In a lively session, chief executives met with American community organiser Jim Diers from Seattle. Jim spoke about the way Seattle has used existing powers, such as planning laws, and community led initiatives to address city wide problems such as land usage, affordable housing and community safety. It was the case, he told the audience, that communities think more holistically than government does, often avoiding the kind of problems that emerge from teams working in isolation from the community within official structures.
Jim’s experience in Seattle demonstrated that it was important for the big society and localism to be community focused. Working in a particularly disadvantaged community, they had used fake shop fronts to attract new stores and businesses to their area, set up a non-profit bike shop where young people could trade in old broken bikes for new ones and where underprivileged children could develop new skills in repairing bikes before picking a bike of their own to take home, and set up a farmers market that showcased the best of local produce and now attracts 2,500 people every Wednesday evening.
In the end, community activism has brought together 30,000 volunteers to implement 3,000 locally promoted recommendations through 38 new community plans. These projects were entirely run by the community, with support from the local city government. This was, Jim said, real community action led by local people and demonstrated that the lead in any such initiative really needed to come from local areas.