The entrance hall of Hebden Bridge Town Hall has the air of an upmarket art gallery: photographs from local artists adorn the walls and there is an oversized, talking armchair that tells the story of the picturesque former mill town in West Yorkshire.
But the building is actually a community centre and events space. It was reopened three years ago after a community asset transfer occurred in 2010 between Calderdale Council and Hebden Bridge Community Association, a charity set up by locals to preserve the listed building.
For much of the 20th century, the building had been the administrative centre of the town, but after various reorganisations of local government it stopped being used for its original purpose. By 2006, its future looked increasingly uncertain and it was feared that the council might sell the building to a private developer, as had already happened to another building in the town centre.
The association went on raise £3.7m from funders including the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Social Investment Business and the European Regional Development Fund for a major redevelopment of the site that included replacing a car park and additions built in the 1960s. Now an impressive building more than double the size of the original town hall stands on the site, with enough space for 35 business units, a range of function rooms, an exhibition area and a cafe. The original 1897 building remains, complete with its small council chamber, which is used for meetings of the town and parish councils and events such as weddings.
Amy Harbour, director of the town hall, says the project has required the charity to reimagine the idea of a town hall. "The old building was just not sustainable," she says. "It led the trustees to commission an analysis to determine what was needed in the area. It found that people wanted professional office space, community spaces, a gallery and a cafe."
Harbour says the building is run very much like a commercial business. For example, it charges market rates for business units and is very careful about portion size and wastage in its cafe. Its business units are its biggest income generator, but Harbour says it remains focused on its community purpose. Groups that hold meetings there include a local cub scout group, the Women's Institute and a local youth dance group. "We have a business rate, a community rate and a discounted rate for smaller organisations," she says.
The Alzheimer's Society is a regular user and holds its Happy Cafe meeting for service users once a week at the town hall. "We're good at providing spaces that deliver sensitive services to vulnerable people," says Harbour. "Our rooms are warm and set up properly, which is a massive difference from some church halls, say."
Last year, the charity had an income of almost £300,000 and spent about £325,000. Harbour admits it is a challenge for the charity to cover its costs, which include making repayments on a loan of about £1.5m to the SIB: "We have to think carefully about our loan repayments," she says. "But we're confident that we will cover our costs, although we'll never make a massive profit."
A new three-year business plan has recently been put in place, which includes opening seven days instead of six and hosting more events. Harbour says she would also like to find more space for business units because they provide reliable income. "We're a community building in a community-oriented area," she says. "It's almost like we're an experiment about what a community-run town hall should be. People work here, play here and learn here."
Hebden Bridge Town Hall has produced the guide Making Asset Transfer Work, which can be downloaded from www.hebdenbridgetownhall.org.uk. It also hosts visits from groups that are considering taking on community assets.