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Activism begins in village halls

RURAL communities have great potential to be pioneers in the local battle for Net Zero. This is likely to include adopting more sustainable agricultural practices, welcoming renewable energy generation, improving the energy efficiency of older buildings and reducing the need for people to travel by utilising digital technology.  
Mitigation too is needed to blunt the consequences of climate change such as flooding and wildfires.
The Village Halls Week campaign orchestrated by Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) returns this month for the seventh year running and challenges community buildings to consider how they can save energy and support environmental initiatives that help with Net Zero.  
With scientific warnings of the climate crisis mounting and governments and international institutions scrabbling in search of grand solutions, it’s easy to feel powerless to act in the face of great threats to our way of life, and that of future generations.
But as much as bold decisions are needed regarding the global management of the Earth’s resources and the carbon emitted into the atmosphere, little will happen unless there is action on the ground.
Village halls, like parish councils, are one of very few institutions embedded in nearly every corner of rural England. Hosting a wide range of activities, events, groups and services, they have great reach into communities.  
Many have been used as a place of refuge during extreme weather events. As the Post Office Horizon scandal has recently brought to light, they are sometimes venues where radical community activism begins!
The humble village hall is therefore surprisingly well placed to be a catalyst for environmental action. Village Halls Week 2024 will consider how this can happen. It will look at what some halls are already doing to serve as inspiration, and it will provide an opportunity for others to hold events and reach out to residents to see what might work locally for them.
A highlight of this year’s campaign, which runs from March 18-24, will be the publication of energy efficiency design guidance produced by Stagg Architects on behalf of ACRE.  
Typically, village halls are older buildings, which can be off the gas grid. Some date back more than 100 years. Many have been vulnerable to energy price shocks over the past couple of years, with some spending more than half their income keeping the building warm at the peak of the crisis.  
On this basis, a logical, and much needed starting point for village halls interested in ‘going green’ is making improvements to their buildings to reduce the amount of energy they consume.  
The guidance set to be launched features case studies of halls in Cumbria, Lancashire, Buckinghamshire, Dorset and Somerset, which have done just that.  
Work undertaken by these halls includes improving insulation, upgrading heating systems and even generating their own energy. They demonstrate that while there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, there are many lessons to learn from their experiences with regards to project planning, involving the wider community, fundraising and working with technical experts and contractors.  
Of course, making improvements to buildings isn’t the only way to ‘go green’.  
Village Halls Week will also be supporting behaviour change so people are encouraged to reduce, reuse and recycle more. It will look at halls that are providing a space or working with other green groups in the community. It will also consider how village halls lucky enough to have responsibility for outdoors space can make use of this to support food growing, wildlife and biodiversity.
Through its network, ACRE is aware of a number of halls, such as Wraysbury Village Hall, in Berkshire, and Yarm Community Centre, in North Yorkshire, that have stepped up to the plate and used existing facilities to prepare meals on wheels and delivery services to provide a lifeline to isolated members of the community.
Village halls are being encouraged to get involved with the campaign by holding open days and events and sharing their stories on social media. Interested groups can register their interest using a form on ACRE’s website, from which they can request a campaign pack, including posters, badges bunting and other resources.  
For more information about Village Halls Week, visit:

Case study: Haddenham
This large village hall in Buckinghamshire was upgraded on a modest budget, with insulation, a new air source heat pump, PV panels and EV charging.

Haddenham is a large village of about 5,000 people, which benefits from being located on a strategic railway line between Birmingham and London, and has recently expanded due to new housing developments.
The village hall is therefore larger than most, built originally in the 1960s and then extended in the 1980s. Today the building consists of three main spaces and is owned by a trust, the trustees of which are the Parish Council.
Haddenham was fortunate to already have an active zero carbon group, which included some parish councillors, and having delivered a number of initiatives in the village, the community was well prepared to undertake an energy efficiency improvement programme.
Some minor works had already been completed, such as installation of low-energy LED lighting, replacing inefficient appliances, installing programmable thermostats to prevent the heating being left on, and ensuring lights were turned off and doors closed. The building also benefitted from double-glazing.
Funding was secured for three main elements of work:

  • £40,000 to install 48 solar PV panels;
  • £40,000 to replace the old 115kw gas boiler with a 36kw air source heat pump (air-to-air);
  • £10,000 to install 200mm of Knauf mineral wool insulation above the main hall ceiling.

The money for the work came from three sources – ACRE’s Jubilee Fund, Section 106 money with assistance from the parish council, and £10,000 from fundraising.
Two electric vehicle charging points were installed as a result of a partnership between the parish council and the charging company. 

Case study: Skelton Toppin
Breathable internal insulation, infra-red panel heating and a large array of PV panels will transform this remote Cumbrian memorial hall.

Skelton is about six miles west of Penrith and the stone and wood-panelled hall was built in 1923, comprising one main space with two smaller rooms and ancillary spaces to the front.
The committee secured a lottery grant of £50,000 in 2018-2019 to explore options for improving the hall. A local architect was appointed, an energy audit was undertaken, and plans were made for extending and upgrading the hall.  
Contractor quotations however came back at more than twice the anticipated level and funding became even more scarce, so the project went on hold until early 2023 when they began work on a phased basis with a local builder.  
They have secured £200,000 of funding for phase one, which comprises internally insulating the walls and roof of the main space, installing infra-red heating panels, and re-decorating. The oil heating system will be removed and hot water provided with electric instantaneous heaters.  
Phase two will include the same work to the smaller rooms, altering the entrance to enable wheelchair access, and refurbishing the kitchen and stores.
Installation of solar panels formed a separate package of work in 2022. Between August 2022 and August 2023 these generated enough for the excess to be exported back to Octopus for 4.1p per kwh.  
The work as cost £176,072 with funding and grants coming from: the National Lottery Development Fund, Cumbria Environmental Landfill site, National Lottery, Eden District Council, Lake District Foundation and a bridging loan from ACRE.

Action with Rural Communities in England (ACRE) is a national charity speaking up for and supporting rural communities. It works to create thriving, inclusive and sustainable rural communities, which are economically active and have the services they need. Phillip has worked with the charity on and off for more than eight years. He has a particular interest in how communities can be empowered to have greater influence over their local environment and the decisions that affect day-to-day lives. He also serves as a retained firefighter with Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service so is occasionally called away from his ACRE duties!

Written by
Phillip Vincent, public affairs & communications manager,
 Action with Rural Communities in England( ACRE)

As appeared in Clerks & Councils Direct, March 2024
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