Creating a community of communities
Show notes (summary)
In Northumberland, more than 75 different village halls have come together, sharing ideas, resources and benefiting both practically and financially from an innovative and collective approach. Our guest George Courtice, a trustee of Middleton & Todridge Village Hall in Northumberland, tells us how it all works and discusses some of the big issues that rural communities are currently facing.
Transcript: Season 1 / Episode 13
Johnny Thomson 00:00
Hello and welcome to The Village Halls Podcast sponsored by Allied Westminster, the UK’s largest specialist provider of village hall insurance and the home of VillageGuard. Now, as everyone who’s ever been involved in a village hall event or other kind of activity knows, the more people you can get involved and helping out a better. In fact, it’s that whole collective approach that village church and community halls are fundamentally built upon. However, different village halls spread across the UK, sometimes seem to keep themselves to themselves, running things in isolation rather than as a wider group. Well, today I’m joined by George Curtis, who is from well, a spectacular part of the country, Northumberland and there’s no bias for me there whatsoever George. A region which has been taking a slightly different approach by finding a way of bringing halls together. Hi, George, how are things up there in the glorious homeland?
George Courtice 00:59
They’re fine. It’s a glorious sunny day here.
Johnny Thomson 01:01
Good, good and a bit of warmth.
George Courtice 01:04
Johnny Thomson 01:05
Fantastic. Now George is a trustee of Middleton and Todridge Village Hall, not far from Morpeth in Northumberland. So before we start talking about how you’ve been working to bring halls together, George, tell me a little bit about how and why you got involved in village hall life
George Courtice 01:22
Well, I was happened to be working for the rural community council, the one in Northumberland, and now known as CAN (Community Action Northumberland). And that was really the first time I became involved with understanding structures of village halls, etc. And I took a real interest in this and naturally, I started to get involved with my own village hall and just found it absolutely intriguing and fantastic that effectively, amateur trustees work really professionally to make the hall very effective, and provided a really good service for their community. And so that’s what inspired me as well as the chairman who was a builder by trade, but was a fantastic compère and he could hold an audience in the palm of his hand. Had them all laughing because he was a stand-up as well. And I just thought, goodness, me, all this kind of hidden talent out there from ordinary people. And I thought the whole idea of community owned and controlled halls was a fantastic thing. And I never really come across it before then that was all goodness me 20 years ago now.
Johnny Thomson 02:38
Yeah. And it is just that all kinds of people coming together, isn’t it and bringing their various talents to the fore that makes village halls work. And as I mentioned at the, at the beginning, George, it’s strange village halls don’t always seem to come together themselves, different village halls to share ideas, and form a wider collective approach. But things are a little different there in Northumberland, yes?
George Courtice 03:04
Yes they are. We’re lucky in Northumberland to have two consortia, one based in the west and one in the north. I’m involved with the one in the north. We’ve been going for about 15 years and now we have over 75 members of village hall members in our consortium. And I think it works really well. Apart from lots of practical benefits that we offer people, I think they appreciate sharing problems together, learning from each other and working out together better ways of operating.
Johnny Thomson 03:38
Yeah. And how do they how do the halls kind of come together George? I guess things have probably been a bit different in recent months as well with that?
George Courtice 03:46
Yes, they have. With Covid, we’ve had real problems. We’ve always met three or four times a year in person in a different member’s hall each time, because people are really interested in seeing what other members’ other halls look like. And so we have often had 30 village halls at those meetings and we always have an outside speaker and it could be anyone talking about emergency locations using village halls for that purpose or insurance or better ways of raising money, etc.
Johnny Thomson 04:24
Okay, and you touched on, you mentioned the benefits as well the different village halls there gain from being part of the consortia, so what kind of ways George, give me some examples perhaps of some of the ways that the consortia helps everyone?
George Courtice 04:39
I think one of the most important services that we provide is the portable appliance testing service. We recognise that some village halls, some of the smaller very rural village halls in a county like Northumberland, probably wouldn’t be able to justify paying call out, quite high call out charges for someone to test half a dozen appliances or even less. So we’ve started to provide that service on a sliding scale. So, those people with more appliances obviously would pay more and those people with very few would pay considerably less. And that I suspect meant that some halls were testing their appliances on a regular basis annually, who otherwise wouldn’t have done so. We’ve now got about 40 members who are part of the scheme. And I think they realise that this is really cost effective. And so it’s provided by our own people in as much as that they’re volunteers from a variety of different halls. We’ve got now 10 or 11 volunteer testers. We train them at the consortium’s expense, usually online now. And I think it works really well.
Johnny Thomson 05:53
Yeah, so straight away ther’s two benefits there in terms of compliance, obviously, with something that’s really important, but yes saving the halls some money through good old collective bulk purchasing almost, yeah, it’s brilliant. And, and getting people kind of more involved in the digital side of things is something you’ve been working on as well, helping people helping, sorry, village halls to get online and have a website and so on. Yeah?
George Courtice 06:21
Well, certainly Community Action Northumberland set up in January of this year, I think it was January of this year, a portal to allow all village halls in the county to join it if they so wished. And last time I looked, there were 45 village halls in the county that were part of this portal. And that means that someone who knows very little about Northumberland, but fancies getting married there in a village hall, could go to this site and immediately see 45 different options. So it is a fantastic resource. In terms of our own communications, apart from our regular meetings, we also have a pretty comprehensive website, which I think is invaluable to members. Certainly, it’s used quite regularly. What I’ve noticed in the last 15 years, when we first started, only about 25% of people even had email addresses in those days. Now, it’s about 98% or more. So I think there’s been a fantastic digital move. And in the last 15 months with Covid, people are using Zoom in a way that, they’re attending zoom meetings and outnumber those who used to attend in person. So the last Zoom meeting we had, I think we certainly had over 50 people there.
Johnny Thomson 07:48
Yeah, so people have discovered the convenience of that, and I guess it’s just great people are sharing news, they’re sharing ideas, and also some important lessons that they’re learning as they go through that and sharing that with their counterparts at different halls.
George Courtice 08:03
Sure, sure. And I think people really enjoy being reassured that they’re not missing out on anything, or that they’re doing things as well as can be expected. I think it’s that kind of reassurance to know and to share, because running a village hall can be quite a responsibility and the trustees do like to share that and learn from other trustees who have been successful. Definitely.
Johnny Thomson 08:32
Yeah, it’s just that whole ‘You are not alone thing’, isn’t it?
George Courtice 08:36
Johnny Thomson 08:36
Yeah, yeah. And I guess the consortia also puts you George in a great position in terms of understanding the kind of big issues that village halls are facing right now. What are the real challenges that you’re seeing currently for village halls?
George Courtice 08:54
Well, I think the medium and long term challenge has been brought about by COVID. The short term challenge is, are people going to come back to use vill;age halls in the way they’ve done in the past? And I think at the moment, the jury’s out on that. Some halls are convinced that more people will be wanting to use the facilities and other halls are a little worried that people will be very anxious and very wanting to avoid any any kind of risks. So there’s that immediate issue. Another one, which has arisen out of Covid is that many village halls were eligible to receive grant funding for their local authorities. And sometimes that’s quite considerable, sometimes many times their annual earnings. Not in all cases, but in very rural areas like Northumberland turnover can be quite low. And so if some halls have been fortunate enough to receive over £30,000, which you what some halls have been able to, then that is a wonderful opportunity to improve their services clearly. But it also means that they’ve got to work hard to work out how best and how most effectively to spend that money.
Johnny Thomson 10:16
And again, I guess having other people to discuss that issue with opens people’s minds to the different options?
George Courtice 10:24
Yes, of course it does. And of course, because trustees are holding the property in trust, in perpetuity, they got to work out whether they should spread the spend over several years, or whether they should spend it immediately. To what extent they should use it to encourage more people to use the hall. New groups, etc. Another issue, which I think has been with us for some time, is that very often, people between the age of about 16 and, and 35, or 40, drop out of using village halls and then come back when they’re older. And so I think to encourage younger people to use halls is really important. And some halls are doing it better than others, quite honestly.
Johnny Thomson 11:17
Yeah. So it’s keeping them and keeping younger people involved, rather than as you say, disappearing and coming back. I guess the whole digital thing that we talked about earlier on could could help to support that, for example?
George Courtice 11:31
Yes, yes, indeed. I mean, Facebook, social media, websites, all that make a big difference. Yes.
Johnny Thomson 11:40
Now it now here’s a question you may not know the answer to George, but is the collective approach that’s been adopted in Northumberland there unique, or are you aware of other regions of the country? I guess I’d better throw in a ‘as far as you are aware’ in here, just in case. But is it something that just Northumberland is doing, or are there other other parts of the country that also have this collective idea?
George Courtice 12:06
I think there are some other parts, certainly they’ve tried in the past. And sometimes they’ve tried and it’s kind of withered on the vine. But I think Northumberland is pretty unique in that the whole of the county is covered by the two consortia.It is unusual and it often is a mystery to me as to why other counties haven’t done that, and I can’t see why they haven’t. But if any are thinking of it, then we’d be more than happy to talk about what we’ve done and see whether they could adopt some of the practices, yeah. Because we think that the gains are huge. It’s always best for the recipients of support to have some kind of control over what they do. And I think having a consortium is a perfect solution in that respect.
Johnny Thomson 13:02
As you say, I guess in order to expand that collective even further, I guess you’d like to hear from other parts of the country that perhaps have been developing a similar approach and you’re not aware of, and likewise anywhere there might like to do more to bring village halls together across their region, they could share from your, your experiences over 15 years in doing that.
George Courtice 13:23
Yes, absolutely. I know, I know Durham, have a kind of consortium of village halls and and my understanding is the last time I looked at it seemed to be working reasonably well. But I think it’s quite rare. And it’s interesting that they were all up in the north east.
Johnny Thomson 13:38
Oh well, perhaps it’s just something that’s part of part of our culture, George?
George Courtice 13:45
Yes! And I think, I mean, I think the RCCs, the rural community councils, rather like village halls they’re all different and they have different approaches and it could well be that in some areas, the RCCs feel that they can provide a service in a way that satisfies everyone.
Johnny Thomson 14:07
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I’m aware of Leicestershire and Rutland, for example, from an episode a month or so ago, you know, tackling a specific issue of, of loneliness and offering training to village halls. So, certainly, I am aware that it does exist, but as you say, perhaps in a in a different way, delivered in a different kind of way.
George Courtice 14:31
Yes, indeed. I mean, you asked about what kind of practical services we can provide our members. In addition to that major one, the portable appliance testing scheme, we collectively can negotiate discounts with some major suppliers. Insurance for small village halls is probably the single largest expenditure they have. And we’ve obtained quite significant discounts from major insurance companies. And that could be major savings for them. So that’s, that’s another thing we do. We subsidise training courses when they’re available. And we can also provide, crucially, information and advice as to how you can join bulk-buying oil and electricity schemes, etc. I mean, even to the extent that if you’re a member of the consortium in Northumberland, you’ll earn extra points from the county council when it comes to calculating whether you should receive full relief for commercial rates.
Johnny Thomson 15:37
And it’s collective voice as well isn’t it. It’s a simple fact that the voices of 70 more than 75 village halls is far louder isn’t it, than just one?
George Courtice 15:49
Yes indeed. I mean, if the county council, for instance, or anyone else wanted to involve the village halls in anything, they would be clearly well advised to approach the consortium, to both consortia to to ask what consequence they might have for a change of policy for instance.
Johnny Thomson 16:12
Okay, well great George. Thanks for thanks for sharing your story about the consortia there in Northumberland and good luck with it all. Really fascinating stuff and, and food for thought for many out there, I guess as well?
George Courtice 16:26
Yes, I hope so. I hope so. You know, there’s one thing to manage your own village hall, but to get involved in more village halls can only bring gain quite honestly.
Johnny Thomson 16:39
Yeah. Fantastic. Well many thanks again, George. And that’s all folks for this week’s episode. Don’t forget about our Wonderful Villages Photo Competition. And if you could pass it on to members of the consortia please George that will be great. As it could result in £1000 for your village hall and £500 for whoever takes the picture. You can find out more about that on a special page on our website. And thanks of course, as always, to our headline sponsor and specialist insurance provider Allied Westminster for making our podcast possible and whose services you can discover more about at villageguard.com. And to online booking system provider Hallmaster who also sponsor our podcast, and can be found at hallmaster.co.uk. You’ve been listening to The Village Halls Podcast, a unique listening community for Britain’s village, church and community halls and anyone interested in the vital community services they provide. We’ll be back again very soon with another episode, so if you haven’t already, please visit thevillagehallspodcast.com to subscribe, sign up for updates, link through to our social media pages and to find out more. Until the next time. Goodbye for now.