The Practical Democracy Podcast. A podcast about practical change, with guests from public bodies and civil society.

Episode 20: Building a better world with community-led development

Featuring: Georgie Grant

The Onion Collective is a social enterprise that was founded by a group of mums from Watchet in Somerset, UK. Watchet is a town with high levels of deprivation and the founders shared a keen desire to make it a better place to grow up for their kids.

Galvanised by this shared interest, they came together and commissioned the creation of a visitor information centre and boat museum in 2016, and more recently a vibrant community centre on the harbourside called East Quay, which opened its doors in summer 2021.

This month in our podcast we speak to Georgie Grant, a director and co-founder of the Onion Collective, about East Quay and the possibilities that arise when a community comes together with a shared vision.

Episode 20 transcript

Georgie Grant: I think we’ve understood that any kind of community action, any kind of mobilisation, creating energy, you need to know your community first.

Sabine Groven:  Hello and welcome to the practical democracy podcast by Delib. My name is Sabine Groven and I’ll be speaking with some great movers and shakers working to make practical change today. On this episode, we’ll be talking about how to get a community business off the ground, the importance of communities, and the power of mums. I’m going to let my fantastic guest introduce herself.

GG: My name’s Georgie Grant and I’m co-director of Onion Collective.

SB: Onion Collective was set up in 2013 by a group of women in west Somerset. The goal was to create social and community benefit through community-based projects. Firstly, Georgie explains their motivation and how it all started.

GG: Watchet is a small coastal town in west Somerset. It’s an hour away from Bristol, near Minehead, and this area of Somerset has the lowest social mobility in the whole country. So even though you might think of Somerset as being beautiful and relatively affluent, there are pockets that really not. Partly that’s because it’s coastal, partly it’s because it’s lost its main industry like loads of other coastal towns. Also, because it’s rural, there’s a real lack of opportunities in terms of job. I have some amazing friends and we would meet on a Thursday in the local pub and have endless conversations about what should happen in the town and what we would want for our kids. This is about a decade ago now, so our kids were babies, and we would talk a lot about them and about what we wanted for their future and what we wanted, the kind of place that we wanted them to grow up in to be like. I think we had this conversation so many times that after a while, we were like, should we just do it, because the council were never going to do it.

The council were losing money and, this was when austerity was really starting to kick in, so the council’s getting less and less money. Businesses were closing down. It was looking pretty bleak and if we wanted changes for our town, we were just going to have to do it ourselves. At the time, it felt really pretty radical. But I work with some extraordinary people who don’t have any sense of what’s impossible. Jess Prendergast and Naomi Griffiths are sisters and they grew up in the local zoo, which their parents had set up. They bought a radio transmitter station from the BBC and set up a zoo there. I think they just grew up in an environment of, you can do whatever you want, anything’s possible. So they have this kind of attitude about it. So when it was like, well should we just form a company and make the changes that need it. We can’t do that, no course you can, why not? So we did.

I think our kids have the kind of idyllic childhood that I wish I’d had. It’s the combination of what’s already here and then us just trying to provide further opportunities. Because it’s a small town, they’re pretty feral. They’re out, they’re kind of, bye mum, I’m going to go and see my friends, and they’ll take like a fiver or a packet of crisps and I won’t see them again until six. I know that they’re in each other’s houses and obviously mobile phones help, right, where are you. But I’m also pretty confident that because we’re a relatively small town with a really tight community, if anything bad happened, I’m pretty sure most people know who my daughter is and they would call me, or they would call someone. There’s a kind of network, where if something happened, people could get hold of me. So there’s a sense of security in living in a community like this. I mean, there are flaws to it. It can be relatively suffocating when everyone knows everyone else and everybody’s business. You have to be happy with that. But actually I am. It's lovely.

So that’s happened, and then I think it’s really good for kids to grow up with their mums doing exactly what they want to do. I feel like that’s quite a good role model. They see how hard it is, they see how hard we have to work, but they’re part of it as well. My daughters are now 12 and 16, and Evie’s just started working at East Quay, so it’s her first job. She’s washing up in the pot wash, and my other daughter comes and hangs out on the sofa with her friends they play with their mobile phones and chat. We’ve built a space that they can just hang out in. That feels really special. Of course it was a long journey getting to East Quay. So all of the other projects that we did, they were part of. One of our first projects was a community build pavilion where we took a neglected field. We collected 50 people. We had an architect and a landscape architect and a timber engineer. We bought a shed load of wood. Then we had a workshop on the Thursday night, which is what we’re going to do, what’s it going to look like. We planned it together, then we started building on the Friday morning. It went completely wrong and fell down by the Friday night. So then we had to re-think and everyone scratched their chins. Then  we made changes, then over Saturday and Sunday we built this beautiful thing, which for five years acted as a kind of meeting point, stage, performance place. We had weddings there, the Brownies and the Cubs and the Scouts would meet there. It was really gorgeous. It was only ever built as a temporary building, so it did have to come down after five years, but for us that was the really big turning point in terms of getting people together to build something that was good for the community.

In itself that was a process that was really bonding . We would plan as we chatted. So the structure was built using ropes and knots to tie the wood together. So we had other people who were sailors who where good at knots from the marina, from the boat owners, would come and teach us how to do the knots. As you learn and you’re doing the repetitive thing, you have conversations about the town, about your hopes, and about what you want. That’s incredibly bonding in its own way. I think that was a real lesson in the kind of community engagement that was important. Not just about surveys, not just about public meetings in a town hall. It’s about building stuff together and having those conversations as you work. That felt really important. So we talk about our work as community-focused regeneration. We used to talk about community led, but then it turns out that community is not one thing. There ain’t no leading. It’s more about understanding community as lots and lots of different circles of bonded friendships and trying to talk to as many of those different circles as possible. All of the work that we do, we try and do that.

We have various different projects that we run at Onion. So, we have a visitor centre and a boat museum that was one of our first projects that we did, because people said that tourism was one of the most important things for Watchet, because it’s now our only economy. We also have a pilot facility that’s growing mushroom related products, so out of mycelium, to see if we can change the world with mushrooms, so that’s really fun. But our main kind of flagship project is East Quay, which is a £7.3 million arts centre on the marina. It has galleries, a restaurant, artist studios, education space, and five lovely bespoke accommodation pods that you can come and stay in and have the most incredible views from your bedroom that you have to see. East Quay opened in September. It’s very contemporary architecture that’s been influenced by the town and is essentially a 21st century vision of how you continue the esplanade, which is the main promenade that people walk on to look out to sea. That esplanade continues up onto a first-floor street with all the artist studios around it. It has two arms looking out towards the town that hold all the buildings, and then a courtyard in the middle, which has the restaurant and the seating.

SG: For anyone who wants to do this, get a community business off the ground, Georgie has some tips for you. 

GG: The first thing that we did was set up a business. I think it’s really important to think about what legal structure works for you, so there’s obviously lots of government structures. For us, a community interest company was perfect, because it meant that we were essentially just a business. We could act as nimble as a business needs to be, but also we were able to apply for funding. So you have the best of both worlds as a CIC. It works really well, but on the other hand, if your business is not going to be enterprising, but you’re providing good in the world, then a charitable model is probably better.

There are plenty of surveys that you can do online that can help you go through that process. That was the first thing that we did and that meant that we could apply for our first bit of funding, which we got from the social and investment business to do a feasibility study. Then, I think what the other thing that’s really important is not to do it alone. It’s really hard. There are loads of challenges, the system is not yet set up for communities to get together and build their own town. There’s too many barriers in the way. Because it’s difficult, you need people that are going to hold you up when it gets down, they’re going to say no, we’re not going to do it like that, we’re going to do it like this. You need that group of really trusted – for us it was friends, but sometimes that’s not practical. That sense of collectivity is so important. Obviously, I’m a bit biased, but I think collectivity and community is the future. We need each other and it’s not about egos and it’s not about leadership in the old sense. Its about leadership in a collective sense and being together.

Once you’ve got your business, and you’ve got the people that are going to run it, then I think it’s really important to be absolutely clear about what’s the difference that you want to make, what’s the change that’s going to happen in the world because of the project that you do. We start this by visioning, I expect lots of people do it in lots of different ways. It’s about talking about what you personally care about, so your personal motivations is what is going to keep you going when times are really dark. That’s really important that you’re doing what you care about. That needs to work as a whole. Then we talk about what the problems are in the area that we’re trying to solve. Then we talk about our utopian ideal future in five- or 10-years’ time and what that might look like and what it might feel like. That’s how you know what you’re aiming for. Then we turn this is into a beautiful narrative and then match it with various different bits of research and data and statistics so that you can have your heartfelt story matched with hard evidence. That creates a nicely robust and compelling narrative.

Then, it’s about going out into the world, into your community, and having as many community conversation as possible and talking to people. Essentially having the same kind of conversations about what do you care about, what are the problems, what do you want in ten years’ time. Doing that as many times as possible. When we were building East Quay, we did this every year for four years. We had workshops. We had about 10 workshops in the year, at the bowling club, at the local school, at the community centres, as many places – so you need to go to people rather than expect people to come to you and make it as easy as possible for people and as fun and warm and welcoming. Food, drink, warm space, comfortable space. Those things will be important. Have these kinds of conversations where you’re pulling out from people what they want and what they care about with no agenda, because you really need people to be open. It’s nice to start with a white piece of paper. Then collect up.

What that will give you is a whole load of data that you can filter into town priorities. Then you know that what you’re doing is maybe not everybody wants, because you’re never going to be able to do that, but that you have enough impetus in the town that you know that enough people want this thing. Then, in all likelihood, the land that you’re going to want to develop on is probably owned by the council. It might not be, which is a whole different thing. But certainly for us, the land that we wanted was owned by the council. To being with, it was just flat no. They wanted to sell to the highest builder. They wanted to make as much commercial money off it as possible. They weren’t interested in a load of women wanting to do something for their community. They were like, nice idea but. So that was a long old struggle that we didn’t give up on. What it really meant was finding advocates in the council that believed in what we believed in as much as we believed in it.

It took a long time. We were lucky. Partly it’s going to all the meetings, networking, having those conversations, and then just sheer luck of finding the right person who cares as much and sees the future and understands that, actually, from now on we need more creative answers. Find those advocates, they’re really powerful. I think also it’s about creating a really strong business plan that has your theory of change in it, that is beautiful, so it’s not just impenetrable, because the people who are going to be reading it read hundreds of business plans and are often bored rigid and if you can get through the cracks because your business plan is beautiful and speaks in a way that’s accessible, you’re going to have more chance.

Also, don’t listen to no. Everyone will tell you it’s impossible, no, can’t do that. That’s because it’s easier to say no. What you’re asking is something that is not normal, not often done, and no can’t do that will be stock answer. I think partly it’s just not giving up and keeping going. It’s difficult but as long as you have the conviction that what you’re doing is important and is going to make a huge difference, you will get there in the end. As long as you’re working hard at it. A funding database is really useful. We use one called Grin. Just, I think. That just tells you where all the money is so you can apply. I think the last thing is that it’s really hard. Don’t forget about your well-being. It’s so easy to burnout in this kind of environment, you’re trying push to water up an up-hill stream. Understanding what you need to get your energy and keep going is really really important.

SG: Georgie talked about leadership in a collective sense. I wondered how that worked when making decisions. How did they do it?

GG: So various different ways depending on the decision that’s needed. Where possible, we try and make decisions in a deliberative sense. We have various staff meetings and we’ve got management team that meet every Friday and we work through the more serious difficult problems. I guess that’s about eight of us that all get together and work out the difficult things. There are other ways that we do – so we do a whole staff quiz where we ask staff various questions and ask for recommendations. That comes in that way and then various ways – the other thing that we do is every year we do a whole staff visioning session. We do this whole thing where people talk about what they really care about, what the difficulties are, what they hope for in the next – actually this January we did the next three years, because 10 years just seems insane [laughs]. We’ve only just opened our buildings. What do we want for three years, that’s kind of more understandable. It’s understanding where decisions can be made collectively and where actually sometimes that’s not possible and we need to make it on a more management level.

I guess in terms of strategy, it’s nice being slightly the other way round where we try and have our strategy conversations with the whole team. Because that kind of bigger picture is much more fun actually to have as a collective group. Then, the really annoying difficult questions like how are we going to make a bigger profit on the food in the café, that’s not the conversation that the whole team want to have but it is the kind of conversation that we need to have in a smaller - so I guess it’s different. Where it can work in a bigger group, we try and do it as much as possible, because it’s quite fun. The boring ones we try and do with boring old directors.

SG: How did they reach enough different people in the area? Are they able to engage well with marginalised communities?

GG: Good question. We do a lot mapping now. We’ve developed a whole digital platform about mapping communities. It’s called Understory. I think we’ve understood that any kind of community action, any kind of mobilisation, creating energy, you need to know your community first. It’s a little bit like going to therapy. You’re only going to heal if you know yourself properly. So we started off mapping - in the old analogue days, we started mapping just because asking people on social media and articles in local papers and asking people if they could tell us what community groups there were out there. Now, through Understory, what we do is a digital network mapping process, where we collect as many people – I mean it has been on Zoom because of lockdown. Our last mapping that we did last year, we had 50 people on a Zoom. We asked them what organisation they’re part of, what goals they’re working towards, what 10 people are most important to their work in or outside of their organisation, what 10 community-focused organisations are most important to their work in the community. So that could be businesses or councils or other community groups.

Then we ask them what organisations are most important to their work outside of their community. As they answer these questions a network map pops up on the screen. Most people come to the session not really understanding what they’re being asked. They answer these questions and then there’s kind of – to begin with who are you, you get kind of nodes dotting around and then as people answer the questions more and more, the connections are made and connections that are unexpected. So things like the long-term goal of helping young people raise their aspirations. It turned that both the football club and the local gallery were working towards that, so art and football club. They’ve never spoken to each other before, so it was really lovely for them to see that they’re working towards the same thing, maybe they should have a conversation. It helps on so many different levels. One is understanding who’s out there, because if they’re not in the room and someone names them, the survey gets sent to the organisation that’s named.

Ultimately, you can find the natural boundary of a community. So that’s a really really important way of finding the groups that don’t normally have a voice and the people that are more marginalised and that are not normally heard too. It allows a more democratic way of seeing the kind of underlying social structure of your community and how it actually sticks together as opposed to what we get told by the people who are in power.

SG: What is the current focus for Onion Collective?

GG: In terms of what we’re trying to do at the moment is, we’ve built quite a monster. It’s quite big, East Quay, now the employees, all these people – our next two years, or maybe five years, is making sure that East Quay runs smoothly and is a success, because we’ve invested so much time in it. I think it’s a bit like having a baby. We’ve been pregnant for 10 years, we’ve just given birth, we’ve got a new-born right now. There ain’t no sleeping. It is pretty relentless. But also, feel ridiculously proud and love talking about it. But I think until the baby can go off to nursery, it's just all hands-on deck making this baby okay. Takes a village to raise a child is the same as a new building. Takes a village to raise a new building. That kind of sense of  being really hopeful about the future and that communities are the answer.

What we’re looking at, we’re looking at the face of a pretty terrifying future in terms of climate change, in terms of social collapse that could come from climate change. I think it’s really - you can get overwhelmed sometimes thinking about that. But actually you do feel really hopeful when you’ve got a space in your town that’s like East Quay where people can gather, where we have - so we have regular programme of events called Kitchen Conversations or Courtyard Conversations in the summer, which is really just a speaker or an artist coming and facilitating a conversation, which more often than not is about community, future, nature, democracy. All of these things that matter in terms of people feeling a part of their place and feeling like they can make a difference. So that’s what we want really. More of that.

SG: Every two years Onion Collective sends the residents of Watchet a survey, which Georgie will talk more about.

GG: So we have various amounts of surveys that we do, one of which is called our residents’ survey. So we send out this survey every two years to every household in Watchet and it asks the same or similar questions to the questions that are asked in the government’s Community Life Survey. So these are things like, to what extent do you think there’s a sense of community in this town? To what extent do you feel a sense of belonging? How hopeful are you for the future of the town?

These kind of questions that’s essentially trying to get to the bottom of people’s sense of identity and place and community and whether or not we can help improve those outcomes and whether or not – it’s hard to be able to say, oh well we can say that East Quay has helped because of this data. Obviously, this is an imperfect thing, but what’s really interesting is to see the trends of the ways in which people are feeling about place and community by using these questions. Interestingly, we have the results back from the 2021 survey. Unsurprisingly, quite a lot of the measures had gone down and I would imagine that’s because of lockdown. So things like, sense of community spirit have gone down, sense of personal agency has gone down. But the question that really had gone up quite significantly was the one about hope.

I feel like - I mean I’m not sure about what we can claim and what we can’t claim - but it feels really hopeful to me that this was the year that we opened East Quay. It’s quite a large building in the centre of town and when people were feeling that they weren’t able to make personal change so much or that they were feeling that the community spirit had gone down, they were still feeling hopeful. It feels like actually hope is such an important and powerful tool that it will get better. Even though lockdown and the pandemic has had such a detrimental effect on people’s ability to connect with each other and ability to feel part of a town, that as long as there’s hope, that community spirit’s going to come straight back as soon as people can get together and be active together. Because really community spirit I think is about action. When people are involved in activity, they feel the community spirit.

Bit like the Jubilee recently. It was mind blowing how many people got together. It’s like a verb, community is a verb really. When we weren’t able to do that, of course it went down. So that’s the resident’s survey and then we also do - we have a business survey and tourism survey, so we’re also asking businesses for their information about how they feel their business is going, partly because one of the outcomes for East Quay is to support the economy in Watchet. Tourism, we want to be attracting people to Watchet as well, to come and spend all their lovely money and to have a lovely time, and to tell all of their friends [laughs]. Yes, data is really important and helps provide a little bit of the evidence. Of course it’s never going to be that robust but it does help us. I mean I guess what it does often is ask more questions than it answers, but it’s still important to keep asking those questions and to have collective conversations about why we think this statistic has gone down or that one’s gone up. I think that conversation is so important.

SG: Onion Collective was founded by mums and Georgie explains that society makes something nice for their children. She also calls East Quay their baby. I wondered if she thinks Onion Collective being created by mums is part of their success.

GG: Partly it’s because our menfolk find it easier to get a job in a place like Washet. When I first met my fellow Onions, I was in a job that I hated actually. Then I moved to this part-time job, so I had time. I guess women are good at gathering and talking. When we had babies and toddlers, we needed to be together to support each other through those quite hard tiring toddler years. Just that means that you talk, and you talk about what you care about and what you want. I think it’s difficult to be totally – sounds quite stereotypical but I do think that women are good at gathering and I do think that they’re good at talking and I do think women often have been - whether its nurture or nature, we’re often brought up in a more caring – we’re often carers.

I think that sensibility applies just as much as to the civics space as it does the personal space. Certainly in a lot of our community groups, a lot of the women that work in that environment are either carers or have been carers or they’re – I don’t want to be too glib about it, but I do think it’s important that a female perspective on the way our towns are built is so important. I think one of the best compliments that we ever got about East Quay was that it could both be as glamourous as a gallery exhibition opening as it could for a toddler workshop splashing paint everywhere. Did both jobs. I like to think that that’s because it was really important to us that it doesn’t matter if toddlers splash food and paint everywhere, and also it matters that we have the ability to have lovely glamourous times and have parties as well. I think mums are particularly aware of different social settings and different ways in which we gather with different types of people in a way that often are  quite - male perspective thinks about what men need. I’m moving into dangerous territory here [laughs]. I say it all with a pinch of salt.

There we have it. Thank you so much to Georgie Grant for joining the podcast. If you want to follow the work Onion Collective does, you can find them on Twitter @onioncollective or visit

Thank you very much for listening. Should you wish to contact us email

This episode is hosted, edited, and produced for Delib by me, Sabine Groven. Our creative director is Tiffany Maddox. I’ll be back next month with another episode. Until then you can visit for great content and people making practical change improving democracy. Bye.