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  • Writer's pictureMunicipal Enquiry

Barking up the wrong tree

As citizens in Barking join street demonstrations against the imminent closure of a vital community space, Nick Mahony, Frances Northrop and Matt Thompson reflect on the seriousness and avoidability of this situation. The protests point to the need for the council to support the new community backed plan for an ongoing lease on the warehouse beyond the life-span of the original project, something which should have been built in from the beginning. This case highlights the urgent need to build larger-scale public support for more directly democratic forms of urban development and municipalism.

Residents in Barking are protesting against the planned closure of one of the few community spaces to have benefitted from an injection of cash in this part of east London in recent years.

The immediate issue for the #SaveTheWarehouse campaign is to get Barking and Dagenham Council to delay the closure and support a newly drafted resident-led plan drawn up by local people, rather than lease it for a commercial rent then sell the site off to a private developer in 3-5 years time.

The large warehouse space at the centre of the dispute was originally secured on a peppercorn rent from Barking and Dagenham Council equivalent to £5000 per year. The warehouse opened as the central hub for Participatory City’s ‘Everyone Everyday’ project, which offered residents in Barking free access to equipment and technical support for creative, environmental, cultural and business activities. The aim was to catalyse an increased sense of connection, cohesion, cooperation, inclusion and community amongst local people.

Participatory City’s Everyone Everyday process was set up to field test an experimental R&D ‘model’ for ‘systems change’, massively scaled up from the ‘Open Works’ prototype, imported from the London Borough of Lambeth further up the Thames. Participatory City is constituted as a registered charity with Everyone Everyday the name of the resident engagement project it has led in Barking and Dagenham since 2018.

Everyone Everyday was bankrolled by Barking and Dagenham Council in partnership with a group of funders including National Lottery Community Fund, City Bridge Trust, City of London, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, Mayor of London and others - to the tune of over £9 million over 5 years.

This is an extraordinary sum to spend on a single unproven approach in a borough with high levels of inequality and unmet need and in the context of deepening austerity and strained public budgets.

One positive legacy of the project is that residents have now tasted what it’s like to have access to a local space where they can get together, learn collectively, start new ventures, enjoy each other's company and meet new people.

Unsurprisingly, however, the scheme was controversial from the start. Not least because of the 50% cut the council dealt to local voluntary and charity sector groups in the lead up to Participatory City’s launch of Everyone Everyday in 2018; and the decision to invest £1 million of council cash in the scheme, to ostensibly ‘shake up’, ‘disrupt’ and ‘transform’ the local civil society and community engagement ecosystem.

It’s become increasingly clear to borough in-siders, as well as many observing from beyond Barking, that this kind of ‘social design’ project is ill-equipped to deliver community development in this complex context - in the face of the growing tensions, contradictions and inequities that were already then so starkly evident in Barking and Dagenham.

On the one hand, there are the interests of the developers, corporates, cultural industries and new residents, rushing into the borough to capitalise on the enormous ‘opportunities’ for property development and gentrification in this ‘frontier zone’ of east London. This was a market stoked by the council itself, through its own arms-length development company BeFirst, joining a number of other special purpose public-private vehicles set up by the local authority, such as Reside.

On the other hand, there are the often opposing interests of established residents and long-standing civil society and mutual aid groups, many of whom were already on the margins and being squeezed out, priced out and stressed out by the high-stakes ‘economic regeneration’ process ramping up at the point of Participatory City’s arrival on the scene.

It was against this backdrop that a piece of academic research was undertaken in 2018 in close collaboration with Barking and Dagenham Council to investigate the local landscape of community engagement and citizen participation. This was conceived to help the council reflect on what was currently happening with a view to enhancing democratic accountability, community cohesion and citizen control. One of the authors of this article was centrally involved in this research.

A cross-section of civil society and mutual aid groups were identified by council officials to be interviewed as part of this research, whose findings and recommendations were reported back to the local authority in the Summer of 2019.

Findings highlighted significant levels of constructive criticism being expressed at the time by many of Barking’s most active and long-standing organisations.

For example:

  • The 2019 research highlighted how the leaders of the Participatory City team had refused to collaborate, or in several cases even talk, with many of the on-the-ground civil society groups that had been interviewed, despite the wide-ranging remit and the aims of the Participatory City project, which was funded to help improve the borough for everyone. The civil society interviewees called for this situation to be addressed.

  • It uncovered evidence of Participatory City’s Everyone Everyday project poaching and exploiting long-established networks of volunteers, set up over decades by other pre-existing but less well-resourced groups. While this boosted Participatory City’s engagement metrics, it was seen to be eroding the sector overall. Again, interviewees wanted this to change.

  • Participatory City was found to be restricting certain civil society activities in its Barking facilities, including those geared to local campaigning or those deemed political, as well as groups supporting ‘needs based’ activities organised around issues such as housing and debt relief. The civil society groups interviewed affirmed the long-standing need for such activities in this part of London, where inequities were especially high and increasing. They questioned why Participatory City had put barriers up when it came to addressing the social justice issues that were of greatest concern to the most marginalised.

  • The research also found that Participatory City had been pushing back against calls for greater transparency in terms of its own governance; and against greater accountability in terms of the project being more open to local involvement in steering its direction, in needs-based and democratic ways.

Rather than gathering civil society groups around the table to discuss the findings and recommendations of this research, with the aim of finding a better way ahead, as the research team had suggested in its 2019 report, council officials blocked its circulation to interviewees and halted its publication. Tessy Britton and Nat Defriend, who led Participatory City at the time, initially engaged with the research, but subsequently disconnected.

Calls made for mediation between local civil society groups, on the one side, and Participatory City, the local authority and funders, on the other, were ignored or stymied by council officers.

None of the structural problems pinpointed in the 2019 academic research report were ever either satisfactorily recognised or openly addressed.

Nearly four years later Everyone Everyday has reached its final stages and the end date of the project is fast approaching.

Resident groups and the council are currently seeing eye to eye about something: that the warehouse at the centre of the Participatory City project has not been put to sufficiently good community use over the last four years, or been utilised by nearly enough residents during this time. They nevertheless disagree about what should happen next.

While the role of Participatory City in the lead up to the current impasse undoubtedly deserves much more public scrutiny, its shortcomings and contradictions are fast becoming a secondary issue. Having hoovered up a heap of public and philanthropic money, Participatory City is now moving on, cashing in on its inflated brand value to sell its policy model as a commodity to prospective funders and commissioners elsewhere (evident by its franchise expansion as ‘Participatory Canada’, with partner projects now replicating in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton).

This leaves the question of what to make of its legacy and, most immediately, what to do with the warehouse.

The council says it has a fiscal deficit and needs to prioritise a commercial return from the warehouse. So it has decided to lease the building as soon as possible on a commercial rent, with the plan to demolish in three or so years time to build profitable housing units on the site.

Why the Participatory City team did not do more to secure another lease for the community on a longer term basis, and why they trusted the council to secure the community’s interests in this project in a context of austerity and ever-growing pressures to financialise public assets, are important questions for another time. There is now a more urgent question.

With a viable community-led plan now on the table, to use the warehouse more intensively and inclusively as a public resource, the true test of the council’s commitment to civic engagement and cooperation is laid bare. Will the council use its fiscal ingenuity to find a way of working with committed residents to support the realisation of a participatory public space? Will the promised ‘participatory city’ finally materialise?

Yet, as well as arguing that a rescue package will be too expensive, the council currently claims that residents lack the skills to run the warehouse for themselves.

The group of residents leading the charge in the #SaveTheWarehouse campaign strongly disagree.

The political stakes are now higher than ever.

Will the council continue to duck the need for real accountability and community engagement in the midst of the inequitable development process that’s accelerating through this part of London? Or will it finally take the risk of meeting its constituents on an equal footing and work with them to realise the real community potential of this warehouse space?

Just because the Everyone Everyday project underused its warehouse hub in Barking and failed to realise its aim of creating a long-term and financially sustainable platform for resident engagement doesn’t mean that the new community-led plan will now do the same.

If the residents behind the community-led plan were now given the chance to implement their vision of a collectively managed public space, there’s every likelihood it will be made very good use of - so why not give it a go? The resident-led scheme will surely be far less financially risky and expensive than the Participatory City scheme.

One barrier standing in the way of this obvious solution is the council’s fiscal constraints: dealing with deficits dealt to them by Tory austerity, it’s understandable how tempting selling out this space to private developers must seem right now. Yet this also represents an opportunity to make good on claims to empower civil society and build a new civic economy; to lead the way in a socially innovative transformation of urban everyday life. What else does the borough’s distinctive vision for a ‘civic socialism’ mean if not that?

This is a time limited chance to invest in a different kind of approach.

Rather than turning its back on this failed attempt to implement Participatory City’s unproven ‘social design’ methodology and far-fetched ‘theory of change’. And rather than touting awards that Participatory City has helped bestow on Barking and Dagenham along the way, for being innovative in politics.

This is the moment for the council to put its money where its mouth is and become an enthusiastic public partner in a community-led process of change.

If the council wants to break through the barrier of residents’ mistrust, its constituents should be viewed as its biggest assets - not liabilities to be managed.

Alongside the local civil society groups doing some great work in the area, residents have an abundance of skills and experience they can draw on to make this warehouse venture a success.

The opportunity is there to grasp: a genuine process of democratisation of urban space grown from the grassroots, backed by the local state.

If the council cannot learn from the Participatory City experience and improve upon its experimental approach to community-led participation then the experience has been all for nothing.

Without this project sustained and handed over to the community to run - cynicism, apathy, social isolation, community fragmentation and discontent will likely only escalate.

In contrast, if the council can demonstrate what democratic leadership looks like by finding a way to make the warehouse work for the people of Barking rather than for developers, this could represent precisely the kind of innovation that people up and down the country are crying out for.

By taking this chance, Barking and Dagenham really could be at the cutting-edge, of both urban regeneration and of democratic politics today.

Dr. Nick Mahony is co-founder of Municipal Enquiry and a freelance social researcher and project worker with expertise in participatory democracy and public action, community development and participatory research. Nick is also Development Coordinator of the Raymond Williams Foundation.

Frances Northrop is co-founder of Municipal Enquiry and a local economic development specialist who is currently an Associate Fellow with the New Economics Foundation, part of the Save Latin Village campaign as well as a Director of Atmos Totnes. Frances has a long track-record of working on initiatives and campaigns across the UK and specialises in how change is created through different means – culture, policy, practice and campaigning - and is experienced in all four areas.

Dr Matt Thompson is an urban geographer based at Cardiff University and UCL who has written widely about municipalism, the Preston model and community wealth building, such as this: ‘Re-producing Space for Community Wealth Building’; and a review of Paint Your Town Red as well as written on Participatory City here and here. He is the author of Reconstructing Public Housing: Liverpool's hidden history of collective alternatives:

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