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The village hall: 21st Century hub - or empty shell?

Friday 04 November 2005

Countryside commentator John Sheard apologises for his cynicism but admits he is terrified now that the village hall has come under the beady-eyed gaze of Government

THERE are readers out there who regard me as a dyed in the wool cynic when it comes to my views on the handling of rural matters by Government or any of its myriad departments, agencies and quangos. And today I confess: those critics are right!

My heart sinks when any politician of any persuasion starts meddling in matters which have been running happily in the countryside for years, generations or even centuries. And, sadly, this attitude is based on years of reporting on such affairs. For time after time after time, the state has got it wrong.

A village hall for all?

So I read with shaking head reports of a speech made by Rural Affairs Minister, Jim Knight, to the National Village Halls Forum Conference on Wednesday (see News). He was imploring village hall organisers - those hands-on amateurs who perform a key roll in country life at great cost in time and effort - to start creating halls fit for the 21st Century.

The dream he painted was undeniably attractive. We should have village institutes with post offices, Internet centres, doctors' surgeries, sports facilities and almost anything else anyone can think of. There are even some funds available to help such transformations. Brilliant.

Trouble is, Jim Knight - who does seem genuinely interested in country matters - works for the rural affairs department Defra and, so far, the Defra leadership in Whitehall has shown itself to be either a) incompetent or b) powerless.

I will not go over old ground but just the two scandals of the past fortnight: the complete shambles over bird imports which has allowed avian flu into Britain and a report by a top London accountancy firm, published today, which suggests that the only way farmers will survive the next three years financially is by giving up growing food completely - they lose too much money by actually farming and would be better off living on the subsidy on their land.

But what has this got to do with the subject in hand, our precious village institutes? Well this is part b), the powerless bit. For whilst Defra is urging such halls to invest large sums in state of the art facilities, the Treasury is actually pushing hundreds of them towards bankruptcy.

In old Steel Sporran's drive to extract every last penny from the British public by stealth taxation, his reforms of the liquor licensing system demands that village halls - and other rural events like agricultural shows and point-to-point races - must dish out exorbitant sums of money to acquire "occasional" drinks licences.

Note the word "occasional." It is the odd dance here and there, or perhaps a wedding reception or christening party, that allows many a village hall make a small profit by selling alcohol. That profit, ploughed into overheads like heat, light and repairs, keeps hundreds of such halls financially afloat.

If Gordon Brown has his way - and don't forget he is the son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister, a sect with strict views against the demon drink - only the very rich pub companies will be able to afford to sell booze. The J. D. Wetherspoon chain will soon be opening its Skipton pub (once the Devonshire) at 9 am!

So Defra want this and the Treasury want that and, as has become the norm in this fractious Government, this is not just a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. It does - and is determined to chop it off.

If it comes to a struggle between Brown and Defra secretary Margaret Beckett, there can be only one winner. Beckett is only the 24th most influential person in the countryside she is supposed to nurture, according to a recent poll by Country Life. And in such a contest, our village halls could well become part of the collateral damage!

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