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December 17, 2008

Two thirds of village halls declared not fit for purpose

The village hall is at the heart of community life in Scotland. 80% of them are owned and run by the local community. A major piece of research which took in nearly 900 halls has pointed to major problems with their physical fabric, high running costs and poor energy efficiency. One in three halls runs at a loss. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Some communities such as Finzean, on Royal Deeside are setting a new standard for the future of village halls

IT is a small but thriving community, with a primary school attended by about 50 children, a parish church which was extended and refurbished in 2005 and an award-winning community hall that was rebuilt in 2003.

The Village Hall at Finzean, on Royal Deeside, was originally a gift to the community from the Farquharsons of Finzean as a memorial for the fallen in the First World War.

The original timber building constructed in 1922 fell into disrepair and was on its last legs when the local community decided to try to resurrect it.

It started as a millennium project and, although considered too small by the commissioners, it subsequently succeeded in winning a lottery grant.

An award-winning design by local architect Mike Rasmussen has trebled the size of the building to provide multiple-use spaces combining traditional materials and modern technology. Locals raised around GBP300,000 to transform the hall.

As a local institution it has fared better than most, according the first comprehensive survey of village halls.

Its findings reveal two thirds of Scotland’s village halls, once the mainstays of rural community life, are more than half a century old and not fit for purpose.

According to Kevin Strachan, the chairman of the community association which runs the Finzean hall, it truly is the beating heart of the community.

“We are out in the sticks and it is the centre of everything, ” he said. “The underfives, the badminton club, the dancing class and the old folks all use it. It is used by more than 20 groups on a regular basis. It is the hub of this village life.

“If there is anything going on here nine times out of 10 it involves the hall and takes in everyone from five to 95.

“We do well for a small hall and if we ever have a deficit it is minimal and probably because we have done work in the hall.”

He said the hall attracts several weddings a year not least because it nestles in the beautiful countryside often featured in the landscapes of the acclaimed artist Joseph Farquharson, “the painting laird of Finzean”.

“We are charging about GBP350 for a wedding, which is very cheap compared to other venues. People are coming from all over for weddings and we have all sorts of other functions, like golden and silver weddings and birthday parties.”

The survey to be published today shows that 80-per cent of rural community facilities (RCFs) are community owned, and one suggestion is that they could become the focus for providing better health facilities.

The report says many villagers have found imaginative ways to approach the considerable challenges they are facing.

It suggests further consideration should be given on how to successfully share experiences and advice in relation to the facilities’ physical condition and maintenance; provide assistance, guidance and templates for administrative and regulatory responsibilities; share experiences of how management committees could be encouraged to build on their existing catchments through more diverse service delivery for health, education or governance; and share good practice on better engagement with the wider community.

“It may be worthwhile considering whether there could or should be greater partnership between public sector service providers and rural community facilities, ” the reports says.

“As well as understanding local needs, committees need to be aware of their proximity to other service venues and providers that could complement or compete with them, and the implications this has for business planning and their longer-term sustainability.”

The findings suggest that RCF committees might benefit from improved and readily available support of a consistent standard, particularly in relation to energy conservation and renewables, legislation and regulatory responsibilities, business and budget planning, and the evaluation of their potential to be multiservice outlets.