Village halls are facing a bleak future because a new generation of young volunteers are failing to step forward to help run them.
Once the cornerstone of local communities, Britain’s 10,000 halls are under threat as an ageing group of 80,000 volunteers continues to dwindle.
Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) said halls have struggled to recruit the next generation to keep the community spaces going and are calling for drastic action.
ACRE Village Halls Manager Deborah Clarke said: “Village halls are vital for the survival of rural communities. People want to use them but they don’t want to commit to running them.
“It’s understandable – there are a raft of duties to deal with, from licensing legislation to health and safety – but communities are in danger of taking their volunteers for granted.
“Younger people are especially hard to attract as they often work long hours away from village in order to live in them – while the newly retired often don’t want to commit.”
Alan West, 69, vice chairman of the now disbanded National Village Halls Forum, said: “The crunch has finally come. We need young people to step forward and get involved in the future of village halls.
“The traditional village hall is the hub of a community. It means people can meet face to face.
“Younger generations sit in front of their screens and communicate via social media these days but in the hall they can actually talk and interact.
“In our village hall – Ringmer Hall in East Sussex – we run a food bank, carers can meet other carers, the Guides and Brownies do their activities – every day things are happening.”
Alan recognises younger generations are busy and lead “hectic” lives.
But he added: “Perhaps it reflects the culture we have got into – being at the desk all hours – and that goes back into private life. Younger people are at work all day and there’s not a lot of room left for helping the community.”
England’s 10,000 village halls rely on more than 12 million hours of volunteering each year, according to a national survey by ACRE.
But more than half of the halls who responded to the survey said they were struggling to find new recruits to help manage the buildings – with people saying they were too busy, too old or simply not interested.
Louise Beeton, 60, has worked as a freelance village hall advisor and consultant for over 30 years and says she has seen a “huge change” over the period.
She said: “It makes me sad to see the difficulty that trustees are now facing. Village halls need to adapt to the future and modern day requirements but they they can only do that if there is support, advice, funding and not too much of a tax burden.
“Occasionally a hall is lucky enough to get younger volunteers but most of them are relying on older trustees who are now in their 70s and 80s.”
Alastair McPherson, 43, has adopted a different approach to encourage young people to get involved with his local community centre The Woodside, near Hayward’s Heath.
He said: “One of the issues with the traditional village hall is that people my age and down see them as drafty old buildings run by older people. But ours is amazing – it’s a really modern building with big windows and lots of light.
“It’s a hub of activity. We held a beer festival, which attracted younger people and we have a Facebook page and we are working on more social media strategies.”
Alastair added: “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.”
Meanwhile, supporters of village halls are doing everything they can to keep the community spaces alive.
The recently launched National Village Hall & Community Network now has 300 hall committees signed up, contributing to discussions and advising on how to move forward. And innovative projects like the first Passivhaus village hall – an energy efficient building – have received Lottery funding.