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Nov 1

Our new partnership with the City of Seoul


Exchanging learning and experience in neighbourhood activism.

On the invitation of the Mayor of Seoul, Park Won-Soon, we have had the opportunity to spend a week in South Korea, delivering a series of workshops and participating in a programme of visits and debates to exchange learning and help inform the development of Seoul’s communities’ policy agenda. We return energised and inspired by the importance of international solidarity and learning, and look forward to continuing our partnership with the City of Seoul.

Seoul visit

In a country whose post-war history is in many ways defined by the extraordinary speed of its economic growth, the Mayor of Seoul’s policy agenda over the last six years has sought to shift the balance towards developing the social economy. This has included greater emphasis on seeking social innovation in answer to the City’s challenges and the creation of a number of intermediary organisations to fund and support neighbourhood initiatives.

A particular focus for our trip was to share learning around community assets and enterprise development in the U.K. Typically leases offered to community groups in Seoul are no longer than five years (and often only two) with the balance of power firmly with private landowners. Community asset transfer of state owned spaces is also extremely rare. Yet there is motivation from the City Government to create more active policies around assets, recognising that for community activity and enterprise to flourish, the spaces for communities to come together must be established.

Many of the stories from the neighbourhood groups we visited were deeply familiar to us. There was that same dogged determination and restless creativity from community activists that we see in the Locality network. One group, for example, told us how in their fight to retain their valued community centre, which was facing eviction from its current property, they had sought inspiration from the Ivy Pub in Nunhead. They had mobilised residents in a community-led campaign to secure the support of the local council in helping them acquire new premises. Another woman who had led the fight for a group of cooperatives to retain their premises explained that with very little legal rights or certainty about their future they didn’t want to wait for permission or to be told whether they would be relocated. Instead they mobilised support within their community and used their collective skills and resources to set up their enterprises within shipping containers, allowing them flexibility to stay within their neighbourhood.

The energy and commitment from the City Government to establish a stronger footing for community enterprise in Seoul is clear. And we were perhaps a little jealous of the level of political leadership in championing civil society, something that has dwindled in the UK. The spark for change and for doing things differently shines bright in Seoul. Yet if anything, this ambition to see quick results needs to be tempered with a longer-term understanding of community development. In discussions between the City Government and civil society groups, we noticed at times an impatience for a level of community participation that is not yet there. We shared our experience that there is no quick fix for community development. It requires time, long-term commitment and community organisations rooted in their neighbourhoods, to avoid policy implementation becoming ‘top-down’ and ineffective.

Spending the week with people working to build community participation in Seoul also gave pause for reflection on our own context here. As Brexit continues to dominate our political agenda, we need to be demonstrating the essential role of communities in facing our county’s challenges. This is why Locality set up our Future Places Network to put communities at the heart of this debate. We are also due to publish our findings of our Commission on the Future of Localism early in the New Year. Now more than ever we need to look at how to reinvigorate democracy and unlock the power of communities.

Tony shaking hands with the Seoul Mayor

Our visit culminated in the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between us and the Seoul City Government, to build on our partnership. We’ll be developing the detail for this, and how members can get involved, over the coming weeks. Alongside our work with the International Federation of Settlements and the Global Social Economy Forum we want to build on opportunities for international learning exchange for Locality members. Because whilst we are local in our everyday focus and our work, we need to be global in our friendships and outlook.

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