20 March 2024

How communities, local advocates and funders are transforming village halls together

To mark Village Halls Week 2024, Natalie Partridge, NICRE Research Associate, details the ways village halls in Northumberland are being innovative and ‘going green’ as part of our evaluation of the Community Spaces Partnership.

More than a new heating system and kitchen

On the day we visited Paul Cramman, the chair of trustees at the Jubilee Institute in Rothbury, it was freezing cold and pouring with rain. The gloomy winter weather was no matter for Paul, though, as he had put the village hall’s smart heating on from his phone earlier that day. The new smart heating was a ‘game changer’, Paul said, as it meant bills could be kept lower and energy used more efficiently. Visitors to the hall no longer complain about the cold, because individual rooms can be heated ready for the community, whenever they need it. This is set to be the case during power cuts, as the hall’s electricity supply will shortly be supplemented by new solar panels, so it will be better shielded from any disruption to the national grid due to storms. The hall is now a warm, resilient, sustainable space for residents to come to the cinema, watch a pantomime, visit the bank, hold meetings, have parties, or go to the foodbank. One day, the heating could even be automated, integrated with the online hall booking system.

Later the same day, we visited Dalton Village Hall, interrupting the tea service for the regular indoor Croquet Club. The floor was recently sanded level which has been a great improvement for the sport, Gillian McCowie, the chair of trustees, tells us. Even better than that, though, is the brand new, sage green kitchen - or grey kitchen, if you side with Phil, who runs the club - which now means that all events can have catering. Previously, there was no proper sink or dishwasher, and no fridge or oven. The new equipment is state of the art and energy efficient. Upgrading the kitchen has directly benefitted visitors to the hall, and attracted new ones, including the growing number of local families who can now host children’s parties there and enabled events such as wreath making (pictured below) to be held. The last quiz and curry night had 65-70 attendees, bringing community members together who may never have met previously. “The kitchen being used means the hall being used,” Phil said.

Evaluating an innovative funding model

These are just two of the stories told to the NICRE team during our ongoing evaluation of how community spaces, such as village halls, have been benefiting from National Lottery funding through the Community Spaces Partnership (CSP). During regular meetings with those running the project on the ground, and those steering it, the NICRE team have observed a range of ways in which the CSP is directly impacting rural communities in Northumberland, Durham and Cumbria.

How the CSP is delivered is particularly innovative. National Lottery delegates the administration of the funding to local community support organisations that advocate and provide a voice for rural communities across the north of England: Community Action Northumberland, Durham Community Action, and ACTion with Communities in Cumbria. In short, the financial resources come packaged with advice and monitoring, bringing together community spaces and local experts who offer hands-on support. What this means, in practice, is that the ideas from within communities are better connected to action. The partnership facilitates transitions towards net zero and enables improvement works on village halls.

What happens next?

Although this round of funding is drawing to a close, early insights from NICRE’s evaluation of the process show that it has been a hugely positive experience for all involved. There is hope from communities, partners and funders alike, that something similar to the CSP could one day be rolled out in other regions of the UK.

In the meantime, through Village Halls Week, which runs until 22 March and is organised by ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England), communities all across England are celebrating the ways that village halls contribute to rural life. This year’s theme is ‘go green’, with village halls holding a variety of events to share stories and inspiration from their projects towards net zero, like those supported through the CSP. It’s great to see all the innovative work taking place.