This Participatory City ain’t pretty
Updated: Aug 1
Reflecting on what’s at stake in the struggle over the future of the Everyone Everyday warehouse and its equipment, Nick Mahony and Frances Northrop call for accountability, justice and new priorities to emerge from the hugely costly and largely counterproductive failure of the Participatory City project in Barking.
Since publishing ‘Barking up the wrong tree’ in June, we’ve received a steady stream of messages from local people and groups, as well as from people in the wider sector, conveying how glad they are about how the piece has publicly highlighted a range of contentious issues regarding the Everyone Everyday project, apparently for the first time; concerns many have told us they share but have been (and still are) reticent to raise in public, for a variety of reasons.
At long last, it seems, a space is slowly opening up, for these and other issues to be aired and a fuller discussion to take place regarding what can be learnt from the 5+ year experience of Participatory City’s Everyone Everyday project in Barking.
It is in this spirit of furthering collective understanding about this project and in the hope of supporting more inclusive and public conversations on the ground about what should happen next that we thought it would be useful to do more background research on the original aims of the Everyone Everyday project and what has happened as a result in Barking.
While we want to add our voices of support to the resident-led campaign to save the warehouse, the intention is to also make our own contribution to the wider debate about the impact and legacy of Participatory City and LBBD’s partnership overall.
We do this as over £9 million, of mostly public money (from the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, the Mayor of London and the National Lottery Community Fund) has been spent and we think there needs to be much greater accountability; and because part of Municipal Enquiry’s intent is to undertake research and advocacy that addresses key questions about power, participation and the role of professionals, as part of the ongoing process of developing the ‘new municipalism’ in a British context.
As such, we think this money could have been spent far more wisely and hope our scrutiny contributes to a growing movement of people demanding not just more accountability and greater economic and social justice in Barking but also highlights the need for greater funding in the future for rather more community-led development approaches.
For us at least, the situation in Barking is first-and-foremost a story about how power continues to be wielded in irresponsible and unjust ways by those who have privileged access to resources in a context of relative scarcity.
“People here [in Barking] are scared of losing the little they have” one person told us “so they can’t speak out [about Participatory City]”.
In contrast, LBBD threw the weight of the local state behind Participatory City to enable this project to leverage so much; and now PC, LBBD and the funders are even taking that away, despite residents having the combined forces of austerity, the cost of living crisis and gentrification still bearing down on them.
To help understand what’s happened, it’s worth going back to 2017, to a time when Darren Rodwell, who had become Leader of the Council in 2014, was beginning to spearhead a deliberate strategy designed to attract inward investment and developer-led growth in the context of austerity.
The Participatory City approach was so obviously compatible with this kind of Blairite, paternalistic and technocratic approach to developer-led growth, that in this context the hyperbolic Everyone Everyday proposition became convincing and seductive enough to to secure the support, in the shape of millions of pounds of investment, of LBBD council and a set of large funders with all the consequences now unfolding in front of our eyes.
To better understand just how the Everyone Everyday project was conceived in this political situation, where Blairite ideological approaches were being assertively pursued by LBBD council (while more democratic and egalitarian alternatives were being rejected), we start here by looping back to the original governing document of the Participatory City Foundation from the 9th October 2017, as published on the Charity Commission website, where it states that the Everyone Everyday project exists to fulfil three interconnected objectives:
(i) to develop the capacities and resilience of the ‘socially and economically disadvantaged’ in Barking;
(ii) to increase ‘social inclusion’ by ‘relieving the needs’ of those that are ‘socially excluded’ and by ‘assisting them to integrate into society’;
(iii) and, to promote ‘sustainable development’, by both protecting the environment and ‘relieving poverty’ through the ‘provision of education, training, and all the necessary support designed to enable individuals to generate a sustainable income and be self-sufficient’.
To realise these objectives, the text on the Charity Commission website explains that the project will build and test a ‘participatory platform [in Barking] providing residents with access to trained project designers, openly accessible spaces, local networks, and a range of tools, machines and learning opportunities to create projects and businesses’ (our italics).
In a publicly available cabinet paper from 16 November 2016, council officials set out how the Participatory City approach dovetails with the council’s overall borough-wide strategic approach to economic and social development.
Making the case for a £1.5 million injection of cash by LBBD council into the Everyone Everyday project, the paper highlights that this “five-year programme of investment into the social infrastructure of the Borough'' had the intent of:
Supporting individual and community resilience by providing practical support to new and existing participative activity;
Promoting a ‘demand management’ approach that dovetails with the development of Community Solutions;
Supporting the Council’s transformation programme and approach to prevention and early intervention”
“The goal” the cabinet paper states “is that after five years in Barking and Dagenham the opportunity will have created:
Approximately one hundred opportunities per week within a 5 to 15 minute walk from any resident’s home;
Local and regular participation of residents at 30+%;
Low commitment, imaginative, creative and practically beneficial activities open to all; Regular peer-to-peer incubation programmes to cultivate new ideas;
Opportunities to scale ideas towards community business models.”
“The aim is that at the end of the five-year investment there will be a thriving ‘participation culture’ in Barking and Dagenham [including] five local hubs operating a robust ‘Support Platform’ to maintain this culture. The projects will then continue under the management of a central entity, independent of LBBD and Participatory City, and funded by a self-sustaining endowment.”
Despite the pandemic interrupting in-person participation, the 2021-22 Barking and Dagenham Corporate Plan reaffirmed LBBD’s clear and strong commitment to Participatory City, albeit with some warning of what was to come.
It stated in this 2021-2 document that “securing the future of participation in the Borough, through sustainability discussions with Participatory City around the future of the Every One Every Day platform” was then still, one of its key corporate policy priorities.
By June 2023 an LBBD press release nevertheless announced that Participatory City’s Everyone Everyday project had now “run its course” as this had been “a project with a defined lifespan” that was now “coming to an end.”
So what changed?
As we’ve already seen, Everyone Everyday had been set up from the start as a partnership between LBBD and Participatory City, based on mutually agreed and interlocking development goals, delivery plans and governance arrangements.
The council’s decision to support the Everyone Everyday project was, therefore, a deliberate political choice.
Against a backdrop of austerity, this decision had a significant bearing upon where scarce resources would be directed and one that led to Participatory City and LBBD working in collaboration for more than 5 years, at every stage of the project’s development.
So why did the council withdraw its support from this partnership in June 2023 and announce the closure of the warehouse?
The council has not yet publicly criticised the Everyone Everyday project, but we understand that behind the scenes there’s been significant disquiet amongst council officials and councillors for some time about the project's under-performance; and council officers have been repeatedly reassuring an increasingly restless and critical local civil society that the project will soon be over.
Possibly in response to some of this growing negativity and disquiet, concerns about the Everyone Everyday project have begun to be cautiously aired by Participatory City’s CEO, Nat Defriend, as part of a set of ‘reflections’ he has recently published on his LinkedIn page.
Nat admits, for example, that his experience of running the project has been ‘challenging’ although he immediately then goes on to explain that such challenges have partly arisen because the Everyone Everyday team has “sometimes” not explained the projects “aims well enough to residents, local groups and partners”.
Nat states that he should also have “had a clearer understanding of the extent to which our arrival in the borough would have been experienced by others as disruptive” and that “we would have loved to have been more successful, particularly in the early years, in finding mutual strength with other organisations for the benefit of residents”.
However, from previous research we already know that such ‘disruption’ was one of the explicit aims of council officers and the Participatory City team, right from the start.
There is evidence from as far back as 2018-9 that Participatory City were spurning offers of collaboration from some of the local groups being most negatively impacted.
This was ‘disruption by design’.
And it was a form of disruption most acutely felt by pre-existing groups in Barking that were specifically focused on meeting basic unmet needs, addressing deep inequities in the Borough, increasing social cohesion and championing pre-existing community development projects.
By this time 50% of the council’s funding of such groups had already been cut. By actively prohibiting some of the most energetic grassroots groups from even meeting in its spaces Everyone Everyday then added to this disruption, by hindering any possibility there may still have been for these groups to positively engage with, or help shape this new scheme.
PC used their charitable status and mission as an excuse, by characterising these groups as political. In actuality these were precisely the kinds of organisations who were already most actively working at the sharp end of addressing inequality and who were pushing against the tide to realise precisely the kinds of changes in the borough that PC claimed they could make.
Participatory City’s intervention in Barking has largely been a failure. This is primarily because the proposition at the heart of its Everyone Everyday project has always been entirely unrealistic; just as the approach taken to its conception, funding and partnership with the Council has always been fatally misconceived.
When this semi-detached approach to ‘social design’ practice was applied to the project’s implementation, this then also resulted in under-delivery, disappointment amongst residents and sometimes cross-sector arguments, new division and even a degree of chaos.
We suggest that all of this has now been demonstrated beyond dispute. For the idea that building this kind of ‘participatory platform’ - particularly one that deliberately did not focus on securing residents' interests in the ownership of spaces and the stewardship of the wealth being created through development - might provide an adequate response to rapidly rising inequalities, increasing poverty and poor political accountability in Barking was always entirely unrealistic.
At a time when austerity in Barking was continuing to bite and the Council sanctioned activity of developers was already leading to rapid gentrification this approach was all the more ill-conceived and deluded.
Social infrastructure in Barking and Dagenham
We have already acknowledged in our previous piece that the centrepiece of this project, the Everyone Everyday warehouse, has offered some of the population of Barking a welcome taste of a freely accessible large-scale community space which provides useful facilities and no-cost activities and the sometimes life-changing associated benefits of meeting with and taking part in convivial and relevant pursuits with people close to home.
But the idea of a ‘participatory city’ is nothing new, community and social centres across Britain and around the world have been offering comparable kinds of provision for decades, on a fraction of this budget.
Everyone Everyday was able to position itself as ‘innovative’, while also looking to monetise an approach which is in fact centred on delivering basic social infrastructure, by co-opting, repackaging, and promoting its own reactionary version of emancipatory participatory ideals and associated forms of egalitarian politics, to an under-pressure local authority.
In a situation where public facilities have been relentlessly asset stripped from communities, Participatory City sought to step-in and lead the charge for a more technocratic, top-down and manageable approach to community development. An approach that could supposedly reduce poverty, inequality and exclusion, all without the council having to trouble themselves by considering (let alone actually enacting) any sort of radically progressive structural interventions in the local economy, or substantive democratic engagement with local people.
The coalition had instigated the more wide-ranging process of public asset stripping right across Britain since 2010, as is shown by the Bureau Local investigation ‘Sold from Under You’ report.
Barking and Dagenham Council acknowledged the importance of this basic social infrastructure in this context, when they announced their Community hubs project (none of which are Everyone Everyday spaces despite their wish to dovetail their strategies). Let’s not forget, the promise in 2017 was to create five permanent new public spaces.
With the resources made available to Participatory City such permanently available spaces could have been identified and secured in perpetuity as part of this project.
However, the misguided yet hyperbolic approach adopted by Everyone Everyday extinguished this possibility of a more permanent legacy of new social infrastructure in Barking with the result that the benefits of this scheme were only minimal and short-lived.
What can be learned?
It is clear from this experience that a neighbourhood participation scheme imposed upon a community cannot be inclusive or sustainable, especially in a situation where inequality and poverty are extremely high and rapidly rising.
This is even more the case in a place like Barking where institutional decision making is disconnected from the everyday life of the most marginalised and where the need for a systematic and progressive redistribution of wealth and opportunities is largely shied away from.
The way that important sections of the local charity, voluntary and not-for-profit sector in Barking has been distrusted, maligned and subjected to a divide and rule approach for many years has further compounded this situation.
Rather than investing in a renewed community development strategy that would actually be community-led, the council deliberately invested in Participatory City, while continuing to under-resource and over-manage the rest of the sector in divisive ways.
The lesson here is that any so-called ‘systemic’ approach to borough-wide development that doesn’t substantively and collaboratively address Barking’s combination of structural inequality, social division and lack of democratic accountability is, to say the least, highly questionable and deserving of much more wide-ranging public scrutiny.
The evidence indicates that the purpose of Participatory City was never to transform people’s lives in any real way - it appears instead that this project was designed, first and foremost, to facilitate the local state and the charity sector to work together in conditions of austerity to help ‘manage’, promote and enthuse the local population in the context of the new reality of developer-led growth, the inequitable process of gentrification and a lifestyle being superimposed from outside.
The hope may have been that a proportion of this economic growth might somehow ‘trickle down’, although the objectives of Everyone Everyday placed responsibility for social exclusion firmly at the door of the individuals and communities themselves, encouraging marginalised Barking residents to ‘rejoin society’ by offering them ‘participation opportunities’ in ways that were paternalistic, highly circumscribed and sometimes even authoritarian.
By claiming that Everyone Everyday would build the capacities and resilience of the ‘excluded’ who are not ‘thriving’ in Barking, the Participatory City leadership team, alongside their their partners in LBBD and the funders, have been complicit at every stage with an approach to development that only really represented the interests of the most powerful, who potentially stood to benefit most from this approach.
For all these and other reasons, Participatory City’s Everyone Everyday project was never likely to help represent, ‘empower’, or make any kind of real impact on the fortunes of the ‘excluded’ and most marginalised, however many millions of pounds and however much ‘social design’ expertise was lavished on this Barking project.
Where’s the accountability? Where’s the justice?
Tragically and scandalously, these as well as many other criticisms have repeatedly been made over the course of this 5+ year endeavour, with little results.
By maintaining a tight grip on the project’s governance and ‘participation’ structures and by investing very heavily in public relations and marketing, Participatory City and LBBD have managed, to limit accountability, at least so far.
By holding the funding purse-strings for the rest of the sector LBBD has then been able to further limit accountability by controlling discussions and dampening dissent in the civil society domain.
Questions that have been raised about the project in this context, whether by local residents, pre-existing local civil society groups, academic researchers or even members of its own staff team, have been left unanswered.
One person we spoke to, who works for a well-established group in the area, told us they were ‘made to feel antagonistic and difficult’ whenever they raised concerns about how the project was treating residents.
We understand that Everyone Everyday staff members have also raised questions and complained about how they had been neglected and mistreated by the Participatory City leadership team, with an example of this being publicly documented by an ex-employee on the Glassdoor website and corroborated by others we have spoken to. Again these issues have been ignored.
Resident groups who have highlighted that the Everyone Everyday warehouse has been under-used have also been dismissed.
We understand that even the ‘Coffee Coop’ called ‘Grounded’ ‘incubated’ by Everyone Everyday and promoted as its flagship ‘community-led’ enterprise, is not quite what it seems. Apparently it is less a coop than a PR vehicle resourced by the housing developer Barking Riverside Ltd in support of its property interests and marketing efforts.
We can only imagine what the Rochdale Pioneers would have thought of this kind of debasement and repurposing of their original cooperative principles - of democratic and economic control of the means of production and exchange being in the hands of a cooperative’s members and workers.
We have been told of countless other examples of shoddy, irresponsible and unjust practice. Though since transparent communications and trust have largely broken down, rather than us now anticipating any engagement and accountability, we expect the evidential threshold the Everyone Everyday leadership team will call for, simply to demonstrate the existence of such problems, will be impossible to reach; and certainly a great deal higher than the evidential threshold that was needed to prove that Everyone Everyday was worth funding in the first place.
It is ironic that Everyone Everyday maintains this hostile stance to counterfactual evidence and that its leadership team continues to stonewall those seeking an open dialogue about problems caused by this project, especially since Everyone Everyday publicly maintains that it is a cutting-edge ‘research and development’ experiment.
To promote this scheme as an ‘innovative’ public participation experiment while at the same time continuing to spurn substantive public accountability is hypocritical, not least because this scheme is so well resourced by public funds.
Something positive urgently needs to be salvaged from this dysfunctional, unjust and so far unaccountable techno-managerial mess, by design.
Most immediately a solution needs to be found to the problem of the warehouse and how to put decisions about its future and the future of its equipment in the hands of the community.
The only person who can make that happen is Darren Rodwell, the leader of LBBD, who has not just been complicit in this process, signing-it-off from the start and happily taking plaudits for this ‘innovative’ approach while they lasted, but who is now also blocking any negotiations with the resident group that’s formed to protect the warehouse from closing and its assets being stripped and distributed around the borough, and beyond.
The council and Darren Rodwell should acknowledge the extent to which their strategy for generating growth in an ‘inclusive’ way mirrors that of Participatory City’s dysfunctional and ill-conceived approach. The two schemes mirror each other. As leader, Darren Rodwell should change course and actively help to resolve this, as well as the wider situation in Barking, and do so in ways that actually meet the needs of residents.
The Council have already done this for Studio 3 Arts in Barking - awarding them £183k each year over three years which is pretty much exactly how much they propose renting the Everyone Everyday warehouse out for to a commercial company.
This Participatory City ain’t pretty. The reality of Everyone Everyday’s approach is betrayed by the ugly truth lurking behind the key messages conveyed in its own marketing materials: rather than being led by the community and existing for the benefit of all, a small technocratic clique have tightly governed this scheme in a top-down and largely inflexible way in their own interests and in the interests of the powerful, eschewing open discussion and criticism; and blocking democratic participation to help shape its overall approach; while obstructing institutional accountability at every stage.
The £9 million plus pounds that has been syphoned into a failed ‘social design’ experiment really could have been transformational in Barking.
Instead, this money was handed to a group of unproven social-designers who were licenced to impose their personal ideas of how local people might become more ‘resilient, creative and responsible’, in the hope of ‘increasing their chances of thriving’ and ‘cohering more as a community’, in rapidly deteriorating and manifestly unjust conditions, not of their own making.
Participatory City hasn’t tackled the inequality it had aimed to reduce; it has reproduced and exacerbated it. And, rather than this Participatory City re-balancing power relations and opening up more space for local imagination, social reconciliation and collective action, it has further entrenched pre-existing power relations.
Participatory City has not redistributed resources and opportunities and has left little in the way of legacy if judged by its original founding objectives.
A genuinely participatory city would be one that really did support people to collectively own and control their social infrastructure and have equal access to the resources they need to democratically, intelligently and caringly work together to organise their own communities.
The collective struggle ahead is to realise a genuinely participatory city of this kind, while warding off the specious design, prescriptive engagement and costly but also bogus forms of emancipation still being championed by Everyone Everyday.