Opinion: Is £50m enough to save the village hall?

Nick Cater, consultant and writer, catercharity@yahoo.co.uk

Charity jumble sales, the Women's Institute, parish council meetings, children's dance classes, scouting and guiding, whist drives and putting your X on the polling paper - the diversity of events and activities that take place in village halls is impressive.

But with a decline in the sense of community caused by the increasingly peripatetic and distracted lives of rural dwellers - especially those pesky, here-today-gone-tomorrow second homeowners - these hubs of country life are often at risk.

Their upkeep is ever more costly - from insurance firms' creative calculations to the essential but sometimes hard-to-implement measures to ensure access for disabled people.

As supermarkets bulldoze local shops, the Government drives sub post offices to the wall and the fickle faithful leave churches empty, the village hall might be the only community resource left standing - unless you count the pub. In some cases, the lack of alternatives has inspired village halls to diversify and become venues for ad hoc versions of lost services, from community shops to post offices.

Into this mix of need and opportunity rides the Big Lottery Fund, an organisation that for no good reason emphasises muscularity over intelligence by calling itself BIG. I wonder how much the letters B, I and G cost in fees to a branding consultancy.

Anyway, BIG likes to think big, so £50m is up for grabs for repairing, replacing or even establishing brand new village halls, or similar centres, for urban or rural community life across the UK.

But BIG also likes to act tough, so it's £50m over three years and the grants come with plenty of jargon-filled, politically inspired hoops for jumping through, from conditions about extending access to requirements for improving environmental sustainability - not much there about amateur dramatics or the senior citizens' tea dance.

Actually, the range of grants - from £50,000 to £500,000 - rules out many halls, because upgrading kitchens, improving toilets or building a stage may not hit the lower limit, and major projects might need more friends to meet all their building bills.

Village halls should not be flying solo to save communities, because planning regulations could have limited the ravages of supermarkets and a smart government should understand that savings on subsidies to small post offices will cost far more in terms of impact on community cohesion.

One rural expert told me that £50m "just scratches the surface". Is it too little, too late?

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