The coastal town cultivating cultural justice
- Local Economies
“It’s just the most wonderful place to live,” says Sally Lowndes, director of Onion Collective in Watchet. The small harbour town in West Somerset has a population of less than 4,000 people, which results in “an incredibly close-knit community,” Sally says.
However, despite the idyllic seaside setting and the intimacy that comes from a place of that size and location, it’s also faced problems. “The market economy just doesn’t work here,” Lowndes says. “We’re an hour away from any centres of commerce, we’re coastal and we’re rural. The current economic system just hasn’t worked for us and so we’ve lost all of our industry. But what we have is a really tightly connected community – the identity we feel from this place is massive.”
Onion Collective decided to do something about this. Back in 2013 they set up as a CIC when plans for a major development of flats on the marina quayside fell through. Rather than witness more commercial development they felt offered no community benefit, they pooled skills and resources so that the community could make those decisions. After local consultation it was clear there was a need for stronger tourism, better use of pre-existing facilities and that Watchet’s maritime and cultural heritage should be more loudly celebrated.
With support from Power to Change, this resulted in a purpose built Visitor Centre and restored Boat Museum, turning a derelict field into a community garden and a pavilion constructed with 50 volunteers. The organisation’s biggest project is soon to be unveiled later in 2021: a seven-years-in-the-making multi-million pound quayside cultural complex.
“It’s been an extraordinary amount of hard work and determination,” says Lowndes of the project that will include a two story gallery and cafe, a print studio, 10 studio spaces, five accommodation pods on the roof and an education space that’s been designed in partnership with local teenagers. “It’s really all about cultural justice,” says Lowndes. “And hope, opportunities and aspirations – proving that anything’s possible and creating this space where the community can come together.”
This is one of many projects – including one with tech company Biohm, using fungus to consume locally wasted resources to grow materials for construction, as well as an upcoming community-led book on the economics of attachment – that is underpinned by re-contextualising the local economy.
“We call it attachment economics,” says Lowndes. “The market economy has become so disconnected from people and this enables a system of extracting profit for shareholders’ benefit, instead of an economy being about what it can actually do for people, the environment and for a place. So we’re challenging that idea and reversing it. We’re thinking about people’s attachment to place and what it can add to it, instead of what it can take away. It’s about demonstrating that a different version of economics is possible.”
This sense of place is ultimately what is most deeply rooted in the ethos of Onion Collective. “When you’re connected to a place and when you really care about it and want to deliver for it, that’s where that tenacity comes from,” Lowndes says. “It’s not just about money, it’s so much more meaningful than that. It’s everything.”