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Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. It would be worth his knowing that in Devonshire some 60 halls are waiting, in vain it seems, for £11 million of assistance, which they are finding it impossible to get.

Matthew Taylor: I thank my hon. Friend. In a moment I will give the House some figures about Cornwall that will make a similar point.

I know that the Countryside Commission put out a press release today about some of its sources of funding, and I shall return to that later, but there is one issue that

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I want to pre-empt. The press release suggests that there has been a substantial increase in the number of village halls. That is purely a statistical change. It is not that there are more halls; it is only that the commission is including more buildings as halls. Sadly, we are not getting more halls. A great many are under threat of closure and some are in the process of closing.

To respond to my hon. Friend's point, the extensive village halls survey by the Cornwall rural community council shows that about £10 million of investment is required simply to bring village halls up to present day standards. We are talking not about expansion, great improvements or new services but about basics such as toilets that work, kitchens that meet current hygiene standards and, perhaps most fundamentally, roofs that do not leak. Approximately £6 million of that work is classed as urgent, and if the remaining £4 million of work does not take place, much of it will become urgent.

In addition to the rural community council research, we have the results of a similar survey conducted in 1998 by the Cornish millennium projects, which found that £13 million of investment was needed. Since then, £3 million of investment has come from that fund. That suggests that the more recent research is pretty accurate.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): I have received similar representations from the Norfolk rural community council and from ACRE. Is my hon. Friend aware that, as well as the costs that he has mentioned, village halls face the 2004 implementation of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995? Its provisions on access to public places are creating additional concern because they come with a substantial price tag that many village halls simply will not be able to meet.

Matthew Taylor: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House want to raise similar concerns.

I do not want this debate to be only about Cornwall. If we take the figures for Cornwall and Devon and look at the ACRE research, we can extrapolate a figure of some £400 million of necessary capital investment. No one pretends that it is all needed overnight, and of course local fund-raising committees will run their jumble sales and bring-and-buy sales and access local funding. However, much of that funding cannot be put together without substantive Government support.

We should not forget that village halls are worth protecting as an asset. Their total value is estimated at over £1 billion. The average lifespan is already over 50 years and more than half are over 60 years old. As my hon. Friend suggested, current facilities are inadequate for modern use. Nationally, annual capital investment of roughly £20 million is required to cover replacement costs and another £20 million is needed to meet the rising demand for quality in facilities. That is on top of the figure of £400 million that I have already given for the backlog of urgent fundamental repairs to the structure of the buildings.

The problem, and the reason that I bring the matter to the House, is that the money available to village halls is being eroded just as their age is making the work far more urgent. That has not happened only under the present Government; it has been a process over many years. It reflects cuts in funding, some of which perhaps were necessary,

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but the overall effect has been to store up problems in an ageing asset. Many halls were built after the first and second world wars and now need that major capital investment, but there is no funding for it.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a tremendous urgency about the situation? It affects the fabric of social life and the sustainability of village life. With the funds drying up at such a critical point, we need a package quickly, not in the next 10 years.

Matthew Taylor: For many village halls, the need is immediate. If communities cannot raise £50,000 or £100,000 to replace the roof, their only option is to allow the village hall to close. Once closed, it will not reopen. We all know the truth of that. The building will rapidly deteriorate and in most cases it will be sold.

I shall deal briefly with the sources of funding. Local authority funding to village halls in England has remained static at just over £5 million annually between 1981 and 2000. By definition, that is a significant decrease in the real value of that funding. At the same time, legislative requirements on health and safety and, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Lamb) mentioned, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 must be met.

Almost half the county councils—16 of them—provide no funding at all. It is not and never has been a statutory duty, and as councils have had to focus on their statutory duties in respect of education, social services and so on, we all know that whichever parties have been running local authorities, many non-statutory duties have been drastically cut or have come to an end. The same is happening in the district and unitary authorities. The relevant figures are given in the ACRE "Status of Funding for Village Halls" report of January 2002.

Many local communities have sought national lottery funding. The millennium grants were a significant source of funding, but they have come to an end. The lottery's community fund national grant aid, which might have provided some funding, is coming down. Its grants strategy, as is the case generally, is focused on limited geographical areas or smaller amounts aimed at the delivery of specific functions or feasibility studies on expanding services. However, my concern is not the extension of services provided in village halls. I am worried about the existing structure or the loss of that structure, and the statutory requirements that must be met. Grants for that are no longer available from the community fund.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and the Minister for kindly agreeing to allow me to intervene.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that I have been contacted by Bedfordshire Rural Communities Charity. We look after some 100 village hall committees in Bedfordshire. The charity tells me that some £31 million was available a few years ago, and now only £13 million is available. Is the hon. Gentleman reassured—I am not

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sure that I am—by a recent letter that I received from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, which I have shown to the Minister? The letter tells me:

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that that may mean that village halls have some priority in that funding, or is he confused by the possibility that that wonderful single front door application system might conceal the fact that funding for village halls is rather less than it used to be?

Matthew Taylor: It is undoubtedly true that funding for village halls is somewhat less than it used to be. If we can bring funding schemes together and have a single front door—there has been such a scheme in the west midlands—it may be easier for the village hall committee to access it. That would be good news. However, if the money is not available once one goes through the door, it will not get the building work done.

The national village halls grants scheme was operated by the old Rural Development Commission. I was one of those who regretted the loss of the Rural Development Commission, which had a targeted role that worked extremely well in support of rural communities. It was replaced by the Countryside Agency and the national village halls grants scheme was axed. It has been replaced by community service grants, but those limit funding improvements to facilities that allow new services to be introduced, which is great in its own right, but does nothing to keep the hall open if the roof is falling in. That fund is down to £600,000, which is a drop in the ocean, compared with the sum that is needed. There is also a loans fund, which is even smaller—just £250,000 has been given out—but it attracts an 8 per cent. interest rate. For an agency tasked with strengthening rural communities, that is not much of a solution for anybody.

Andrew George (St. Ives): On funding for the future of village halls, I can speak from experience, having worked in that area in the period immediately before I was elected. Does my hon. Friend agree that over a period of years a fad has developed among grant schemes that are supported by Government or have Government involvement whereby they support not established, much appreciated services that people know and love, but only new innovations—and that only on the basis of being the funding of last resort.

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