As you will doubtless be well aware, this week we celebrate Village Halls Week. Village halls, along with community shops, libraries, community centres – spaces where people can meet, work together, make things happen. Time and again we hear from local residents that access to space is crucial for a healthy community life, particularly in rural areas. But exactly why and how is this important? And what are the challenges?
A recent survey by ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England) showed that there are around 10,000 village halls in England. According to Devon Communities Together’s Martin Rich, Devon has around 400 village halls and community centres, ranging from tin huts to state-of-the-art buildings. A proportion, known as memorial or victory halls, have their origins in the post-WWI period.
Village halls are central to rural life. Many were funded, and even built, by members of the local community. A band based in a village near where I live has even written a song about theirs (check it out! https://thewoodmen.bandcamp.com/track/village-hall). They are used for a dizzying array of purposes: pre-school groups and nurseries, exercise classes, lunch clubs, arts and crafts groups, dances and events, jumble sales, bingo, brownies, Women’s Institute meetings, rural cinema, and much, much more. With public transport in rural areas an increasing challenge, properly local access to these activities is especially important, while having a space where residents can come together, whatever the reason, is just as valuable.
Village halls are increasingly seen as an option for hosting essential rural services as these are under continued pressure. ACRE says a tenth now provide retail services, as rural shops and post offices struggle to stay open. The village hall in Bridgerule, in Torridge has been recently refurbished through local effort – echoing the local fundraising that saw it built in the 1950s. During the refurbishment period, the village shop closed, so the village hall now hosts a community shop and post office as an outreach service from another village. There is also increasing interest in equipping village halls with wifi broadband.
Keeping all this going is no easy task. Three quarters of village halls in England are owned freehold by local community groups, and running them relies on a massive 12 million hours of volunteering annually. The huge majority of Devon’s village halls are community run; some others have parish councils as custodian trustees, some are church halls run as village halls, and a handful are leased from a private landlord. All are run by volunteer trustees, usually drawn from the communities who use the hall.
Many of these volunteers are older people, and it is getting more and more difficult to attract enough volunteers to staff committees. Some people worry about the responsibility of being a trustee of a charity with substantial assets – the typical village hall could cost a million pounds to build today. It is challenging for these small set-ups to stay abreast of health and safety regulations, insurance, etc, never mind managing the technicalities of complex governing documents written decades ago, or taking on the job of converting from a simple charity to a Charitable Incorporated Organisation.
Martin Rich runs an enquiry service for those who run community buildings in Devon, providing advice and information to make the task easier, and facilitating access to group buying schemes. The most common question, he says, is ‘where can we get funds to improve our hall?’. Making grant applications, finding sponsors and organising fundraising events are a large part of the challenge.
At Devon Community Foundation we manage a number of community interest funds emerging from renewable energy schemes such as wind farms, that can provide financial support for community buildings in those areas. We have also supported village hall committees with more general funds, for example to support running costs while new fundraising plans are put into place, or to equip kitchens so more people can benefit from use of the space. One grant recipient reported that a recent refurbishment, to which DCF had contributed, had allowed their hall to host a wider range of activities. A regular attender had invited a local man who lived alone and had not had any contact with people in the village for some time, to one of the new events. He has continued to attend, and, while still shy, has since started coming to the monthly lunch club as well, gradually beginning to reconnect with his neighbours for the first time in years.
Obviously, what’s important about village halls is not the bricks and mortar, but what goes on in them. The hugely valuable, and largely invisible work of keeping these buildings open and fit for purpose is definitely worth celebrating this week.
Many thanks to Martin Rich for his invaluable help with this article.
Nicola Frost, DCF Knowledge Guru