Volunteers’ week is an opportunity for people to thank the tens of thousands of volunteers whose work behind the scenes in every community in the UK allows many other grassroots organisations to flourish: The volunteers who run our village halls, community centres, church halls, sports pavilions and similar community buildings.
“My Mantra is you can’t complain about local facilities if you don’t get involved. People take these spaces for granted but if you put time and effort in, there’s no end of wonderful things to gain”.
Surveys indicate that there are around 20,000 such community owned and run halls in England and Wales, 10,000 in rural England. Many were built as memorials to those who gave their lives in the First World War, and some date back to the Victorian era, forming an important part of our cultural heritage. They provide a home for the hundreds of thousands of small clubs and societies which form the backbone of our communities. If it were not for the dedicated volunteers who look after and raise the funds, organise cleaning and maintenance, look after risk assessment and opening and closing, many communities would be without a polling station on 8th June.
A growing number host services and facilities such as community shops, libraries and clinics and activities which improve the health and wellbeing of older people, such as lunch clubs and Pilates. Long before the terms Social Enterprise and Community Business were coined, community buildings were supporting their communities. In rural areas most are charities, less than 10% being run by Parish Councils.
Earlier this year the Daily Telegraph article “Village halls face bleak future as ageing volunteers dwindle” highlighted the struggle many communities face to recruit new, younger volunteers to continue running their facilities. Alastair McPherson, Chairman of the successful Woodside Centre at the new village of Bolnore near Haywards Heath, said then: “My Mantra is you can’t complain about local facilities if you don’t get involved. People take these spaces for granted but if you put time and effort in, there’s no end of wonderful things to gain”.
At nearby Small Dole where the tiny, old village hall serves a tiny, older community and few people are on Facebook it is thanks to a few younger residents that the hall is still well maintained, attractive. It will never be used to capacity and in future sustainability will be an issue but nevertheless it brings people together and creates a community in which people know and look out for each other. It is an essential part of the village fabric.
I am deeply conscious that while the time and skills devoted by volunteers keeps most village and community halls sustainable most of the time, it is the advice, information and support provided by the ACRE Network which created many of these charities and keeps their volunteers going when they hit a problem. The information service helps them deal with the bureaucracy involved in running on a shoestring a charity which is much like a small business, with end users who are in the main other small, local voluntary organisations e.g. youth clubs, mother and toddler groups, WI, gardening clubs, am dram. This summer many will face the new challenge of trying to squeeze in the delivery of 30 hours free childcare by the pre-school without upsetting lunch clubs and afternoon groups serving older people.
There are challenges and opportunities ahead for volunteers, Government and local authorities to ensure these important facilities continue to adapt to changes in society.
Let’s show people that our unseen community hall volunteers are valued and provide the support they need.
Louise Beaton is a volunteer herself and one of our newest trustees to ACRE, Action with Communities in Rural England, which provides a national information and advice service for village and community halls in England through advisers in county-based Rural Community Action charities.