Village halls are an iconic part of rural life. But where do they fit into the current government agenda, asks ACRE’s Deborah Clarke
Rural communities are fiercely protective of their surroundings, and even more so of the assets that they own and manage. These are most likely to be the playing field or recreation ground, the local church and that rural icon, the village hall. But how does the hall fit with the government’s community asset agenda?
We have seen a shift towards community ownership of shops, post offices and, most recently, libraries. In fact, the Quirk Review 2007 encouraged local authorities to develop asset transfer policies and hand over buildings to community groups. The introduction of the Localism Act 2011 put legislation in place giving communities rights to take on local assets, and the Asset Transfer Unit – and now the Community Shares and Bond Unit – positively encourages social enterprise, social investment and social action.
We applaud the wonderful examples of communities managing and providing for themselves, and delivering a wide range of local services and activities. But this scenario does not sit comfortably with small rural village halls.
Supporting the stewards
Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Community organisations controlling assets: a better understanding, categorised different types of assets into three categories – community developers, entrepreneurs and stewards – all of equal importance. Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) is currently highlighting the role and support needs of the smallest category: stewards.
Stewards – or village halls, as they are commonly known – are unlikely to use the Community Right to Bid under the Localism Act as they already own their asset, they won’t issue shares and bonds (as they are unincorporated) and don’t trade (as it is not a charitable objective).
However, village halls are the largest network of community-owned halls in England, with assets worth over £3bn, sustained due to the efforts of over 70,000 local volunteers. Ninety per cent of village halls are registered charities, largely managed by volunteers.
Heart of the community
Each and every hall provides a vital venue for a range of essential services and local activities to take place – things that local authorities are often unable to provide. There cannot be many people living in rural areas who haven’t been inside a village hall of one sort or another: whether as children attending playgroup, Cubs or Brownies; as teenagers attending their first discos; or as adults attending and providing social functions for the community. Many halls also provide a venue for a variety of clinics and health-related services, which are essential in rural areas, especially for those without access to transport.
ACRE supports the 38 members of the Rural Community Action Network (RCAN), who deliver the only national support service for local groups that own and manage England’s village halls. In the past, volunteers have been able to rely on RCAN’s fully qualified and dedicated advisers to give them expert advice and practical help. However, demand for the skills, experience and knowledge that RCAN provides is rising, while funding for community development support services has been reduced and there is increasingly more red tape to wade through.
In addition, grant funding for infrastructure support bodies has drastically reduced in recent times, forcing RCAN to cut its services to a minimum. Many have introduced charging structures, but volunteers still spend vast amounts of time fundraising to keep their buildings up to date and in line the demands of the user groups. Paying fees for support services is an added burden.
So, what’s the solution? We are suggesting that if government, local authorities (including parish councils) and other policy-makers can work together, nationally and locally, to share the cost of support services, this will maintain RCAN services and enable volunteers who manage these vital facilities to access the support and help they need.
What we don’t want is more web portals, online training, toolkits and other electronic communications. ACRE recognises that these play an important role in the provision of advice and information; but they should enhance services already available, not replace them. Equally, external consultancy advice that is parachuted in, takes a fee and disappears is rarely appropriate.
These buildings are at the heart of their communities. Their fortunes may go up and down; their uses will change according to the needs of the community; volunteers will come and go; government agendas will change. But if we can help to maintain community halls by investing in the fabric that supports them, they will continue to serve rural England into the future.
To mark 25 years of support for RCAN, ACRE has launched a publication that aims to raise awareness of the reducing community support services available, and the impact this is likely to have on village halls. For more information, visit the ACRE website: www.acre.org.uk
Deborah Clarke is rural community buildings officer at ACRE
This article first appeared in The Fundraiser magazine, Issue 23, November 2012