The Challenges of Covid and Hope for the Future
Show notes (summary)
Our guest for this episode is Simon Bland, who has worked for many years in the voluntary and charitable sectors and is Chairman of his local Village Hall. We talk about the challenges his Hall has faced throughout the Covid-19 crisis and how he and his fellow trustees have coped, both practically and emotionally in such difficult times. And on a positive note, Simon offers advice and a strong sense of hope around opening up for communities once again.
Transcript: Season 1 / Episode 2
Johnny Thomson 00:00
Hello and welcome again to The Village Halls Podcast sponsored by Allied Westminster, the UK’s largest specialist provider of village hall insurance and the home of VillageGuard. I’m Johnny Thomson and I’d like to begin by saying a big thank you to everyone who listened to our first episode and subscribed to the show. Please keep listening and also let me know what kind of things you’d like The Village Halls Podcast to cover in the future. Wherever you are in the UK, I’d really love to hear from you. For our second episode, we’re going to be looking at what is undoubtedly the great topic of our time – Covid-19 – and in particular, the kind of challenges village halls have had to face around lockdowns. My guest this time is Simon Bland, who is not only chairman of his local village hall, but is also highly experienced within the social community, voluntary and charitable sectors. Simon is well known for his knowledge around stewardship, governance and financial management and has kindly agreed to share some of his thoughts around the Coronavirus crisis. Hi, Simon. And welcome.
Simon Bland 01:04
Hi, Johnny, great to catch up.
Johnny Thomson 01:07
Yeah, thanks a lot for coming along today. And now before we get on to Covid Simon, tell me a little bit about your village hall, and also about the work that you do more widely in the community.
Simon Bland 01:19
In terms of our village hall, we’re based in South Lincolnshire, the hall had its centenary just a few years ago and I’ve been chairman here I think for about 14 years. Very often, I think the joke is because nobody else wants it. But the reality is, it’s a great honour to be part of the team that helps the hall serve the community.
Johnny Thomson 01:42
And the name of the hall?
Simon Bland 01:43
It’s Rauceby Village Hall.
Johnny Thomson 01:45
And and again, your kind of community work and so on that you do more widely?
Simon Bland 01:51
Certainly, yeah, in the past, and still within the voluntary and charity sector, looking at governance issues, and the running of community space, nowq within the faith sector, but for many, many years with with village halls.
Johnny Thomson 02:09
Great. And now Covid, and I’m going to spare everyone all of the cliches because we all know how bad it’s all been. But tell me first of all about the kind of challenges that Rauceby Village Hall has had to cope with during this time?
Simon Bland 02:25
I guess the first challenge was was that, that every hall faced with just the sort of shock and speed of the lockdown, the challenges in terms of ensuring that groups were able to make a sort of tidy exit from the hall and we were able to put the hall into mothballs, really, whilst that first lockdown was within place.
Johnny Thomson 02:52
So that was back in March, April last year. And yeah, a lot of hoops to jump through, and I guess a lot of services and so on, that needed to stop?
Simon Bland 03:03
Yeah. Well clearly, sort of the hall ground to an immediate halt and really was a case of sort of locking the door. But behind that was then all the issues of ensuring the insurance company was aware and up to date, knowing exactly what we needed to do to keep the hole safe and secure. And how we were going to monitor issues how we were going to look after everything from checking water tanks and oil tanks during that phase. So yeah, there was there was an immediate break put on things. And then out of that came really the whole next set of challenges. And those primarily really were around the changing nature of the guidance, what we could do what we couldn’t do, and trying to stay on top of that. And I have to give a big thank you to Community Lincs, and to ACRE for ensuring that they had the guidance notes nationally available. And I think for all of us who followed that, the fact that so many versions had to be issued. This wasn’t an issued in April and then revised in August. I think we got up to version 13 or 14 and some of them were on almost a 24 hour turnaround. So that was a challenge for us. as trustees, obviously we we took the governance side on to Zoom, which which worked well and I’m very conscious just in the news recently (laughs) village meetings on Zoom, ours I have to say very cordial and happy events. And that meant we could at least ensure everybody was up to speed but another challenge two members aren’t on Zoom. So phone calls and ensuring everybody, it really was about communication and still is, in terms of where we are.
Johnny Thomson 05:11
Give me a sense of the kind of activities and so on that went on in the hall before the lockdown actually kicked in?
Simon Bland 05:21
Well, I guess that I categorise them in two ways. There’s the sort of clubs and organisations and so that might be carpet bowls, it might be Scottish dancing, it might be the various clubs, gardening or whatever. It’s obviously preschool for us. We play our role, with one of the big local runs and the athletic clubs, there’s yoga, adult education classes, clearly, the hall is used as a polling station. There are marmalade mornings, so there are there are a whole host of sort of almost semi formal groups that use the hall But then what’s probably more important in terms of community is that the few 100 square metres of floor space. You know, it’s the setting for all the birthday parties, the Christmas shows the wedding receptions and anniversary events. It’s, yeah, I don’t want to get to wax too lyrical.
Johnny Thomson 06:20
Yes, but they’re like the the Swiss Army knife of community aren’t they village halls, really they’re just provide so many things all in one all in one package.
Simon Bland 06:29
Definitely. And they reality is that it’s a bit of parquet floor, it’s it’s really the essence of community distilled into bricks and mortar. And so when that came to a stop, just as it did for everything else, it was quite a shock.
Johnny Thomson 06:47
Emotionally, there must be great challenges around that of course, because this is this is so many different aspects of the community missing out on things that were so vitally important to them.
Simon Bland 07:00
Yeah, I guess. And that’s become more and more apparent. I think. If we look back at that first lockdown, it was fantastic weather, there was an ability as it were to be out and about. I think now we’ve gone through second and third, really that community space that opportunity to meet and chat, those groups which have really been the fabric of village life, not being able to take place has been a real challenge. And whilst Zoom and other electronic means of communication are great, they really don’t have the same dimension that that obviously meeting face to face has.
Johnny Thomson 07:45
Yeah, and obviously mix in with the fact that some people will certainly have lost loved ones and, and so on, in that time and add to that the frustration and the fatigue of it all. It’s, it’s difficult. I mean, how have you coped personally Simon, ith with all of that?
Simon Bland 08:03
It’s been great to have the rest of the trustees on board. I mean, if you really want me to share my my sort of lockdown tips I yeah, I invested in a bird table and bird feeder outside the dining room table I now use as the office, and bizarrely may be much too much of an insight, whereas 2020 was about trying to, to control and manage, really the way I was dealing with with the whole lockdownisolation side, 2021 I invested in a pair of slippers and three cardigans. So I’ve I’ve taken a very more relaxed role. But I mean, I think the issue is really getting ready to come out of this now, hopefully we’ve got some really positive signs. So it’s how the hall can capitalise and actually now play that role again in the future.
Johnny Thomson 09:07
Okay, we’ll move on to that in a second. One of the challenges I’d just like to touch on is there’s the whole financial part of it as well, because that must have been difficult too. Not having the the income, but still having some of the costs associated with running the hall and so on. How have you dealt with that?
Simon Bland 09:26
Yeah, no, I mean, village halls run on hiring income, and yet have a fixed set of utilities, insurance, cleaning, all of these fixed overheads, which really don’t step down that much, even if you lock the hall up. So we were very fortunate, and really, again, due to I think, the work of ACRE behind the scenes lobbying government on the grant schemes, and then Allied Westminster for making sure we were aware we could apply. So we secured one of the first £10,000 grants, which gave the trustees a sense of stability in terms of going forward, knowing we’d got that in the bank, it also enabled us to effectively furlough our cleaner. And when we got further into the year, to allow us to reopen the village hall for the preschool only, but at a rent that meant they could actually operate with much lower numbers. So financially, it’s been, it’s been okay. I mean, ironically, actually, opening up for an essential service in the form of the preschool means we’ve not been able to get the next two tranches of grant support. But, yeah, we wouldn’t want this to go too further on. And obviously, the only other source is normally fundraising, which happens at the village hall, and we don’t have that as an option. So yeah, finances without a doubt have been tough, but I think the challenge has also been for trustees and getting people to, to actually volunteer to come forward to help as well.
Johnny Thomson 11:17
Yeah, it’s interesting. You mentioned the preschool as well, because that’s a very good example of the kind of essential services that village halls have been able to provide during this time as well. So it hasn’t just been a case of shutting down entirely. You’ve been there to support the community still?
Simon Bland 11:34
Yes, I mean, it was it was a challenge and a bit of a conscious decision by the committee, because clearly when some of the lockdown restrictions were, were changed, we could have had some of the group’s back in. But in reality, they were they were wary of coming back too early. Enabling really just to have a single user of the preschool meant we could create this secure Covid environment for the preschool only. It meant we didn’t have to try to clean in between users. It just actually made it much simpler. So yeah, we’ve got that, but I do know village halls have obviously provided a variety of different activities. But for us the the preschool was a priority. And it’s worked well to date.
Johnny Thomson 12:29
Now you mentioned about opening up again. And you know, let’s let’s try and be hopeful with the situation that we’re at now, where we’re entering February, the number of people have been vaccinated is in the in the double figure millions now. So we need to kind of take a positive attitude to this here now. But that opening up is probably going to be one of the the biggest challenges of all of this Covid-19 crisis, isn’t it?
Simon Bland 13:01
Without a doubt, I mean, reopening is the next challenge. Yes, closure was reasonably easy. It was enforced, it was straightforward. Reopening, and in lots of ways I think of this as more a sort of reestablishing the role of the hall in the community after such a long closure is going to be the challenge.
Johnny Thomson 13:23
It’s almost an opportunity as well?
Simon Bland 13:24
It really is.
Johnny Thomson 13:26
In a strange way, isn’t it?
Simon Bland 13:27
Yeah. It really is. I think it’s fair to say whilst we’ve got a very good set of hirers, and we have very good occupancy rates at the hall helped massively by the preschool. I’d have to say the bookings have tended to ebb and flow over the last 10 years, if I’m honest, Yes, we’ve got the PCC, the WI and the bowls. They’re almost our fixtures and fittings. But we have seen other groups have declining members, and some of the groups have come and gone from the hall. I think it’s going to be really interesting to see the the roll halls play. I was very struck by what I’m hoping will be a sort of chance for a community bounce. And by that, I mean it’s reset our understanding and relation to local. I think that first lockdown, I I do a circuit of the village every day and have done for sort of 22 years. To go round on that first week of lockdown, and my walk is normally quite a solitary one, but to bump into 30 other people at least 70% from the village that I didn’t even know existed. Yeah, was was really interesting and the fact that those daily walks we’ve all really been taking, the connections that we’ve now made, pioneered I have to say in lots of ways by the dog walkers of the village, mean that I hope when we get the chance to reopen the hall people are going to take that opportunity to to come together in their space in a way that they might not have done 12 months ago.
Johnny Thomson 15:24
Yeah, hopefully. So what what are your plans? How are you seeing this being managed, effectively?
Simon Bland 15:31
Well, we’re going to be looking forward to a series of sort of reopening events. I mean, again, one of the challenges will be marrying our ability to reopen and get the space safe, because without a doubt that will be a tail in terms of secure provisions needed. Marrying that with people’s sense of security to come back and meet, but I’m hoping yes we’re going to have some sort of reopening events and they’re not going to be like they were in the summer when, in effect, yeah, they were exercises of putting up ‘keep your distance’ posters You know, I am looking forward to the real chance for us to get back, befriend and connect. I think that opportunity of the local, that people have now seen means that we’ll be trying to, to certainly see if there are opportunities for some of the skills and some of the hobbies and some of the activities people have, have had the opportunity to do over the last 12 months. And I guess we’ll be looking to see if there are sort of taste and see sessions, we can run at the hall for all sorts of new activities that maybe weren’t weren’t available, or even thought of prior to all of this.
Johnny Thomson 16:52
Yeah. And you’ll be the cardigan slippers expert?
Simon Bland 16:57
Yeah (laughter). I think yeah, halls have got the chance to champion community spirit, and to signal to the community, the importance of village life. And so I am looking forward to, to us all trying to seize that opportunity. I think, yeah, we’re going to be very positive that halls have a bright future, and our hall has a bright future. And I think we’ll be putting it back into the heart of the community, and ensuring that we’ve got new people seeing the role that it can play. It’s, it’s been, yeah, it’s locked up as it were, but it’s visible, it’s going to be very much symbol of the village restarting, and I’m looking forward to that.
Johnny Thomson 17:47
Yeah, thanks, Simon. I think, you know, amongst all the challenges and all the despair as well, I think it’s great we’ve ended with a positive message here. Otherwise, I mean, we’re not entirely sure when things will start to get better. I’m sure they will. And as you say, there’s likely to be a massive thirst for real social interaction here and village and other halls can play a really big and important part in that, of course. So I guess what you’re seeing is let’s, let’s all be ready for that.
Simon Bland 18:15
I think that’s that’s where the real opportunity lies for halls to, as I say, reposition, reestablish themselves as that that hub of community life, and that space that people can come together. So yeah, I’m really looking forward to to the hall playing a major role, in a sense of us being able to be out and about.
Johnny Thomson 18:40
Great. Well, if you’ve got any questions for Simon, and what I suggest is, please use our social media pages on Facebook or Twitter, to start a conversation and and also share your experiences of lockdown. Especially anything that has helped you through this crisis as well. It’s always good to share. Other than that, I’d just like to say thanks again to Simon for joining me today and for being so open about how difficult things have been at times and for offering some helpful insight. And many thanks, of course, to our sponsor, and specialist insurance provider Allied Westminster for making our podcast possible, and whose services you can discover more about at www.villageguard.com. You’ve been listening to The Village Halls Podcast, a new and 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 soon, so if you haven’t already, please visit www.thevillagehallspodcast.com to subscribe, sign up for updates, link to our social media pages and to find out more. Until next time, good-bye for now.