September 1985 in the remote Swedish town of Vemdalen. As he told the Cirencester conference:

"Employment in Vemdalen from forestry and tourism was in decline and the population of the village was reducing as the younger generation went to work in the cities in southern Sweden. The Swedish authorities and telephone company provided the funding for this sophisticated telecottage with approximately £100,000 worth of computers and telecommunications facilities. Initially the villagers were invited on free courses and were allowed to 'play' with a computer so they became familiar with the equipment... News of this successful experiment spread quickly and representatives from communities all over Scandinavia came to Vemdalen. The Nordic Association of Telecottages FILIN now represents about fifty telecottages."

The person responsible for Vemdalen was Henning Albrechtsen who had retired to the area after a colourful career as an academic and author. He in turn had been influenced by plans for rural regeneration using information technology discussed in the Danish area of Lemvig in western Jutland.

However, the idea of developing remote telecentres had also surfaced elsewhere. The University of California, Davis, study on telecommuting describes the work centre set up by a number of French government bodies in Marne-la-Vallee in January 1981. It was located in a residential area outside Paris and was originally envisaged as a work base for employees for ten to fifteen organisations, but operated for only a short time. The UCD study also mentions the 'neighbourhood work centre' at Nykvarn, a small town near Stockholm which operated from 1982 to about 1985. In Britain, the Oxford-based Daily Information (still listed among the Telecottage Association's centres) claims a history back to 1975, when it first began to provide computer resources to students.

Nevertheless it was the Swedish experience at Vemdalen, as described by Ashley Dobbs and his Telecottages UK, which provided the model for later developments in Britain. Although some involved in telecottages now feel less than happy about the term's rustic overtones, at the time it carried exactly the right combination of country idyll with high-tech modernity. Journalists fell on the idea.

Indeed by 1992, when Acre organised a second conference on telecottages, the idea was sufficiently well established for the event to feature as a storyline in BBC Radio's The Archers. For a few weeks, listeners could follow plans by Archers character Susan Carter to create a telecottage in Ambridge.

By the time of the 1992 conference, Acre was able to share the conference organisation with a newly created body, the Telecottage Association. What had happened in the interim was that Acre had established a two-year teleworking project, designed to develop interest both in home-based telework and in the telecottage concept, and had persuaded BT to provide £30,000 a year in funding. Alan Denbigh, who had a background in computer software, was appointed as the paid worker for this project. He himself teleworked from his home near Stroud.

Much of the credit for the development of the Telecottage Association, and of the telecottage movement more generally, rests with Alan Denbigh, who ran a series of seminars and developed the Acre project to a stage at the end where over 2000 people had identified themselves as interested in the concept and who received the project's regular newsletter. By late 1992, when the Acre project was coming to an end, there was enough support to be able to set up the Telecottage Association. Alan Denbigh moved across to become the Association's executive director. The Association itself produced a business plan which attracted further support for a two to three year period from BT, the Rural Development Commission and Apple Computers UK, with further support being offered by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the National Rural Enterprise Centre and Kay & Co Ltd.

The Association began with 400 members from Acre's newsletter list and has now developed to the stage where it has 2400 paid-up members, a bi-monthly magazine and a series of regional groupings, with a strong likelihood that it could continue its work even if grant-funding completely dried up. Its method of functioning is itself interesting. Alan Denbigh continues to work from home (from an office in a pine cabin in the garden), whilst the administration of the Association (including dealing with routine telephone calls) has been subcontracted out to an affiliated telecottage, the Wren centre at Stoneleigh, Warwickshire. Other work for the magazine is outsourced to the Cork Teleworking Centre, while the Association's series of seminars are also organised remotely, most recently by the Durham Dales Centre in Weardale. The Association's Directors (elected at each year's AGM) regularly hold their meetings by telephone conference, using the community teleconference facilities provided to the voluntary sector by the registered charity Community Network.

The Association provides an obvious first point of contact for the telecottage movement. It works closely and collaboratively with separate national associations in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, which in each case bring together local telecottages and activists involved in teleworking initiatives for regular meetings and conferences.

Telecottages Ireland was set up in November 1993 by a number of pioneering projects, including the East Clare Telecottage in Scariff, TeleTeach (a telecottage in the gaeltacht area of County Donegal) and the commercially run Cork Teleworking Centre. The organisation links projects throughout the island of Ireland, and its first major event was a conference organised by Kite and held in Enniskillen in October 1994 (by luck, in the strange and hopeful time immediately after the announcement of the paramilitary ceasefire in the north). By December 1994, the association had 150 members, including 15 telecottages.

One visitor to Enniskillen was Roy Guthrie, who was involved in developing his own telecottage business in Falkirk. Roy was instrumental in convening a teleworking conference in Falkirk in March 1995, at which the Scottish Teleworking Association came into being.

Telecottages Wales/TeleFythynnod Cymru is the longest established of the three bodies, having been set up at about the same time as the Telecottage Association was being brought into being. The organisation developed after a meeting held in Aberystwyth in the summer of 1991, aided by a well-publicised visit by Henning Albrechtsen to a number of early telecottages in Wales. Telecottages Wales, which is a registered educational charity, received early grant-funding from the Welsh Development Agency, the Development Board for Rural Wales and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, enabling the organisation to employ a full-time development worker, Paddy Moindrot, for about 18 months.

My visit to Kite in Kinawley had offered me one model for the work of a telecottage. But as I was to find as I travelled round the country, there are different approaches in other places. Indeed, each telecottage has its own feel, its own priorities and its own ways of generating income.

I went first to Wales, to the county of Powys. The small town of Talgarth, between Hay on Wye and Brecon, is squashed hard against the English border. The first talk of a telecottage here or in the next-door town of Bronllys took place in 1992, with both Talgarth Town Council and Bronllys Community Council supportive. Early hopes of support from the Welsh Office were dashed, however, and a bid in 1993 for European Social Fund (ESF) money from the European Commission for training was also turned down. But late in 1993, word came through that the ESF funds would after all be available, as a result of an underspend. The project hurriedly came to life.

The ESF money had to be spent by 31 March 1994. Initial plans were amended to provide for 25 local people to have fourteen weeks' training in basic IT skills. But there were further delays, both in approving the revised bid and in sorting out a building. Eventually, the project got off the ground in February. "The trainees had 128 hours' training within an eight week period, working six days a week," says Amelia Jones, manager of the centre. ESF funds worth about £19,000 were matched with funding from public sources in Wales, a further £23,750. This included about £12,000 of computer equipment supplied by the Powys rural enterprise body Menter Powys.

Then, abruptly, the ESF-funded training stopped and the telecottage had to consider its future. "We decided to carry on. We feel we can make this a success, though in the meantime it's hard work. We have low wages and no funding from anyone, but lots of help from volunteers," Amelia Jones says.

In August 1994, the project moved from a portable cabin behind a hospital building in Bronllys to an old shop premises in Talgarth. The picture windows proudly advertise the presence of a 'telecentre' in the town. "People do come in to ask where the telephone is, or how much we charge for TVs, but we are beginning to get quite well known," says Amelia Jones.

Bronllys and Talgarth Telecentre has incorporated as a company limited by guarantee, with nine directors (including four worker directors and two directors from the community). To date, it has pinned its hopes on training. The centre runs a series of one day courses, on topics such as DTP, computer graphics, spreadsheets and keyboard skills. Courses cost between £15-£25. The centre also runs two-hourly courses spread over 12 weeks, again on basic computer-related skills. Like the original ESF course, these are typically geared towards women returners.

The telecentre is also attempting to develop commercially orientated computer training, for which it charges about £45 per person per day. Early clients have included the local Family Health Services Authority.

Bronllys and Talgarth Telecentre is lucky in having Amelia Jones, a former IT college tutor, as its manager. She talks realistically about the need to diversify the telecottage away from training into other, perhaps more profitable, areas. The centre currently acts as a small-scale office bureau, providing photocopying (5p-10p a sheet) and fax facilities (at BT charges, plus 50p). Staff offer a copy typing and audio typing service (£1.25-£1.75 per page), and DTP. Recent DTP work includes posters for local pubs, a booklet of children's poetry written by a local woman and a brochure for the neighbourhood LETS (Local Exchange Trading Scheme).

The telecentre's PCs are also available for use on an hourly basis, for £4 an hour (reductions for non-commercial usage to £2 and for children to £1). A number of local children use the facilities for after-school project work and home work. More formal links with the local high school are developing only slowly.

The Talgarth centre thus is already demonstrating that it has a useful role to play in the life of its community, although it is handicapped by having to pay commercial rent for its present shop building. It is clearly still feeling its way forward, and is able to continue in large part due to the commitment of Amelia Jones and the other part-time staff and their acceptance of low wages. Amelia feels there are possible business opportunities yet to explore: a proposal to bring residential courses from London to the area, making use both of the telecentre and of local hotels and B&Bs is one idea which has been raised. The telecentre may also benefit now that an ISDN line and video-confencing facilities have been put in.

Talgarth is typical of a number of telecottages which have begun by concentrating on the IT training side of their work, often under the incentive of European Social Fund grant-funding, and then explored ways of diversifying. But the county of Powys, which has about ten telecottages for a population of only 117,000, is a good illustration of just how diverse the telecottage movement can be. At Newtown, for example, Castell-y-dail telecottage provides a base where adults with special needs receive training in basic work skills (the centre in funded by Powys social services). At Presteigne, Crickhowell, Machynlleth and Builth Wells, the telecottages have been developed as part of a community enterprise project and are housed in secondary school premises.

Just a few miles north of Talgarth is yet another model. The CEB Telecentre at Boughrood is housed in a large wooden chalet attached to the home of Nic and Belinda Carter-Jones. Nic is a quantity surveyor and uses the building as his office for his building specification and estimation work (CEB stands for 'computer estimating bureau'). It is equipped with three PCs with CAD and DTP software, a laser printer and a colour ink jet printer.

About two years ago he arranged to open these facilities to the public, and now advertises the building as a telecentre. Menter Powys contributed £2000 towards equipment and for building alterations, but CEB is unusual in Powys in being a privately-owned purely commercial telecottage. "People drop by with photocopying requests, or wanting to have society newsletters or membership cards printed," Nic Carter-Jones says. He estimates that, on average, about 4-5 people come to the centre each day, almost all previous customers. Unlike nearby Talgarth, he does not make equipment available for people to use themselves, or organise training. "It's a question of working out where the profit is. All telecottages need a specialism to succeed."

Nic Carter-Jones is in many ways a typical example of a home-based professional teleworker living in a rural area, the sort of person featured in newspaper articles on teleworking. Apart from commercial considerations, there is another advantage of opening up his office to public access. "It's a way of helping to combat isolation," he says.

Journey 10:Manchester

It is easy to assume that telecottages are a purely rural phenomenon. But as a recent Telecottage Association survey found, this is not necessarily the case. In a report based on responses from about 60 centres, it concluded that about half are located in remote rural settings or small villages with most of the remaining half to be found in small towns. "A small but significant group are city-based," it added.1

This should not surprise. If the principle of teleworking means that jobs can be brought down the telecommunication highways to remote workers there is no reason why these workers necessarily need to be geographically remote. In fact, several writers have noted that home-based individual teleworkers are more often working from urban or suburban areas rather than from country areas.2

It is also true that inner-cities need new opportunities for employment as much as rural areas.

This was the Frontline Initiative's guiding principle, as it took shape in 1988. The project was ambitious. The idea was to create about 800 jobs by developing large teleworking centres deliberately located in commercially unattractive areas of the inner cities. A feasibility study was undertaken and the locations chosen: Leeds, Preston, Doncaster, Nottingham and East Birmingham were each to have about 146 people in post, with a smaller marketing centre for the project based in North Kensington, west London.

A report published by the National Economic Development Council (Nedc) in 1989 set out the Frontline case3. The plan was to recruit unemployed, inexperienced workers who would be trained to optimise their potential, rather than moulded to preconceived business needs. The idea was to 'identify markets and products that match available and developing human resources, rather than resourcing to match predefined output requirements'. The feasibility study suggested that possible services could include word processing, data input, client support services, market research, back-up and disaster recovery or in-house user support.

The Frontline Initiative was planned as a charitable trust (linked to a trading management company) which would raise at least £300,000 from the private sector, a sum which the Department of Trade and Industry agreed to match. Corporate supporters of the scheme included Alfred Marks, BP, British Rail, BT, Digital, IBM and Rank Xerox. The Trades Union Congress was also represented on the steering group.

The Frontline Initiative was grandiose enough to have developed into a spectacular success or an equally spectacular failure. In fact, it collapsed almost before it had got underway. One of the project's consultants now puts the blame of the sudden economic slump of the late 1980s - the Frontline Initiative, he says, was planned in a time of boom and had no chance of surviving the chills of recession.

But if this large-scale top-down approach proved unviable, a different idea was about to be tried in inner-city Manchester. Thanks to a generous £250,000 grant from BT's community funds and a number of smaller grants from other sources, three community organisations in the city were given the chance in 1991 to become 'electronic village halls'.

A paper prepared for Manchester City Council councillors in December 1990 explained the principle:

"EVHs, adapted from similar rural ventures in Scandinavia, are to be located in areas of greatest need - predominantly in the inner city. Some will have very specific geographical coverage for a particular community (or even a specific neighbourhood, eg a housing estate). Others will specialise in facilities for and by women, ethnic minorities, and disabled people on a city-wide basis.4"

Community organisations were invited to tender for EVH funds, and the three successful projects were guaranteed capital equipment and two years' revenue funding. The three chosen were the Chorlton Workshop EVH (based at a training project in Chorlton, south-west of the city centre), the Greater Manchester Bangladeshi Association EVH (based in Bangladesh House in Longsight, to the south-east) and the Manchester Women's EVH (originally planned as part of the Pankhurst Centre project but eventually located in a separate building just north of the city centre).

It's necessary to put the EVH story in context. In 1989 the City Council began to develop plans for a local computer information and communications service, which became known as the Manchester Host. The idea was promoted particularly by one City Council officer, Dave Spooner, who had previously explored alternative and community-based possibilities for on-line technology whilst working in the glory days of Ken Livingstone's GLC.

The Manchester Host, a database server offering e-mail, bulletin boards, fax and telex facilities as well as access to commercial on-line database services, was launched in the spring of 1991. The capital cost of £300,000 was met from Urban Programme funds, 75% paid by the Department of the Environment. The management of the Host was given to a workers' co-operative, Soft Solution Ltd.

The original Manchester Host feasibility study described at length the commercial and non-commercial uses to which the technology could be put, but said surprisingly little about the prospects for job creation through teleworking. There was clearly a reluctance to support ways of working which could be seen as exploitative: the study pointed out that home-based telework could "increase certain groups' social and career isolation and 'ghettoise' their employment opportunities". But there was also the suggestion that the development of the electronic village halls would enable 'communal teleworking' to take place, especially for women with childcare responsibilities.5

In reality, this has failed to happen. Much of the activity in the three funded EVHs has been training based. Chorlton Workshop, for example, was previously well-established as a community-based training agency, undertaking work with local people, particularly the unemployed. The EVH grant enabled the project to survive a funding crisis and to develop its existing programme of basic computer training.

Chorlton Workshop is based in a large old church hall which has been partitioned into smaller areas. The eight PCs used for training are on trolleys, enabling them to be wheeled out for classes but locked away in large cupboards in the evenings, when the hall has other users. The training timetable typically includes an introductory ten-week computing course held for two hours once a week, and a more intensive programme of courses over 18 weeks leading to the RSA CLAIT (computer literacy and information technology) qualification. A free creche for children aged between 6 months and 5 years is normally available whilst the courses are running, and each course has a substantial waiting list.

As well as the timetabled courses, the Workshop also runs a computer drop-in session for women on Monday afternoons and a similar open access session for anyone on Wednesday afternoons. These free sessions include the opportunity to explore the Internet, accessed through the Manchester Host.

"In theory, the original idea was that we would be an urban telecottage. In practice, we have put much more emphasis on working with the unemployed. We try to target ourselves specifically to people who wouldn't go to college, students who don't already have further education qualifications. We prioritise black people and people with pre-school children," says Andy Robinson, one of the centre's workers. The Workshop also runs basic maths and English courses, as well as craft-based sessions in sewing, machine knitting and silk-screen printing.

Like many other community-based voluntary sector projects, Chorlton Workshop has to live in a state of permanent uncertainty over the next year's grant funding. Currently its annual income of about £75,000 is patched together from a variety of sources, including the Further Education Funding Council (routed via the WEA) and a number of charitable trusts. The project recently failed in an attempt to obtain European Social Fund training money, but is likely to benefit from Manchester's European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) bid.

Although Chorlton Workshop advertises that its computer, fax and e-mail facilities are available for hire at low cost to local organisations and small businesses, in practice the take-up has been very limited. In 1993, only £310 came into the centre in income from this service.

The Bangladesh House EVH is also primarily a training venture offering RSA accredited courses. The Greater Manchester Bangladeshi Association developed in the 1970s from an initial base at the mosque and now has a large building offering sports and social facilities, and welfare advice. Before becoming an EVH, the Association had previously developed its training work and was for a time a Manpower Services Agency centre. Computer training remains a core activity, now funded through the local Training and Enterprise Council (typically, about a third of the trainees are from the Bangladeshi community, the remainder coming from other ethnic backgrounds).

The Bangladesh House EVH has also been associated with the Manchester Asian Trading Information Network (Matin) project, which has aimed to develop computerised information links between Asian-owned businesses in the city, and also between them and businesses and institutions in the Indian sub-continent. The Matin project workers organised a conference on the use of telematics in international trade, held in Bangladesh in 1993.

The third of the original funded EVHs, the Women's Electronic Village Hall, also offers computer training facilities, with childcare expenses paid for those participating. The Women's EVH offers drop-in access times twice a week. According to its introductory leaflet, "We aim to meet the varied needs of all women; as well as having a network of PCs and Apple Macs, we have a Brailleprinter, Minicom, Speech Synthesiser and fully accessible premises... Any woman or women's group can come along and use the resources at the centre, for example to produce their own newsletter, design leaflets or just to drop in for a chat and cup of tea.6"

Since the launch of the Host computer and the start of the EVH initiative, Manchester has gone on to promote itself as an 'Information City', and is currently co-ordinating the Telecities grouping of city authorities within the European Union interested in developing telematics services. A successful recent bid for European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) money will enable it to upgrade the Host facilities, whilst a series of substantial further bids will, if approved, allow the funding of up to eight more EVHs. A number of other EVH projects, including a Disabled Peoples EVH, have already been established in the city by a variety of community groups.

Manchester's initiatives have been watched, and copied, by other local authorities. Kirklees Metropolitan Council in west Yorkshire now has an exact parallel set-up (its Kirklees Host computer is also managed by Soft Solution co-operative). As part of the project, a Disabled People's Electronic Village Hall has been set up in a day centre in Dewsbury.

Whilst it is interesting to see local authorities promoting telematic services in their areas, there is something of a contradiction here: why install a locally based host computer when the whole point of the technology is that it knows no geographical boundaries? (Wakefield council, which is developing a Wakefield Host, has avoided taking the hardware option and is creating a 'virtual' host on the Kirklees machine).

Clearly, we are still at a very early stage of exploring how communities can make use of the possibilities of the information age. There is, however, a clear underlying issue which individual initiatives like these are trying to address: how in our information age of the future can we ensure that all citizens have access to that information? How democratic will the Information Society turn out to be?

At the level of national and international strategy this issue is at least already acknowledged. The US administration's Agenda for Action on the National Information Infrastructure talks of the need to avoid "a division of our people among telecommunications or information 'haves' and 'have-nots'"7. The Bangemann report echoed the same phrasing, commenting that "The main risk lies in the creation of a two-tier society of haves and have-nots, in which only a part of the population has access to the new technology, is comfortable using it and can fully enjoy its benefits."8.

In Britain, the Labour Party talks of ensuring that schools, hospitals, libraries and community centres are given automatic rights of access on to the evolving broadband information highways. But quite how communities will make use of this access is far from clear. Today's telecottages and electronic village halls are valuable in identifying what is, and isn't, going to work.

Journey 11: Maiden Newton, Dorset

As with a number of other telecottages, the initial funding has just run out at Boon. Boon - the name turns out to stand, slightly mysteriously, for Business On Open Network - occupies part of the old station building in the village of Maiden Newton just north of Dorchester. Every now and then, a diesel unit stops noisily at the platform outside: the trains still come this way, on the rural cross-country line from Bristol down to Weymouth, passing quiet stations like Bruton, Yetminster and Chetnole on the way. Everyone knows it's not the most secure of railway services, but the community is doing what it can to ensure that the trains keep running.

Drew Llewellyn, Boon's manager, is just as determined to make sure his project survives. Boon has been grant-funded from its start-up in May 1992 by three bodies, the Rural Development Commission, Dorset County Council and the local district council. However, the grants were arranged on a decreasing year-on-year basis. For 1994-5, for example, support was cut to £18,000, down from the previous year's £30,000 figure. "And from April 1995, we're without funding," Drew Llewellyn says.

The many real-life telecottages which sprang into life about the time of that fictional storyline in The Archers in 1992 are now two or three years further on. In many cases, initial funding was justified as necessary to cover start-up costs. However there was frequently an assumption, not always explicit, that a time would come when telecottages would have found their commercial feet, and would be able to continue without further support. Already some funding agencies are beginning to ask what they have got for their money.

When I visited the Mere telecottage in Wiltshire early in 1995, for example, the manager there was working under notice of redundancy, with the funding due to be cut off at the end of March. Mere telecottage, based in a former staff rest-room in the village's public library, had opened in April 1991 to considerable national media interest: TV cameras from both Meridian and HTV had come calling. The Community Council for Wiltshire, the sponsoring organisation, subsequently went on to support two further telecottages in the county, in Crudwell near Malmesbury and Codford near Warminster. At Codford in particular the telecottage quickly made its mark on local life, and after a period when it was based in a back room of a local pub it found a more permanent home in a side-room in the newly built village hall.

However late in 1994 a reorganisation of CCW's employment projects into a separate commercial subsidiary left all three telecottages vulnerable. Trevor Bailey, CCW's assistant director, was quoted as saying that the future "will depend upon a reappraisal of the telecottages' local role and, above all, an input of skills and facilities to achieve wide commercial work on a thoroughly realistic scale". Another CCW manager, Carol Drew, added that "the lead time needed to establish the telecottages was longer than anticipated... CCW had hoped that additional income would come from large contracts but these did not come to fruition after long negotiations."9

In the event the March 31st deadline came with no decision taken. Mere telecottage continued into the summer of 1995 on a voluntary-run basis, whilst Codford and Crudwell were closed, it was hoped only temporarily. At time of writing it looks as though Codford may be able to re-open as an independent locally-run centre, whilst the other two telecottages may have a future as part of a commercial concern.

The experience of the Wiltshire telecottages is interesting, if only because the Community Council for Wiltshire seemed to do many things right. In July 1993 a marketing development officer was appointed, responsible for promoting the business potential of the three centres. For a time, it looked as though a major contract was on its way from Derwent Publications Ltd. Derwent, one of the market leaders in scientific and patents information, was interested in using teleworkers to abstract and classify newly filed patents.

But though the Derwent work did not develop as planned, some outsourcing work did come through. At Codford in particular, local women undertook data processing work for a housing survey for the MoD on Salisbury Plain. "Until September 1994, we had four teleworkers at a time, two full-time and the rest part-time, and all women. The majority had children at school, and it was the only chance they had to work," says Janet Nuth, manager at Codford. The telework pay was an hourly rate of £4.

Janet Nuth believes that telecottages could still band together, perhaps on a county-wide basis, to undertake outsourcing work for large companies. "But telecottages would have to get their act together. Each county would need to have good management structures, to ensure quality and confidentiality. You need a marketing manager - it would be impossible for me to go out and make the contacts."

Ironically, Codford telecottage was probably close to breaking even when CCW called its future into question. As well as organising the teleworking contract, the centre had also been used for regular training courses, mainly through the New Opportunities for Women scheme. It also offered access to the village's only photocopier and public fax machine, whilst Janet Nuth took bookings for the village hall.

Moira telecottage in north-west Leicestershire has also been searching for the key to commercial viability, though in a very different situation from the telecottages of Wiltshire. Moira is an urban village, in the old South Derbys/NW Leics coalfields. This is an area which may have a green future (it is in the heart of the area designated for the proposed new National Forest) but at the moment there is all too much evidence of the past, including a great deal of derelict land.

The telecottage is in a single-storey building which was once a branch library, next door to the large house where Moira Replan, a local charitable organisation which has been working hard for the economic regeneration of the area for eight years, is based. Moira Replan developed the telecottage about two years ago, initially with plans for it to be a separate trading venture. "Unlike other telecottages who do a lot of computer training, we envisaged it as a commercial operation offering services to local businesses," says Graham Knight of Moira Replan.

The telecottage has provided the focus for the creation of a business club locally, and a number of seminars on aspects of running a small business have been held in the centre's comfortable meeting room. "Members of the business club use the telecottage if they want to send a fax or get word-processing done and we provide a telephone answering service for about 2 or 3 people. One person who is developing a water purification system and is on the brink of successful expansion has met business clients here rather than at home," says Graham Knight.

But it has become clear that the telecottage will not be able to survive as a purely commercial venture on this basis, and the project is being reabsorbed in the parent Replan body. "I have a problem with the idea that telecottages provide an access place to IT equipment. The technology is now so available to anyone, and small businesses are increasingly getting their own computer equipment," Graham Knight says.

The survey of telecottages carried in the Teleworker magazine in Feb/March 1995 reported that one in seven said that they were currently profitmaking, one-third were making a loss, whilst 'a half.. claimed to be breaking even'. The report went on, "Overall, half of the centres are continuing to be subsidised in some way."

Clearly, quite a lot of public money has been channelled over the past few years into the telecottage movement. The report on teleworking carried out by the University of Newcastle upon Tyne CURDS researchers looked into the question of funding in more detail:

"The telecottage has emerged as the most popular mechanism for development agencies and local authorities wishing to develop information and communications related initiatives. The link between telecottages and local development strategies is most sharply shown by the number of telecottages which received start-up funding. In all some 81% of the telecottages in the [1993] sample [of 42 telecottages] received start-up funding. Development agencies were the most common funders, with local authorities and 'other' funders (mainly BT's Community Programme) coming next... More than half the telecottages claimed to be no longer receiving on-going funding, but almost half of these were undertaking work for a public agency and this might be seen as a surrogate form of public support. On-going funding again comes mainly from development agencies, local authorities and the European Community."10

There is no reason why telecottages should necessarily feel defensive about receiving grant-support for their activities. After all, purely commercial ventures are also eligible in some circumstances for public assistance.

But clearly, it's useful to work out what it is that telecottages are doing which justifies giving them support. Different telecottages find work in different ways, but their activities can perhaps be put into four categories:

  • Training
  • Office bureau facilities
  • Community development
  • Providing telework/ employment brokerage

Many telecottages have begun by concentrating on the IT training side of their work. This was how Kite in Kinawley began. It is how Talgarth and the Manchester EVHs, in their very different settings, serve their local communities. It has been important at Codford. Indeed, the University of Newcastle upon Tyne CURDS survey reported that 69% of telecottages (29 out of 42) listed training as one of their main activities.

Clearly this is potentially valuable work, both for the individuals who receive training and, more generally, for the opportunity provided to increase an understanding of IT within the population as a whole. In several cases, training is undertaken for the (relatively basic) RSA CLAIT series of courses. However, Moorlands Telecottage in Warslow near Buxton has been instrumental in developing a formal National Vocational Qualification for teleworkers, combining elements of IT, business administration and finance and self-management skills. The telework NVQ was launched in 1994, and the syllabus is being followed in a number of telecottages.

From the telecottage's point of view training can be a precarious base for longer-term planning given the vagaries of funding support, especially from the European Social Fund. Telecottages can suffer as local authority adult education budgets are cut, and may also discover that they are in competition with local colleges of education for IT training. There is the further risk that the pool of local people, especially women, interested in basic computer training will eventually dry up.

Community-based training does not by itself usually generate very much income. Charges are potentially much higher if commercial IT training can be undertaken for business clients. However, to develop this market demands a business-like approach which may clash with telecottages' commitments to their community activities (managers on a spreadsheet familiarisation course are unlikely to want to share a training room with local schoolchildren undertaking their homework, for example). Furthermore, telecottages contemplating commercial computer training require staff with up-to-date IT experience, suitably state-of-the-art hardware and software and an adequate training space. (Of course, ideally trainees on community courses should have a right to expect these, too).

My 'office bureau facilities' category for telecottages includes many things. Moira telecottage gives some idea of the range in its list of the services it offers: 'telephone answering, mail handling, photocopying, fax service, word processing, data processing, accounts/bookkeeping, computer hire, room hire'. Other telecottages undertake DTP graphics and printing work, sell computer accessories and stationery, and provide access facilities to on-line databases and services (though the evidence suggests that this sort of service is only rarely requested). A number of telecottages act as agents for Kays mail order service, with access to Kays computerised stock lists.

In larger centres of population, many of these bureau services will be available commercially. But this is not the case everywhere. The Arkleton Trust, in its 1993 report on the six Community Teleservice Centres (CTCs) established in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, argues why public funding may be legitimate:

"There is a demand for telecoms based, DTP and office related services from small and micro enterprises, from a rich variety [of] voluntary organisations and from individuals, even in islands with small communities (Unst 1000, Hoy 500). Fulfilling this demand through a collective facility (such as a telecottage) is more cost-effective than each purchasing their own equipment...

"In essence there is a 'market failure' to provide essential services in such small and isolated communities which will naturally tend to under-provision, and hence disadvantage, local businesses and organisations.... If public policy.. both recognises the need and agrees that it should be met, then the bodies involved should act jointly to provide at least some of the core funding required to support CTCs in providing such basic services.11"

This links to my third category, what I have called 'community development'. This is harder to describe, mainly because much of the work is informal. It clearly includes the sort of work with schoolchildren being undertaken in Talgarth. It also covers the small business advisory role undertaken at Moira telecottage. I saw it demonstrated on a visit to Scariff, East Clare, in the focus which the telecottage there provides to other economic and community regeneration projects in the area.

But I also mean something more nebulous: the sort of unquantifiable low-level support which a telecottage can provide to a community, and to individuals within that community. This can perhaps best be seen reflected in the idea that having a telecottage is generally a 'good thing'. (Other communal facilities, including a village shop or pub, can fulfil a similar role). Of course, whether this function merits public money, and if so how much, is open to debate.

It is in Kington, Herefordshire, that the possibilities for community enrichment using information and communications technology is being put most obviously to the test. Kington was successful in 1993 in a competition run by Apple Computers, BT, the DTI and the Rural Development Commission and modelled on a similar experiment run by Apple Computers in the small town of Jacksonville, Oregon. The community group in Kington which emerged to develop the project described in its 97-page bid how computer use would be developed in all aspects of the town's life, including local business, social activity and schooling. What Kington won as a result was about £250,000 of equipment; on the back of the win, the project has also been able to attract substantial revenue funding.

With so much money and public interest riding on the success of the project, Kington was perhaps being set up for almost inevitable failure. In fact, not all the early high hopes have been realised but nevertheless much good work has been undertaken. Less than two years on, it's too early to attempt a complete assessment of the project.

And so, finally, to what some people might consider the chief function of a telecottage, its role as a remote centre where teleworking can take place.

We have already seen how Kite is attempting to develop this function. Other telecottages, including the Kington telecentre and also the Warwickshire Rural Enterprise Network (Wren) telecottage at Stoneleigh, have also worked hard to find suitable work.

But - even though remote working is clearly an important and growing phenomenon - the role of telecottages in attracting this work has been problematic. The University of Newcastle upon Tyne CURDS report offered a fairly gloomy assessment of the difficulties:

"Whilst possession of marketable skills may be a necessary condition if a telecottage is to win contracts from remote businesses, it is not a sufficient condition. A number of problems remain, not least of which include how the telecottage identifies its potential customers and how it gains access to these businesses, in order to make its business case. In the unlikely event that the telecottage is able to overcome these hurdles it is now in a competitive environment and must continually improve its efficiency to retain the business it has won."12

The report goes on to draw attention to the experience at the Antur Tanat Cain project based at Llangedwyn Mill, south-west of Oswestry. In 1991, Paddy Moindrot, who was involved in developing what had begun in 1979 as a community-based job creation agency, could quite fairly describe Antur Tanat Cain as 'a major telework project'. For a time, up to twenty local people in this remote part of mid-Wales were undertaking text inputting and data processing work.

"We had been building the vocational training we were doing, and were looking around for real work," Paddy Moindrot says. Fortuitously, a report in a local paper of the organisation's work happened to be seen by an ICL consultant living locally. Through this contact, Antur Tanat Cain won a number of sizeable contracts from the company. Some of the work was undertaken by trainees at the Llangedwyn Mill base and some sub-contracted out to home-based teleworkers, several of them former trainees. "Every Wednesday the data inputters brought back their week's work and collected more to type, and this 'changeover day' fulfilled a need for social interaction.13"

Unfortunately, a variety of factors including the onset of the recession meant that the ICL contracts dried up, and teleworking has now more or less ceased at Llangedwyn. The University of Newcastle upon Tyne report assesses the experience as follows:

"The Antur case.. demonstrates that even when telecottages are successful in overcoming the hurdles involved in winning remote work, considerable pressures, which will be familiar to small businesses in competitive markets, remain. For example, significant capital investment may be required to keep pace with technological change, but this investment is risky as customers may seek downward variations in price or may withdraw the work if a more competitive supplier can be found.14"

One of the strengths of the telecottage movement is that each is normally autonomous, rooted in its neighbourhood, and with strong local accountability and support. But this can also be a weakness: individual telecottages are small undertakings, relatively inexperienced in marketing themselves to the outside world.

Wiltshire's attempt to use a county-wide marketing officer to find work for its telecottages has been adopted also in Powys, where the telecottages have use of a professionally produced publicity brochure into which they can insert their own material. The Telecottage Association has worked to increase the business skills of telecottage staff with a series of one-day seminars, and has recently encouraged telecottages to consider applying for the ISO9000 quality standard.

One telework possibility could be for telecottages to undertake outsourced work for public authorities. The Arkleton Trust report on the Community Teleservice Centres in the Highlands and Islands suggested that funding bodies might consider this as a form of indirect support:

"It may be more useful to provide project work to CTCs as a partial or complete alternative to revenue grants. The latter tend to encourage unrealistic overheads.. whilst the former would have provided useful experience in project work. Such things as entering records on databases, undertaking local skills surveys, preparing databases of local businesses and self-employed people and the like could not only provide important local information but would also help CTCs to establish a track record from the start.15"

Ultimately, perhaps, the success of each telecottage depends in large measure on the individuals who work there, and on how entrepreneurial they are in seeking out development opportunities.

Drew Llewellyn at Boon in Maiden Newton is confident that his project will survive the ending of grant support. As outside in the rain a few passengers wait for the next train south to Dorchester, inside Drew is enthusiastically reviewing for me the various strands in Boon's work. There is the computer maintenance service, cornily but effectively named Mouse to Mouse Resuscitation. There is the training work, undertaken on a one-to-one basis at £50 for each three-hour session. There is the data management work for Dorset County Council, pulling together information on business opportunities in the area. There is Country Work Computing, a project sponsored by the Post Office and the RDC, which has enabled Boon to lend laptops and modems to local small businesses at modest rates of hire (£50 a month).

And there is also the work Boon has been undertaking in joint marketing for locally based teleworkers. Drew Llewellyn describes how one Japanese linguist has developed a translation service, aided by on-line distribution provided from the telecentre. The project has raised the profile of teleworking in the Dorset area, and publicised the economic, environmental and social benefits, he argues.

Drew Llewellyn's energy and enthusiasm is infectious. "I'm really excited about computers and their possibilities," he says. And it is hard not to believe him when he says that Boon can continue. "We'll be OK," he says.


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