Kevin Curley: We should safeguard village halls - they are a cornerstone of country life

They played a key role when storms hit Arran earlier this year, says our columnist

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

On Friday 22 March, the worst storm to hit the Isle of Arran in living memory blew in from the Kintyre peninsula, bringing heavy snow and so much ice that power lines were brought down and the lights went off for five days.

I was sheltering on the eastern side of the island, keeping warm with a log fire and cooking on an anthracite stove in the village of Kildonan, where little snow fell. Most people were not so lucky, having long ago become completely dependent on electricity.

Life for a week without electricity in freezing temperatures tests individuals, families and communities. On Arran, the village halls and the villagers who run them proved a crucial part of the response. It was the members of village hall committees who identified people at severe risk and got them evacuated to the mainland. It was to the village hall that people went in search of information and the chance to get warm in a room heated by a mobile gas heater and to have a hot drink prepared on a camping gas stove. On the west side of the island, where the snow drifts closed the roads for three days, the Mountain Rescue team took donated food in and village hall volunteers distributed it to people stuck in their houses.

The villages were connected, one by one, to mobile generators brought from the mainland. As this happened, it was these same volunteers who ensured that people in urgent need of power in their homes, such as those with chronic health conditions, were treated as priorities and that healthy neighbours were persuaded to keep their washing machines off.

I have been to Arran many times in the past 20 years but, as a hill walker, I had never really been aware of village halls before. I live in a large Derbyshire village where there are many meeting places - church halls, cafes, a library, youth centres - and no village hall. But in many parts of England, the village hall is a vital part of local infrastructure. Deborah Clarke, the rural community buildings officer at Action With Communities in Rural England, tells me there are just short of 10,000 halls in England, worth more than £3bn, run almost entirely by volunteers, and used, on average, for 36 hours each week. The activities they host are as varied as life itself, with particular emphases on families with young children, clubs for older people and leisure and fitness classes.

Cuts to public funding have not hurt the revenue budgets of most halls, which are sustained by room lettings and fundraising. But most local authorities - Derbyshire is one exception - have cut their capital grants.

As a result, more than 1,000 halls now need urgent repairs, and some are closing. If the great Arran storm of 2013 teaches us anything, it's that we should sustain our village hall infrastructure. Those living in rural communities could find themselves grateful for it if a major storm or natural disaster strikes.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser

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