Village halls are becoming more important to rural communities because of the closure of local facilities like post offices and pubs, but ironically the new found importance can threaten their future because extra work creates more demands on the volunteers who run them.
So say the organisers of a new campaign launched this week called "Community Assets: keep their future vibrant".
The Rural Community Action Network (RCAN) believes the Government and local authorities need to find a better and more sustainable way to support the 80,000 volunteers who run community and village halls.
"Although the 10,000 halls across England provide an essential hub for community activity, social support and crucial services, volunteer committee members are struggling with red tape, loss of funding and the increasing needs of people who use them," said a spokesman for the campaign which is also being promoted by Action with Communities in rural England (ACRE)."
Each West Country county has an organisation which advises people running village halls and Marjie Dorling, at the Community Council of Somerset, says: "Our strap line is: 'Supporting action in your community' – we are there to help communities help themselves. But if we aren't funded to help volunteers, how can their community centres survive and flourish? Village halls are having to pick up where other services are disappearing – they are now functioning where a shop might have shut. They sometimes have a postal service – they are finding creative ways of using the hall to make sure communities are being served in the best way.
"But village halls are extremely dependent on volunteers and they in turn come to organisations like ours and we do the best we can to provide support," said Mrs Dorling. "There is a lot of red tape – volunteers have to know about things like performing rights and so on – plus you have all health and safety issues. Halls need risk assessments and there has to be the testing of equipment – kitchens have to be up to a certain standard if people are preparing food in them.
"These are the things they do just to keep going – and they look to us for support," said Mrs Dorling whose organisation has some 45 information sheets which give guidance on everything from building fabric to charity law. "We used to be funded by the county council and district councils, but as their funding is cut, they have to cut what they spend. At present we also receive some funding from Defra, but that's by no means secure."
The nationwide campaign aims to highlight its support for volunteers and demonstrate the valuable role community halls play at a time of cuts to budgets of advisory organisations.