Is the street party the way to create a 'big society'?

As David Cameron's project gathers pace, Rob Hastings reports from the cake-stall
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When David Cameron finally announces what his "Big Society" pet project will actually entail today, it's unlikely that anything could symbolise his ambitions better than yesterday's sun-drenched Amwell Street fete in Islington, north London.

With bunting fluttering in a light summer breeze above stalls selling trinkets, vintage clothing and cupcakes decorated with Dig For Victory slogans, this 1940s-themed bash was the every bit the classic British street party. It is community get-togethers like this that the Prime Minister hopes to encourage through the creation of a website called Your Square Mile. The Government will support the site, but it will be run by a mutual society offering help in dealing with the paperwork involved in setting up events, as well as – potentially – babysitting networks and administrative services.

Mr Cameron's speech in Liverpool today will also highlight four examples of the kinds of locally led initiatives that he wants to help to foster from the grassroots, including finding volunteers for a museum and a neighbourhood buy-out of a rural pub. He will say that years of top-down government control have created a nation of "passive recipients of state help", have turned public-sector workers into "disillusioned, weary puppets of government targets" and have made lively communities "dull soulless clones".

However, as Amwell Street residents lined up to take part in the fancy-dress competition yesterday, Mr Cameron would doubtless have been heartened. One of the biggest attractions was the dog show, organised by the local vet, Margaret Lamont, who felt that street parties and other community events were "a good way of stopping crime, knowing your neighbours". "When we were kids, we'd never do anything wrong because your parents would always know someone who saw you doing it," she said. Catherine Conway, a local grocer working on the ice-cream stall, said she had previously been suspicious of the Big Society idea.

"I used to work in a volunteer centre," she explained, "and there was definitely a feeling there that the government was using the Big Society initiative to get the voluntary sector to do things that they would otherwise have had to pay for with public funds." However, she felt the website could be beneficial. "It's good for them to help people facilitate their own events, so they know about the boring logistics like hiring barriers and getting laminated signs to direct traffic somewhere else. If somebody had given us a checklist of what he had to be aware of in year one, we probably would have done it a lot faster. We had to learn how to do it simply by doing it.

"But the events still have to be community-led," she added. "If the council was to come in and do it, there wouldn't be the same atmosphere."

Amwell Street's annual party began after the community fought off council plans to sell their properties to developers, protesting that they should be able to buy their premises themselves. Adversity, said Mrs Lamont, is often what is needed to kick-start a community venture. With budget cuts biting, Mr Cameron's government could indeed soon be creating the perfect conditions for the Big Society.