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How can we protect the future of village halls?

Richard Hollingum looks at the problems and benefits of a hall for the whole village to use…

There are about 10,000 of them across England and most of the villages in Northamptonshire have one: village halls. They can vary from the small to the large, from the old to the new and from the dilapidated to the pristine. They are an essential part of village life along with the pub, the school and the church. And, unfortunately as with all these other assets of rural living, they are under threat from lack of use, rising costs and an increasingly aged management team.

This last point had been the focus of an article in The Telegraph in January this year and serves to emphasise something that has become very apparent over the past twenty years or more: that our villages do not seem to be for the young.
Leaving that hanging for a moment, there are many examples of good village halls across the county and I visited two to see what problems they were having and how they were dealing with them.

The village of Walgrave has a population of 868 and has a number of assets that it can be rightly proud of. The village hall sits on the edge of a large green playing field looking across to the County Heritage Site of North Hall Manor. Walgrave village hall was opened in 1991 and is well used for a variety of activities including various keep-fit sessions, indoor bowls and a Mums & Tots group. These bookings mean that there is something happening most days, though there is a great reliance on individual private bookings which seem to average 5 or 6 a month. There is a cinema club that has recently bought its own equipment and films are shown alongside a theme-linked supper – which might prove interesting if they get to show Silence of the Lambs.

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Wilbarston Village Hall has possibly an even better outlook, across the Welland Valley. The village is slightly smaller that Walgrave but still has a good quota of assets: pub, shop and Post Office, and school. The hall is an imposing building, built in 1978, with a large space and a separate bar lounge area, the whole clearly having been designed as much a sports venue as anything. The addition of a bar means that there is someone in charge of that, a regular commitment for a small village, even if it is only open for events. Wilbarston seems to have even less regular bookings that Walgrave but they do a good line in weddings.

These buildings can be quite expensive to keep going. Wilbarston is suffering from a problem with its roof, of which there is quite a lot. When originally built, light-weight tiles were used which are now proving quite easy to fly off, leaving a host of problems, not least the ingress of rainwater and the subsequent collapse of the ceiling. The plan is to replace the existing tiles with more substantial ones. The Chair of the Village Hall Committee, Mike Doyle, says that this major project is going to cost £50,000. They have already secured some funding but have another £35,000 to go. This might sound a lot but Mike is not particularly phased. Over the past three years £23,000 had been raised to replace windows and install an up-to-date fire system.

Mike says that it is all about balancing the needs of the community with keeping the hall afloat, something that Walgrave Village Hall Chair, John Blick agrees with. They are looking to raise £100,000 to build an extension with the hope that a youth club can be started and that the existing but small corporate hires can be expanded. Much of Walgrave’s fundraising is through events at the hall. A magic evening raised £1,000 and the latest annual Groove on the Green raised £2,500, though there is still a long way to go. Grants are very important too. Walgrave have won a payment from the Marks & Spencer Energy Fund to replace their lights with more efficient ones and received £50,000 from the Biffa Award for new play equipment.

Keeping village halls maintained and fit for purpose also calls for new and different ways of using the facilities in addition to badminton and cream teas. At Wilbarston, concerts are often on the listings and at Walgrave the village Post Office opens once a week. Since the shop closed, people found it difficult to get to the nearest Post Office and now it comes to the village hall for two hours on a Thursday.

Whilst I may have expected these problems, I had not considered that ownership and responsibility can be a cause of difficulty. At Walgrave there are Management Trustees and Custodian Trustees. The Management Trustees are the management committee and have the responsibility for the management and upkeep of the building and grounds; the Custodian Trustees, who are, in this case, the Parish Council, hold the property on behalf of the community. They have no power to make management decisions, but this is a situation that has been known to bring conflict between parish council and management committee. In some cases, the original documents setting out the terms may have been lost or mislaid which can complicate matters further.

At Wilbarston the same two sets of trustees exist, but the land is owned by the parish council yet the building is owned by the district council. Fine on paper perhaps but problems arise when trying to raise funding for a project and deciding whose responsibility is what.

Returning to the age issue, both Mike and John say that the age profile of the committee members is such that this could be the biggest threat for the future of village halls. It takes a team of ten or twelve people to look after a hall the size of Walgrave or Wilbarston, where the majority of committee members are between 60 and 80 years old. Not only does that mean attending management meetings but also being prepared to help raise money, and work on the building when necessary. When I visited Walgrave, two members of the management committee were busy painting the toilets.
So where are all the youngsters? There are at least two issues here. Firstly, many of our villages have priced them out of the rural communities. And secondly I suppose that there is a tradition that when you retire you start to pay back by taking on such responsibilities as village hall management and parish council membership. But this does rather restrict the outlook and can lead to the village hall being seen as somewhere only the old folks go.

Yet there are hopes that some younger people can be enlisted. Beer festivals, concerts and sports activities have a wider appeal and through these John and Mike and all the other village hall chairs hope to see the opportunity of passing the baton on.
Looking after a village asset is no easy task and trying to keep all parties – the user groups, the village, the councils, the land-owners – on side can be very difficult. However it is also a rewarding job especially if approached in the right way. As Mike Doyle says, “it is all about being professional. You have to run it as a business”. Let us hope that there are others willing to continue this business.

I'm the editor and owner of The NeneQuirer.

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