Agenda item

The Onion Collective CIC

A representative of the Onion Collective CIC has been invited by the Chair of Community Scrutiny, to attend the meeting and provide an update on the work of the organisation and take questions from Councillors. There has been particular interest around the East Quay Development and other projects, and Councillors would like to know more in their roles as community leaders.




The Chair welcomed the representatives of the Onion Collective to the meeting.  

Chris Hall, the Director for Development and Place introduced the item and raised the below points: 

·        The Council and the Onion Collective have built a strong relationship and the Council was thankful to the Onion Collective for their support following the failure of the Splash Point wall at Watchet.  

·        Informed the Committee that the Onion Collective were here to present on their work and give an update to members both as a result of a request from the Committee and through their own wish to update members on their work.  

·        The Onion Collective’s East Quay development is well respected nationally though there is some local division as is common with such projects as they undertake.  


The representatives of the Onion Collective gave a presentation and raised the following points during their presentation: 

·        The representatives raised that they appreciated the opportunity to come and update members on their work 

·        West Somerset was a lovely place but faced challenges. For example, there was a significant lack of cultural activities. 

·        Noted that West Somerset was an Opportunity Area and that young people in the area in particular faced challenges.  

·        Introduced the team involved in the Onion Collective and the range of skills and experience amongst the team 

·        Explained that the Onion Collective was a social enterprise. Any profits the company madewere reinvested into the community and the projects the Onion Collective did. The directors also took part in consultancy, helping other CICs and charities, to raise money to fund the work of the Onion Collective 

·        The Onion Collective had received funding from a variety of organisations including the Lottery and the Arts Council 

·        The Onion Collective’s approach was centred around community, was ambitious and nimble, collaborative, involved consultative working with partners and looking to address market and social failures.  

·        Several of the Directors of the Onion Collective were involved in setting up the youth and community centre Minehead Eye in Minehead ahead of the Onion Collective being formed 

·        The Onion Collective worked with partner organisations to set up a Visitor Centre and Boat Museum in Watchet. This was one of the first projects the Onion Collective was involved in.  

·        The Onion Collective began by running small social action projectswhich have grown. Their collaboration with the Coastal Communities Team had likewise grown. Watchet had received £350,000 for community projects.  

·        The Onion Collective were looking to establish a new Bio Mill industry in Watchet. This had been a challenge, particularly given the pandemic and Brexit. One partner had pulled out, but the Onion Collective still hadfunders for the project and were continuing with it.  

·        Another project the Onion Collective was working on was Understory, which was a community led tech project. It was a gaming platform that allowed users to explore community resilience. The project had received lottery funding and would continue to be developed over the next few years. 

·        Worked to set up art displays in Watchet to improve the cultural offer. Contains Art was set up which were containers based by the coast containing art displays.  

·        East Quay was an arts regeneration and social enterprise development.There are art galleries inside as well as companies including a Paper Mill company, a print studio and a restaurant.  

·        The West Somerset Full Council made the Onion Collective the preferred developer of the East Quay site in 2015, in 2017 full planning permission was granted and in 2019 the lease was signed. The building was partly opened to the public in September 2021 and would be fully opened to the public in April 2022.  

·        The East Quay project was funded by various organisations, including Hinkley Point C, the Coastal Revival Fund and the Coastal Communities Fund.    

·        37 new direct jobs were created by East Quay and 17 were safeguarded with more hopefully created indirectly as well as income to the area through visitors.  

·        Renowned national artists have exhibited their work at East Quay alongside works by local artists being displayed.  

·        Look to promote education and learning at East Quay as well as provide events and activities and enhance the cultural offering for the community.  


During the Debate the following points were raised:  

·        Thanks were expressed to the Onion Collective for their presentation.  

·        It was asked if more information could be given about Understory. It was responded that Understory came from a need to map who was doing what in the community in order to be able to better interact with the community and organisations within it and mobilise the community to work together.  

·        It was asked about the pods in the East Quay building and what the impacts for the town could be if this development was really successful in the next 10 years. It suggested that some of the impacts could be positive but that the increased tourism could also cause a detrimental effect on the local community and if consideration and plans had been made to prevent any detrimental effects.It was responded that the impact had been considered as part of the build which was why the Onion Collective started with creating the Visitor’s Centre. Scenarios such as the impact if West Somerset Railway had closed had also be considered. The Onion Collective would continue to manage the risk over time but there were also risks to the community if nothing was done and the development had brought opportunities to the town. 

·        It was asked how the engagement from the community with the Onion Collective had changed since the organisation started? It was responded that there are 140 community groups in Watchet and the Onion Collective sought and would continue to seek to work with all of them and engage with them. Engagement with the community is also achieved through encouraging locals to be involved in the creation of art to display in exhibitions.  

·        It was questioned what outcomes the Onion Collective were looking to achieve from the bio-based industry project? It was responded that when the mill closed in Watchet a few years ago the Onion Collective achieved funding to look at what a replacement industry could be, and a bio mill seemed like a really positive option following a feasibility study. The main desired outcomes were to retain industry on that site and create jobs within the bio industry 

·        It was asked where the Onion Collective saw itself being in 12 months and how the local community could benefit from the art activities at East Quay.It was responded that the events that were run at East Quay and the exhibitions sought to make art accessible and interesting. Th Onion Collective also looked at how they could bring people from all different backgrounds in and make them feel comfortable to get involved.Also looked to create opportunities for young people and enable social mobility not just through art but art was a good way to engage. 

·        It was asked why the name Onion Collective was chosen. It was responded that Collective was to describe the way of working. The structure of the company was not designed to be hierarchical. Onion was chosen because they had lots of layers and lots of recipes start with an onion. It was also a memorable name.  

·        It was askedif the funding from the Coastal Communities Fundand the Coastal Communities Team could be expanded upon. It was responded that the Coastal Communities Team and the Coastal Communities Fund were two separate but connected things which both arose from government looking to support coastal communities.The Coastal Communities funding the Onion Collective received was obtained with the support of the local Coastal Communities Team. The local Coastal Communities Team was a separate CIC. The Coastal Communities Fund was a capital funding pot that ran five rounds. The Onion Collective secured £5m of funding in the fifth round.  

·        It was questioned why products from social enterprises around the country were being sold in the shop at East Quay rather than local products. We believe supporting local is important however, the Onion Collective decided not to have local artists’ products in the shop because they had artists working out of the studios in East Quay who sell their works out of their studios.  

·        It was suggested that publicising more about the work the Onion Collective does and how funding of staff works to inform local people would be beneficial. Further communication with the local community, possibly through meetings with presentations was encouraged 

·        It was asked if the Onion Collective had all the funding it needed to complete East Quay. It was responded that all the funding was now in place.  

·        It was asked what the Onion Collective would do regarding the old mill site if planning permission was refused for a new business to be set up? It was responded that the bio mill project would be dependent upon planning, but the Onion Collective would continue to work with developers 

·        It was asked if there were long term business and financial plans for running East Quay as opposed to relying on grant awards and whether the organisation had people with the skills to continue to run and develop the projects. It was responded that the directors intended to stay within the organisation and continue running the Onion Collective and East Quay. Staff within the Onion Collective already had expertise but training up more staff as well as employing more people with expertise was intended. East Quay was designed to be financially self-sustaining.  

·        It was asked how the Onion Collective intended to engage with its critics and change their minds. It was responded that this was something which needed to be done and that the Onion Collective was working onand that some people’s minds had already been changed.  

·        It was asked whether it was intended for the Onion Collective to be a consultancy going forward. It was responded that the main purpose of the Onion Collective was doing work within Watchet and West Somerset but the consultancy work was done to raise funds to help fund projects in Watchet and West Somerset.  

·        It was asked how the Onion Collective represents the people of Watchet. It was responded that the Onion Collective could not represent all the people in the community, but the directorsand other staff livedwithin the community themselves and sought to engage with as many people in the community as possible.  

·        Further information about some of the consultancy work the Onion Collective did with Mid Devon Council and why that ended. It was responded that the contract was ended due to the projects which had been planned not going ahead so the Onion Collective did not actually undertake the consultancy work.   

·        It was asked how many of the Onion Collective’s projects were financially sustainable. It was responded all were in different ways and that some relied on grant funding, but others did not. Work was done to make all projects as financially sustainable as they could be.  

·        It was asked how diverse the Onion Collective’s senior management was. It was responded that it was not very diverse and could be more diverse. Diversity training was regularly given to staff and diversity was valued by the organisation.   

·        It was questioned about the way the directors were paid and what they were paid. It was responded that the directors were paid £35,000 per year which came from a range of different places across the Onion Collective’s income 

·        It was asked if the Onion Collective supported setting up a research and development hub in Watchet.It was responded that the Onion Collective did not necessarily want to be a research and development hub.  

·        It was asked if the Onion Collective were willing to take risks regarding finances. It was responded that only calculated risks were taken. In a rural economy thinking outside of the box was needed and the Onion Collective strove to be ambitious.  

·        It was asked if any tenants of East Quay were paying the Onion Collective business rates. It was responded that the tenants of East Quay paid their own separate business rates.  

·        It was asked whether Contains Art and the Onion Collective were the same company. It was responded that Contains Art was a Charitable Incorporated Organisation so was a charity and is a separate organisation but one of our directors does also work with Contains Art.  

·        The Chair thanked the representatives of the Onion Collective for attending the meeting.  


Cllrs Kravis and Farbahi left the meeting at this point