Village halls a lifeline for rural communities - but are they under threat?

Home to the local am-dram society. Playgroup for children, youth club for teenagers, meeting place for the pensioner's club. Village halls and community centres play a crucial role in rural communities.

Allan Caswell outside Bayston Hill Memorial Hall
Allan Caswell outside Bayston Hill Memorial Hall

Many of them have also performed an invaluable service in fighting the pandemic, acting as vaccination and testing centres, or simply providing emergency food supplies for those struggling to cope.

But as Britain begins to emerge from lockdown, experts warn that community centres could become yet another victim of the pandemic. Starved of funds during the enforced closure, and with some people still reluctant to engage in social activity.

Tom Archer, an expert from Sheffield Hallam University, warns that about 140 community centres across the country could be at risk of closure due to the pandemic.

In a new study looking at the impact of the pandemic on such centres, Mr Archer warns that many will simply not reopen.

“Halls face major challenges in reopening and re-establishing services," he says. "The pandemic has had a significant impact on their volunteers and staff, as well as their users, and the future remains very much uncertain.

"What we’ve learned is that the last year has affected halls in diverse ways. Whilst a third of respondents to the survey said their financial situation had improved during the past year, a similar proportion said their situation had worsened, with many drawing on their reserves. Most worryingly, we have reason to believe at least 140 halls nationally could close and not reopen without further support.”

Chief executive of Shropshire Rural Communities Charity Julia Baron

Deborah Clarke, of the charity Action with Rural Communities in England (Acre) says: “The research demonstrates a clear and urgent need for continued funding support to be made available to village halls during this period of uncertainty, particularly those facing financial difficulty. This should involve bridging funds and continued relief from business rates.”

Shropshire Rural Communities Charity, which provides advice and support to village halls in the county, says it has seen a significant increase in the number of calls from people seeking its help over the past 17 months. The charity will hold a 'virtual coffee morning' on Wednesday, where those involved in the running of the venues can raise any problems they have been having. The charity's village halls adviser Graham Betts will be on hand to offer advice and answer any questions people might have.

Phil Gillam, a spokesman for the charity, says in many communities the village hall is the only shared facility left.

"I think in some of the smaller villages, the village hall is a community lifeline," says Mr Gillam. "In many villages, the pub and the church have closed, and the village shops gone too."

He says apart from the obvious loss of revenue, another difficulty many of the halls are facing is a shortage of fresh blood to keep them going. Again, the pandemic may have exacerbated some of these problems as it has forced people to reconsider their lives.

"If you have got an ageing committee, and they are all about retirement age, a lot of them will be thinking 'I've been doing this for 10 years now, I'm going to put my feet up'," says Mr Gillam. "A lot of them need to think about how they attract young people in particular."

Phil Gillam and Susan Caroline

This, of course, is doubly difficult in an age in which young people increasingly move away from rural areas to find work, and older people may also decide to relocate for their retirement.

The charity's chief executive Julia Baron will also be taking part in the event. She says: “This has been an incredibly tough and difficult period for many of our cherished village halls and community buildings. We know that the pandemic meant long-term closures, resulting in the usual income streams for village halls being cut off. And not having a central hub for a whole host of events that would normally have taken place will have had quite an impact on the wellbeing of communities."

The charity is funded by a mixture of national and local grants, contracts, and public donations.

Mrs Baron says the event provides an opportunity to discuss what is really important to the running of community buildings.

"We can help with grant funding, governance, recruiting volunteers and trustees, and much more besides, and we want to see all our village halls and community buildings thrive again,” she adds.

One community venue which has done particularly well with the help of the charity is Bayston Hill Memorial Hall, on the outskirts of Shrewsbury.

The building, on the outskirts of opened in December 1924, as a tribute to those who had lost their lives in the First World War. Built for the not inconsiderable cost of £1,500, its opening was such a momentous event in the village that Midland Red agreed to delay the last bus to Shrewsbury so that people would be able to attend.

A 16-year-old Allan Caswell, centre with scythe, pictured working on the grounds of Bayston Hill Memorial Hall in 1960

Chairman Allan Caswell says the charity has helped the hall secure grants totalling £300,000 over the past 21 years.

"Grants from various sources have enabled us to make the necessary improvements, alterations and extensions to this valuable community facility," says Mr Caswell, a 77-year-old retired police officer awarded the British Empire Medal for services to the community in 2017.

Mr Caswell, who first became involved with the centre as a teenager before returning in 2001, says the charity also helped the centre arrange an energy survey, which has made it more efficient, including the adaption of solar panels.

Despite the difficulties being faced at the moment, Mr Gillam believes that the majority of these invaluable buildings will have a bright future ahead of them – providing they are able to weather the storm.

"The biggest thing that has hit them in 100 years is the pandemic," he says. "I think many of them will be bouncing back, still as popular as ever."

Shropshire Rural Community Charity's virtual coffee morning takes place on Zoom on August 11 at 11am. Free tickets are available on the website vhcoffeemorning.eventbrite.co.uk.

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