Aldham Village Hall in Essex (inset, before building work) has played a central role in the community since it was built in 1927 by the local landowner, James Hines. But until recently the future of the hall, situated about five miles from Colchester, was looking uncertain.
The oldest part of the building had become structurally unsound, and in 2007 it was feared that it might have to close.
Local people had hoped to secure the money for a complete rebuild from large funders such as the Big Lottery Fund, but their attempts were unsuccessful.
Instead, they launched their own fundraising initiative, which took six years to raise £42,000 to improve the existing building. The hall reopened in March 2014 after six months of work. Anne Fulcher, treasurer of the hall, says: "There was a risk that the hall would fall down. We had to erect pillars, and these limited the number of activities that could take place. The only way to raise the money for the improvements was to do it ourselves."
Deborah Clarke, village halls manager at the national body Action with Communities in Rural England, says that many of the estimated 10,000 village halls in England experience the same difficulties as Aldham.
"There's much-reduced capital funding," she says. "If a village hall needs a new roof, or even replacing, there's no large pot to replace it unless they can sell the building for development and build somewhere else. They can get little bits of funding from trust funds and through their own fundraising efforts, but they're struggling to get the big amounts."
Clarke says village halls currently face other challenges, such as VAT on refurbishment costs, rising energy prices and the prospect of higher business rates. "Village halls have traditionally received 80 per cent mandatory rate relief and 20 per cent discretionary relief," she says. "But local authorities seem to want remove the discretionary relief."
VAT on refurbishment has proved particularly expensive for Ringmer Village Hall in Sussex. Alan West, chair of the village hall, says it has successfully raised £210,000, mainly from the community, to construct a new library in the hall and improve its facilities, but about £40,000 of that will go to the government in VAT.
West, who also chairs the representative body the National Village Halls Forum, says a case was made to the government to allow village halls to recoup the tax, but it was rejected. He says: "This means that you have to fundraise just to pay the VAT."
A survey by Acre in 2014 also found that 59 per cent of halls had difficulties recruiting volunteers. Clarke attributes this partly to broader social changes, including the need for both parents to work in many families and the trend for residents of retirement age to be busy looking after their grandchildren. And she says that if people do volunteer, they often want to do something more exciting than "manage a building, write business plans and fix things up".
Nevertheless, despite difficulties with finance and recruiting volunteers, there have not been mass closures of village halls, says Clarke. The fact that they have relatively low running costs has helped them to remain open - Aldham, for example, had an income of about £22,000 last year and spent £17,000. Clarke says some halls are even increasing the number of services they offer. "There are halls that have put in post offices and shops, and are really thriving," she says. "But in some cases that's down to the kind of people living in that community."