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Heeley City Farm is at risk of alienating the community

OPINION: As redundancies loom, the charity is at a crossroads. If they don’t constructively engage and channel community energy, they might never recover reputationally. 

Wooden signs pointing to the cafe, garden centre, energy centre, offices and reception, with a cut-out rooster on top
Philippa Willitts

The depth of local feeling about Heeley City Farm’s ‘rescue plan’ and associated large-scale redundancies was made clear at a public meeting on 15 December.

The brand new Chair and relatively new Chief Executive probably didn’t expect Heeley Parish Church to be packed with 100-plus concerned Sheffielders who wanted to help, expressing anger and exasperation and asking why they hadn’t been brought into the picture earlier (recordings of opening statements and questions from the floor are available on Facebook.)

On the night, Chief Exec Stuart Gillis said that 17 staff – more than a third of the workforce of 47 – are facing redundancy due to a budget shortfall of £100,000. The farm’s vegetarian cafe, a popular social space, will close “for a period of time” in January.

Gillis said that what he described as the charity’s ‘commercial services’ – its cafe, garden centre and growing operation – must generate a profit for the wider organisation, and so could be offered out to third parties to run and manage. Beyond this, the board of trustees must lead on creating a new vision for the farm, he said.

Dave Clarson, Chair of the board for only two weeks at that point, said “immediate action” had to be taken to save the charity. Both Gillis and Clarson maintained that historically the charity has been mismanaged, that its board was ineffective and its operations had become siloed.

'A toxic working environment'

Now Then understands that staff received redundancy letters last week, with all cafe, garden centre and food growing staff, and some back office staff, due to lose their jobs. Staff members have told us that they haven’t felt consulted on the Chief Exec’s rescue plan, that communication from management has been poor and that ideas and suggestions for alternative approaches haven’t been engaged with in good faith.

A document seen by Now Then, shared by someone close to the farm on condition of anonymity, details several complaints made against Gillis in 2022 as part of a “formal collective dispute” from staff. Only one of the points was ‘partially upheld’ by an independent HR company:

Our personal experiences with Stuart have involved bullying, harassing, dishonesty, manipulating staff and creating a toxic working environment, excessive and unreasonable demands on our working time and using information told in confidence to him about personal staff circumstances, against us.

Quoting the outcome of the collective grievance, which has not been seen in full by Now Then, Gillis told us that the investigator looking into compaints about his conduct partially upheld the point because they found that "the communication and language used could have been more sensitive".

"Having said this, I do not believe [Gillis'] language and behaviour has been inappropriate, I find the communication style has changed leading employees to feel hurt, however I do not feel this was malicious," they found.

A serious clash of cultures

Gillis was out of post briefly in 2022, when his probationary period ended and the board decided not to renew his contract – although this decision was reversed within a week.

According to a letter sent to all staff and seen by Now Then, then-Chair Carl Lee said he had initially “felt that Heeley City Farm should move in a different direction” to the one outlined by Gillis, but then “concluded that the vision I held of a flat management structure is technically unfeasible,” and that such a structure could close off existing and future funding streams. Lee announced that he was stepping down as Chair in the same letter.

All of the above speaks to a serious clash of cultures, management styles and ways of working which Heeley City Farm must face head on if it expects to come out of this process with the same high standing it currently has in the community and the wider third sector.

Community energy is key

If what the Chief Exec and Chair characterise as the farm’s commercial services, especially the cafe, are to be offered out to third parties to operate, there has to be strong consideration of the role it plays as a community resource and an inclusive meeting place.

Currently staffed in part by people with learning difficulties and experience of homelessness, it's hard to see those social commitments being upheld under an arrangement where a third party runs the space and therefore has to prioritise its bottom line in order to meet rent costs. Put simply, running the cafe primarily for profit will completely gut the things that people love about it – and anyone taking on the space could have a hard time making it work.

Incoming redundancies have done damage to the farm's standing locally. As a member of the community, I know this. But what would be worse is if, from here, the board of trustees doesn’t act with respect and consideration to all of the farm’s stakeholders. If the charity doesn’t find a place to channel the community energy and concern for the future of the farm, they risk alienating such a large portion of the local population that they might end up surviving financially but not reputationally.

What we saw at the public meeting before Christmas was a whole room full of people who consider themselves stakeholders in the farm, who aren't formally recognised as such by the charity and who don't have somewhere to put their energy and expertise to help it at such a critical point in its history. Many people care deeply about the farm and its future.

The farm may well be facing a challenging financial year – although its position is hard to verify because at the time of publication its accounts are overdue by 73 days – and securing the organisation in the short term may involve making some ‘tough decisions’. But beyond that, when the trustees start to think about the future of the cafe space, a wider vision for the farm as a whole, and who will join the board as new trustees, they need to find a way to involve everyone in that room.

Commenting on the future of the farm and its cafe, Chief Exec Stuart Gillis told Now Then that a redundancy consultation process is currently ongoing "to help determine the best way forward."

"I envisage that the Board will have reached its decision about the way forward with staff by the end of January. The future of the cafe is part of this decision."

by Sam Walby (he/him)
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