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Matthew Taylor: I agree with my hon. Friend, who is extremely experienced in this area, having worked with Cornwall rural community council in the past. I know that he shares my concern that there has been a great move away from the fundamental capital funding that is needed to keep halls open when they are most in need of it.
I have let several hon. Members intervene, and I hope that they accept that I cannot let any more do so. I hope that the Minister will allow me an extra minute or two to make up for the time that I lost through interventions.
Another problem with the Countryside Agency is its rather rigid definition of servicesit will fund only services, and that does not include the basic structure of the hall. I know of a community in Cornwall in the next-door constituency to mine. It has a population of 220. They have managed to secure the shell of the building, but the Countryside Commission will not allow them to get it into a state to operate as a village hall because that is not in itself a service. That is nonsense; it is juggling with words.
Very few other sources of grant are available. The South West of England regional development agency provides no funding for village halls unless they can illustrate economic outputsso they could put in a suite of computers for training, but could not repair the roof to keep the computers in working order. That is despite the fact that, as the rural community council survey shows, village halls can demonstrate that there are genuine economic outputs as a result of their basic day-to-day work, not least through the staff who are employed in helping to run them. Yet the RDA is simply unwilling to recognise that contribution, and this form of support from the Countryside Agency does not exist. European funding and other economic development funding is extremely hard to access for such basic services. In Cornwall, funding is wrapped into objective 1, which has not made a single grant to village halls on the ground that they do not fall within the economic development criteria with which objective 1 is charged.
These halls have scores of fundamental uses within the local community. One hall picked at random from the Cornwall survey had 72 separate uses, including sports, arts, cultural events, community events and meetings, lunch clubs, post offices, polling stations, wedding receptions, school events, Women's Institute events, farmers' markets, conferences, doctors' surgeries, blood transfusion services, police liaison, religious services and private hire. The list goes on, but time does not allow. The fundamental fact is that for many rural communities village halls are not a luxurythey are essential to their well-being. The venues create a valuable sense of community and help to prevent rural communities from being isolated.
If the buildings are allowed to fall into ruin, there is little chance of their being replaced. Lottery funding has introduced a regime whereby capital is readily available for most things, but running costs are not. Yet in the case that we are considering, capital is needed but not available. That is ironic. The village hall's basic revenue costs are next to nothing because it is run by volunteers, but it finds it almost impossible to gain access to the capital funding that it needs.
The problem is not new and, in some ways, the Minister is in the difficult position of having to catch up and resolve a funding difficulty that has been allowed to grow for far too long, but is now urgent. The Action with Communities in Rural England report, the Cornwall rural community council report and the wide support from hon. Members show that the problem requires immediate action. Rural Members of any party from any part of the country express the same anxieties.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) on securing the debate and making an important case about the role of village halls and community centres. The Government acknowledge that they are often the hubs of village life. We understand their importance and the hon. Gentleman's case.
I read the Cornwall village hall survey with interest. It contained much that is important for all rural Members to note. Although it confirms the importance of village halls, the survey also stated that many are not achieving their potential as community resources. For example, it mentioned that they are often under-utilised, especially during the day.
Mr. Morley: There are several reasons that we need to consider. The report provides important lessons, and I have a great deal of respect for ACRE and its work. We give its submissions careful attention.
We have supported the development of active communities, and village halls provide a location for a range of community services and activities. They are generally eligible for some funding towards necessary improvements or modifications. The available evidence shows an increase in village halls and meeting places, as reported in the Countryside Agency's rural services survey in 2000. It shows that 85 per cent. of parishes had such a facility in 2000, compared with 72 per cent. in 1997. That shows the impact of lottery money. It also demonstrates that community centres and village halls have increased rapidly in the past few years.
Matthew Taylor: I am sure that the Minister believes that the statistics that he cited show an increase in halls. I ask him to query that, because the definition has changed to include other community centres. If the Minister asks his officials after the debate, I am sure that they will confirm that. I do not want to make a political point, I simply want him to check afterwards.
Mr. Morley: I agree, but it is important that communities have a centre, whether it is a hall or a community centre. The facility rather than its exact definition is important. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees. That does not detract from the fact that the survey shows that village halls and meeting places are increasing. That is due to a substantial increase in the money that has been made available.
We are discussing the problems. There is a need to improve data collection and consider the funding for village halls to establish need. I take the hon. Gentleman's point that we are considering a capital issue. In many cases, it is easier to support through capital rather than through running costs.
That is a significant increase. Indeed, ACRE's report on the financing of village halls, which I have in front of me, shows that the increase in the funds made available in the past few years has been dramatic.
Mr. Morley: It has fallen back, but the suggestion that it has dried up is misleading. The 2000 figures are six times greater than those for the beginning of the 1990s, which bumped along at a very low level. I commend the report to the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell and suggest that he look at the situation that it describes. Although I am not saying that no issues are involved, anyone seeking to make a big case about the fact that there has been a gigantic increase in funding that has fallen back a bit in comparison with very low funding for very long periods should put the matter in perspective. Record sums have been going in in comparatively recent times and the number of facilities for villages has increased since 1997.
Those are the figures that we have. As the hon. Gentleman said, the village halls loans fund is available for use and is administered by ACRE on behalf of the Countryside Agency. The fund can provide loans towards capital improvements such as maintenance, extensions or rebuilding costs. The Countryside Agency can also offer assistance through the community service grants scheme, which he mentioned. That assistance is delivered through the vital villages programme and can help to fund an alteration or extension of a village hall or other community building where it will provide a new or extended service to the community.
I accept that there are caveats. Of course, the criteria must be met and the process depends very much on the nature of the application. However, that is all part of community activity and of local communities determining priorities and activities in the halls and centres where those activities are focused. None the less, considerable funds are still available. Even though there has been a decline in lottery money, the amount provided is still a considerable improvement on what was given in the past.
There has been a meeting with the DCMS. Indeed, it was dealt with in the letter cited by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt); I accept that the use of language was interesting. The meeting was held to consider the detail of the analysis provided by ACRE in relation to the £50 million shortfallor, rather, the amount that it has identified as being needed for modernisation and repairs. There is a feeling inside the DCMS and among lottery fund providers that, although they do not dispute the justification for funding, repairs and maintenance, especially on large capital programmes, the £50 million figure needs to be broken down. There needs to be some examination of how the figures have been arrived at, so that we can have a more accurate picture of the needs of village halls and communities.
In conclusion, there is no disagreement in the Government with the case made by hon. Members about the importance of village halls, community centres and community meeting places. Such places are a focus and hub for communities and we want to support them. With all respect to the hon. Gentleman, it is sometimes easy to overstate the case about a fall-back on what has been a very large increase in the funds available. A number of Government bodies and Departments are involved in relation to the lottery providers and distributors, and they include DEFRA in respect of its various rural action programmes. It is not unreasonable that they need to discuss with ACRE and other interested bodies the scale of the problem and decide what action can be taken to deal with the matter through a partnership approach that recognises that the strength of the facilities is measured by the strength of the support that they have in communities in making them work and ensuring that they are part of the community and a focus for community activities.