Why Essex's village halls are so important to rural communities
PUBLISHED: 11:39 03 April 2019
All too easily taken for granted, our county's village halls are at the heart of rural life and are a lifeline for local communities. Nick Shuttleworth from the RCCE explains just why they are a resource to be treasured
When Her Majesty the Queen decided to offer some discreet advice on the conduct of the Brexit debate at the end of January, she did so not from a palace, a country house or a grand public building, but from the local village hall and home to the Sandringham Women’s Institute.
Sandringham WI is one of many hundreds of thousands of local clubs and societies across the country that relies on its local village hall to provide it with a meeting place.
In addition to the WI, if you are looking for a mother and toddler group, youth club, luncheon club, gardening club, drama club, carpet bowls club or the parish council meeting, the chances are you will find it at the village hall (or perhaps a village hall by another name, such as community hall or community centre or memorial hall).
Indeed, there must be few rural residents who won’t have visited their village hall at some point over the years, because even if clubs are not to your taste, they often host parties, wedding receptions, quiz nights, film evenings and exhibitions, not to mention voting in general and local elections.
Village halls are at the heart of rural life and can be the glue that holds many smaller village communities together. Yet, royal visits aside, they rarely hit the headlines and can be all too easily taken for granted.
This may be because they seem always to have been there. Nearly a quarter of halls in England are 100 or more years old and over 600 were built to commemorate those who gave their lives in World War I.
Here in Essex, the building of village halls really gained momentum after the Rural Community Council of Essex (RCCE) was set up in 1929.
Its initial mission was to improve the provision of halls and most of the early halls supported by RCCE, as at Great Totham, Great Leighs and Willingale, are still going strong today, albeit substantially renovated and modernised.
Today, RCCE provides support to around 250 individual village halls. They come in all shapes and sizes, from purpose-built modern designs embracing the latest in energy-efficiency technology (as at Chignals & Mashbury, Highwood and Peldon), to conversions of much older buildings such as schools and chapels, of which Salcott and Stebbing provide good examples.
The hall at Messing actually began life as the parish workhouse, not that you would know it from the smart appearance and plush facilities it offers today.
Village halls are durable – some 85% of rural communities in Essex have one – but if many look little different on the outside from when they were built, inside they are changing.
With other essential services such as shops, Post Offices and libraries closing, village halls are often adept at stepping in to provide a space that enables the service to be retained. This is a growing trend with the most recent national survey of village halls, conducted by ACRE, the national body for Rural Community Councils, showing 10% of halls now hosting a community enterprise of this nature.
Under a recent Essex County Council scheme, some halls are also taking advantage of the arrival of superfast broadband to provide a Wi-Fi service accessible to the wider community.
One critical feature common to the vast majority of village halls, which is rarely appreciated, is that they are not run by Government or the local authority, but are often registered charities, owned by the local community and managed entirely by volunteers.
With this responsibility comes the need to wrestle with issues as varied as charity law, VAT, health and hygiene regulations, licensing and the management of renovation or even major redevelopment projects.
Volunteering as a village hall trustee these days is no sinecure – the aforementioned ACRE survey showed that across England, these volunteers cumulatively devote 9.6 million hours to the task. On top of which, the volunteers that run the clubs and groups that use halls put in another 2.5 million hours annually.
The enormous commitment of these volunteers is now celebrated by ACRE and the Rural Community Councils every January, in National Village Halls Week. This year’s week included a range of special events nationwide with some halls in Essex taking part.
England’s 10,000 village halls and the volunteers who run them face some formidable challenges.
They must keep pace with a high-speed, digital world, while serving communities where many other amenities have been lost, where the population is ageing, and with the problem of loneliness and social isolation now recognised as a major political priority. Arguably, this makes our village halls more important than ever.
What is certain, is for the communities they serve and the volunteers who sustain them, the village hall will always be more than a building. It epitomises a whole rural way of life.