…repurposing, community buy-outs, and other ways of creating community space
As we’ve been exploring through this series of blogs, having suitable, accessible space to get together, have fun, meet your neighbours, explore common interests, and plan and carry out collective activity is crucial for a healthy, sustainable community.
If your neighbourhood is lucky enough to have a village hall or a community centre, all well and good. But what if it doesn’t? Starting from scratch is extremely expensive – it could easily require a million pounds for even quite a modest new community building. A few years ago, the BIG Lottery might have funded such projects, but that support is no longer available. Even assuming you have one, community buildings can be quite burdensome to run. We’ve already looked at the challenge of finding enough trustees to do this, and there is a temptation for the commercial to trump the community when it comes to balancing the books.
What are the alternatives? Fortunately, there are a number of creative ways in which existing spaces can be made available for community use. Here are a couple of them.
Particularly in rural areas, a local pub is an essential meeting place and centre of community life. When this comes under threat, several Devon communities have stepped in to save their local.
There are various models for this, with different degrees of active involvement for local people. Some pubs have been bought through community share offers by a group of local individual investors, then tenanted by professionals who actually run it. The Tally Ho Inn, in Littlehempston near Totnes now runs this way, as does the Cadeleigh Arms, near Tiverton.
In other places, the community has a more hands-on role. The Kings Arms in Stockland, near Honiton, had been closed since 2013 following a series of short-term tenancies. A local community group opposed various planning proposals to turn it into housing. They successfully applied for the pub to be listed as an Asset of Community Value, which gives some breathing space to allow communities to gather resources to purchase the property. The sale is due to be completed in early 2019. Villagers are closely involved in the building work that is necessary, and in tackling the jungle that was once the beer garden.
In Stoke Canon, near Exeter, the journey towards community ownership has been a more gradual one. The Stoke Canon Inn closed in 2007 and stood empty, with only the flat above let. The community approached the landlord and negotiated a lease on the downstairs trading area, fundraised for a refit, rolled their sleeves up and got out their paintbrushes, and re-opened in 2011. A salaried bar manager was supported by a rota of around 25 volunteers. Faced with the landlord wanting to sell the building, the community has recently been awarded a £100,000 grant from the Plunkett Foundation towards the purchase of the pub (through their More than a Pub business support programme), with a share offer aiming to secure the remaining £150,000.
(As an aside, The Royal Oak in Meavy, Yelverton, is perhaps the only pub in the country owned by the parish council – income from the lease is used to supplement the parish precept.)
Churches as alternative community spaces
Martin Rich from Devon Communities Together notes the number of rural churches seeking advice about opening their space to wider community use. This has echoes of the medieval use of church naves for a wide range of community activities and services. The Plunkett Foundation has produced a guide for churches and chapels wanting to set up community shops within their buildings, which outlines the specific procedures required for churches of various denominations, planning, insurance, etc. Growing the Rural Church is a project run by the Diocese of Exeter, to support churches wanting to branch out in this way.
Making the church available for a broader range of uses benefits the churches as an alternative income stream, and it is easier to attract grant funding to refurbish a church that is well-used by the wider community. This might be simply a case of installing a toilet, kitchenette or audio-visual equipment, or removing fixed pews in favour of moveable seating, to allow the space to be used more easily by others outside of church activity periods, or in one case removing an awkwardly placed organ that had been without an organist for many years, to make the space more flexible.
In Alphington, a generous legacy has allowed the church to be more extensively remodelled. Another example is the church at Highampton, exploring the possibility of a pop-up café to cater for walkers and cyclists using the nearby Ruby Way (though they reportedly drew the line at a suggestion that the font is used for locating punctures!) Churches across the country have also opened community cafes, or hosted book swaps in areas without a local library. Wider community use often means longer opening hours for churches, and a different clientele through the doors. At least one church has reported a reduction in vandalism as a result.
The transition from house of worship to multi-purpose Christian/secular space is not necessarily an easy one to make, and is not simply a matter of putting pews on castors. Devon Community Foundation has funded the Open Church Community Project at Bishops Nympton Parish Church to make their church space more suitable for wider community use. Bishops Nympton has an excellent parish hall, but this is located at the far end of the village, and is often very busy, whereas the church is more centrally located. The project group did not want to ‘duplicate the village hall’, but wanted the church space to be used throughout the week, and not just for church-related activities. The work involved providing more flexible seating to an area of the church, and improving wiring and plumbing so that community members could use the space more easily.
Sally Wilson, from the Open Church group, says encouraging the wider community to make use of the space has been a more gradual process than they had expected, with quite a shift in thinking required: ‘the church is not the obvious place for people to meet, if you are only there for weddings, funerals and at Christmas’. The church has been used occasionally by the school and playgroups, and a children’s holiday club also makes use of it. It has also been used for concerts and recitals. Take-up from non-church-related groups has however been slow, with a couple of attempts by parents from the local primary school to get things going fizzling out. There is, Sally says, on ongoing ‘reluctance to see the church as anything but a church’, and she admits that the committee has perhaps ‘gone off the boil a bit’, as is often the case with long-term volunteer-led projects, especially as the church tower now needs attention. However, she is encouraged that events such as the popular ‘breakfast church’ for families that are now possible with the improved facilities, while still being church-based, introduce new people to the secular potential of the space.
We can be fairly sure that community space will not become any easier to find, fund and maintain in the near future (though a future blog will look at the various government policies and mechanisms that aim to help). It therefore seems logical that the way forward will be through flexible, multi-use, shared spaces, that also share the burden of management and upkeep. If that also involves beer, then so be it!
Nicola Frost, DCF Knowledge Guru