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  • Writer's pictureMunicipal Enquiry

Occupy community development

Updated: Mar 20

Why community development projects led and owned by communities offer the alternative that Britain now so urgently needs

Our last post concluded with a call-out to public commissioners, philanthropic funders, institutions and politicians to adopt more ambitious and exacting requirements, when it comes to funding and endorsing the governance arrangements of community development projects. 

In response, more ex-employees of Participatory City/Everyone Everyday contacted us confirming the accuracy and relevance of our previous reports and to offer us further information about the internal workings of this failed project.

And on 8 March 2024 a group going by the name of ‘Starbassuk’ occupied the former Everyone Everyday warehouse in defiance of this community asset being privatised and potentially moving forever beyond public use.

Municipal Enquiry exists to help build the case for more locally embedded, grassroots power building projects that resist and build alternatives to rising levels of inequality. However, the information passed to us from ex-Everyone Everyday employees instead points us to a ‘how not to’ guide to community development: highlighting how not to manage funds; how not to conduct an experimental community development project; how not to conduct research, evaluation, learning and consultation processes; and how not to put in place the governance systems needed to be accountable to and representative of local people.

And so, every time we think about stepping back from Everyone Everyday to concentrate on the bigger picture we are repeatedly pulled back to this case, since the story is still unresolved. 

The main institutions involved are still stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the systemic failure of this project - most notably Participatory City Foundation, Barking and Dagenham Council and funders including GLA, National Lottery Community Fund, Esmee Fairbairn and City Bridge Trust. They are ignoring the mounting evidence that Everyone Everyday hasn’t realised its most important objectives and the imperative to make good on promises made to residents. 

However, the main reason this story remains unresolved is because of the tenacity of local people and the campaigners and activists who are still fighting for better outcomes for Barking.

Talking to ex-employees

What was most immediately striking from talking with the ex Everyone Everyday employees has been the mismatch between their initial enthusiasm for the project and the stress, frustration, sadness and anger they subsequently experienced as a member of the staff team. 

Before joining they sincerely and passionately believed that the original Everyone Everyday model had merit and potential. They were impressed with how the model was prototyped in another borough and excited by the prospect of scaling it up in Barking and Dagenham. We are told that many Everyone Everyday employees shaped their lives around their commitment to deliver this scheme. The project’s enormous ambitions had also acted as an enticing call to action for LBBD and funders. 

Soon after the initial project team formed many staff began to realise the project was falling short of the plans and standards it had set for itself, in at least three ways:

First, they started to see the project dramatically fall short in respect of its research, consultation, learning and evaluation objectives. 

The stated intention was that the project would work as a research and development enterprise involving a serious data collection effort and mixing quantitative and qualitative approaches. This would underpin the experimental aspects of the approach, enabling staff and the wider community to collectively test and evaluate the effectiveness of the project’s theory of change.

Commitments were also made to an ‘iterative’ process, whereby periods of intensive resident-facing activity would always be followed by structured periods of reflection, evidence based discussion, data evaluation and learning involving the project team, residents and other local groups. 

This ‘action research’ type approach was to yield a shared understanding of the elements of this project that did and didn’t work; meaning insights and new knowledge could be documented; and immediate improvements to the process could be made on the ground.

This systematic approach was quickly stymied by Everyone Everyday’s then CEO Tessy Britton. Having initially been the driving force in selling this model to the council and others, once funding had been secured Tessy had grave concerns that such a rigorous, discursive and collaborative approach would negatively impact on the overall speed of project delivery.

From that point on, we are told, data was not properly collected or collectively analysed, which had a profoundly negative impact on the overall integrity of this ‘experimental’ process. The commitment to rigorous learning and evaluation was lost. Trust and morale drained from the Everyone Everyday staff team. 

The original Director of Research was side-lined to the extent that they left the role; and Tessy Britton - who has a marketing background - appointed herself as the replacement.

This was all despite Tessy Britton being unqualified for research leadership and there being several members of the Everyone Everyday team who already had PhD’s and other relevant social science expertise.

Plans to form a resident advisory panel ran into similar problems, causing yet more difficulties for the experiment. This panel was to provide a key channel through which local people could have influenced the overall direction, priorities, financial governance and approach of this project.

By compromising the integrity of the experiment and then also axing the residents panel and obstructing engagement with local civil society groups opportunities for collaboration, community-led forms of oversight and governance were deliberately dashed.

This leads us to the second major failure that ex-employees have reported, which regards the project’s Board of Trustees.

Given that the Everyone Everyday project wasn’t a constituted charity of its own and the named Trustees responsible for governing the EE project were actually also the Trustees of the Participatory City charity, there was already plenty of scope built into this structure for problems to arise.

The original trustees had been recruited as part of the creation of the Participatory City Foundation charity and company (which were both established on the 14th March 2017) and, as such, their role was to oversee the Participatory City strategy as a whole (including its growth strategy) and not just to oversee the delivery of the Everyone Everyday project in Barking.

Ex-employees told us that a core group of trustees were (and remain) close associates of Everyone Everyday’s original CEO, Tessy Britton, and acted as a protective shield around the CEO, who was both in charge of the Everyone Everyday project and in charge of Participatory City, which had a wider role.

Rather than fulfilling their oversight duties to ensure project outcomes were realised and financial and operational decisions were overseen and reported on in a transparent and effective way, this core group of trustees, we are told, have instead overwhelmingly accepted the actions of Everyone Everyday’s/Participatory City’s leadership at each stage, however ‘off-grid’ and deleterious some of these actions have sometimes been for the project in Barking. 

A large-scale and publicly funded community development project of this kind depends on rigorous oversight, transparent governance and the effectiveness of its local accountability mechanisms. But the failure of the project to realise its most important outcomes and the trustees continued obfuscation - or, put more simply, their lack of integrity and responsibility towards residents - backs up what we have heard from ex-employees and calls into question whether this Board of Trustees has managed to fulfil its basic duties.

And we understand that the trustees who have raised critical questions in the past were marginalised, pushed out, or ended up ‘moving on’. This dysfunctional dynamic left a perilous vacuum where critical scrutiny and oversight should have been. As a result, the serious structural, governance and delivery problems which were evident from very early on, were left to fester for years.

The very unusually high level of staff turnover, for example, should have rung alarm bells - but, we understand, this has never seriously been questioned by trustees - no exit interviews were ever undertaken. 

There are similar question marks over salary expenditure, particularly the large salary and the contract initially given to former CEO Tessy Britton to lead the Everyone Everyday project, with no open recruitment process.

We are told Tessy spent significant periods of time away from Barking engaged in non-Everyone Everyday activities in Scotland, Canada and the USA - utilising resources, including the time of other members of the staff team, to develop business for Participatory City elsewhere.

And as the project ran into delivery problems in Barking, more and more money was spent on ‘design’ and ‘marketing’, partly to distract from these problems, with £250-300k spent on printing newspapers alone.

Everyone Everyday did deliver a range of pre-designed activities to residents, but as the project ran and as the possibility of delivering on any of the more ambitious and substantive outcomes receded the operating environment became more and more difficult for staff to work in.

“It was awful to work there in the end” one ex-employee told us “my heart just sinks talking about it”, “anyone that did speak out at the time felt they were punished for just talking about it”.

We have been told that staff were bullied and treated in ways that were tantamount to gaslighting. One ex-employee said that the experience had a serious impact on their mental health for over 6 months after they left.

Nat Defriend, who took over as CEO and who has run the project in recent times, has been unable to reset the culture at Everyone Everyday or turn this situation around. Brand reputation management, the re-narration of original project objectives and PR are still being prioritised over honesty, integrity or the interests of local people - all of which is the antithesis of the kind of community led and democratically grounded approach that's still so urgently needed. 

Tens of thousands of pounds worth of equipment were installed in the former Everyone Everyday warehouse, but this has now been dispersed, the building shuttered and advertised for commercial rent by the council. The warehouse was sitting empty and unused for several months until Starbassuk came along. 

As Everyone Everyday winds down, its remaining staff are now moving on or touting for other jobs in ‘the sector’. The limited resources that remain in the project’s budget are being spent on the promotion of the project’s extremely limited successes, before making a swift exit. 

Talking with Starbassuk about their March 2024 occupation of the former Everyone Everyday warehouse

All had been quiet for several weeks until on Friday 8 March 2024 a group, going by the name of Starbassuk, occupied the warehouse site and announced that their action was in protest at the building being lost to the community and in support of the #savethewarehouse campaign. 

We spoke to Starbassuk on 13 March 2024 when they told us they had taken action with the aim of transforming the warehouse back into a safe and accessible public space, having been inspired by the #savethewarehouse campaign and reading Municipal Enquiry's blogposts. Starbassuk is looking, at least initially, to reopen the warehouse as a music venue that will also support young people interested in developing their skills in music production and DJ’ing. 

The local police had visited once so far but had then left them alone, although the council had now posted security guards with dogs at the gates. Aware that it would cost the council a significant amount of money to go to the High Court to secure an Intermediate Possession Order, Starbassuk told us they were looking to hold onto the building long enough to put this space to better use and resolve the future of the site in the interests of the community.

Having been involved in similar protests and occupations, including most recently in Dartford, where Starbassuk had reopened a nightclub that had been closed down (see article in MixMag), this group are following a long tradition of community-based, countercultural grassroots activism that aims to reclaim unused buildings for housing or public use, to address unmet community needs and priorities.

We understand that conversations between Starbassuk and some of the #savethewarehouse campaigners are already underway. We look forward to seeing what emerges from this process of dialogue, possible alliance building and renewed action.

Coming to the table is now a moral and political imperative

We will never know what could have been achieved by local community groups had the £9 million spent in Barking on Everyone Everyday been invested in community based projects.

As Starbassuk fills part of the vacuum in this situation, pressure is once again building on the institutions involved to abandon their public silence and detached posture and instead convene meetings to really start listening to the voices of hitherto marginalised groups. Local people urgently need concrete commitments made by all concerned: to secure permanent community space and for significant ongoing support for community development.

The occupation of the warehouse and the hiatus this creates serves, again, to publicly highlight the injustice that residents are enduring and the urgent need for institutional reparations. 

How much longer can the Everyone Everyday senior management team, led by CEO Nat Defriend, continue to claim that this project has been a success?

It has been clearly established now that this scheme has engaged only a minute fraction of the promised 30+% (or 60,000+) of the borough’s residents, incubated only a handful of the promised 200-250 new businesses and social enterprises and has left no discernible legacy in terms of its impact on inequalities or new social infrastructure, despite extracting over £9 million of mostly public funds from the community in salaries, marketing and failed ‘social design’ experimentation. 

The aim here has been not just to demonstrate incontrovertible evidence of this project’s failure, but rather that there is still a great deal of hope on the ground.

Many people on the ground are still looking for a more reasonable approach from the institutions, the #savethewarehouse campaigners and others are still looking for investment in their resident-led plan. There is still time to support a more community based process and make good on the damage done by Everyone Everyday.

Wider lessons should be learnt from this too, both by local authorities and by funders with an interest in supporting community development that addresses the inequalities of wealth, power, property and influence that are continuing to worsen in London and across Britain today.

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