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Village Halls (Grants)

Volume 406: debated on Wednesday 11 June 2003

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1.42 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision in relation to grants from the Community Fund for village halls.
England's 8,900 village halls play a vital role in community life. In villages such as those in my west Oxfordshire constituency, they are the focus of community life. They provide the venue for the parish council meeting, the pre-school playgroup, the amateur dramatic group, the youth clubs for the young and the lunch clubs for the old. They host public meetings, surgeries, fund-raising events, dance classes, computer training and much else besides. If we want a neighbourly society, where people can do things together for the common good, village halls must play an essential part. If anything, village halls are becoming more rather than less important. As a parish councillor in Hailey in my constituency wrote to me

"The loss of village post offices and village shops more generally makes it more important that there is a focal point in the village for the community."
I should like to explain what my Bill will do, the worrying situation that it is designed to overcome, and the advantages that it will have. Is it framed in such a way that the Government could pick it up and pass it through this place tomorrow? No. But does it contain the germ of an idea that they and my own party should take on and enact? Yes, absolutely.

The Bill amounts to a very simple proposal. If a village hall project for either refurbishment or rebuilding can raise 25 per cent. of the funds required, and if it can get the district or county council to match it with a further 25 per cent., the Community Fund would, under my Bill, have to provide the rest. I am not immovable about the percentages and I recognise that some villages would struggle to raise 25 per cent. I also understand, as a resident from Fifield reminded me, the importance of the small refurbishing projects as well as the larger rebuilding ones. What I am certain of is the need for an automatic mechanism, at least for a part of the project's total. There would also have to be a maximum level of funding and I would seek to consult on the level at which it should be set.

That is a powerful concept. At a stroke, village halls would have a simple, automatic way of accessing funds. It would simplify the endless form-filling necessary to win a lottery grant and focus the lottery on what most of our constituents believe it was set up for—the social fabric of our country. Village halls are perhaps the most visible example of that. Dare I say it, it would make the lottery popular throughout the country as people would see a more direct link between buying a ticket and seeing the beneficial results.

The lottery has achieved great things and I believe that the greatest have been the smallest—not the dome, but the parks, the halls, the cricket pavilions, the small public spaces that have been vastly improved. I believe that that was the essential part of the vision that lay behind the decision, taken by the Conservative Government, to set up a national lottery in the first place—and it was supposed to be nationwide. I am grateful for the help of the Oxfordshire rural community council, which does such excellent work, and of its national body—Action with Communities in Rural England.

There is a backlog of village hall projects. In Oxfordshire, 50 are being planned, with total costs of more than £6 million, but the lottery is moving away from funding them. Between 1999 and 2002, our county had 20 successful applications—an average of six a year. In the last 12 months, we have had just two. There have been at least 10 unsuccessful applications since 1999 and many others have been discouraged. The Community Fund is now quite explicit about that. Funds are now targeted on certain geographical areas and groups. Areas such as mine are losing out and people feel that it is not fair. By all means, favour the inner cities and the most deprived overall, but the lottery must be available to all.

According to the Countryside Alliance, funding for village halls is being cut by £17 million. As ACRE put it,
"Major capital projects such as rebuilding, refurbishing and the provision of new community halls are most likely to be unable to access sufficient funding."
There is also a squeeze on the funding of village halls from other angles. Lottery tickets sales are down and other sources of funding are drying up: the landfill tax credit money may be replaced.

The Countryside Agency has a large cost overrun for its mapping exercise for the right to roam. What a waste of money that has been—and costs are increasing all the time. Village halls have to meet all the required disability legislation. I know how much those things matter: disabled access and disabled loos, for example, are essential if disabled people are to take part in all the activities that I have spoken about. However, many village halls were built long ago and the costs of refurbishing and meeting all those requirements are substantial. Salford village hall in west Oxfordshire is planning to spend £140,000, most of it to meet disability legislation.

Let me expand on some of the advantages of an automatic funding scheme. First is the simplicity. One fundraiser from Stanton Harcourt in Oxfordshire, described dealing with the lottery bodies as "disheartening". Another told me that it could take 20 working days to fill in an application form. As a constituent in Northmoor wrote to me, saying:
"A clear straight forward funding path … would be a tremendous boon."
The second advantage would be that it would focus the lottery on such projects. A fundraiser from Fulbrook wrote to me, saying:

"All our hard earned funds will be to no avail without a change in lottery allocation policy. We do not know where else to turn."
Finally, there is the popularity of the lottery. We all know from our postbags that people feel that the lottery has lost its way. I make no comment about the grants to asylum seeker groups, Venezuelan farmers or anyone else, but why do we not renew the concept that the lottery is about improving the social fabric of our communities—and where better to start in rural areas than village halls? I see the Foreign Secretary in his place, a resident of Minster Lovell in my constituency, and I am sure that he will support me.

I should not paint an entirely depressing picture. There are some fantastic projects going ahead. In Tackley, the community has come up with a very enterprising all-in-one concept of building a new hall that will include a village hall, a shop, information technology facilities, sports facilities and much else. It received a grant of £50,000 from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, alongside grants from the district council and others. In North Leigh, where the memorial hall costs huge amounts of money in repairs and maintenance, planning consent has been obtained for an innovative replacement for use by residents, the school and others. The parish and the district council have committed £200,000 between them, but without lottery funding the benefits will be lost.

In summing up, I have to admit that one or two voices in response to my local consultation that took a slightly different view. Some remained sceptical about the lottery itself. One, a weaver from the Filkins, who provided the late Sir Hardy Amies with some of his finest cloth, wrote to me as follows,

"If there is to be a lottery, the funds should be spent entirely on public fripperies: statues, follies and parks … either very beautiful things or very useless ones, but preferably both. This would discourage people from buying tickets and fill the country with eccentric wonder paid for by the remaining diehard gamblers."
That proves that in west Oxfordshire we have wonderful eccentrics, as well as beautiful villages, churches and halls. I commend my Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Cameron, Mr. Nicholas Soames, Mr. Hugo Swire, Gregory Barker, Hugh Robertson, Tony Baldry, Mr. Adrian Flook, Mr. George Osborne, Mr. Paul Goodman, Mr. Andrew Turner and Mr. Andrew Lansley.

Village Halls (Grants)

Mr. David Cameron accordingly presented a Bill to make provision in relation to grants from the Community Fund for village hall: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 11 July, and to be printed [Bill 122].