The Editor's Blog - an occasional view from the bridge, as it were
SAD day down at the village hall on Monday, May 16. A village open event that, for all the hard work of a few, may as well have been a closed event.
Your editor has written before about apathy in this village and is known to be hard-nosed when it comes to the way in which public office is performed. But frankly you can understand how they feel on a day like this.
Let us start at a beginning. Not the real beginning, for that will be in the mists of time. But ten years ago in 2005 (when I had just arrived in Lyng) and the parish council held a Village Appraisal. I think they were all the rage at the time.
The idea was excellent - get the people who live in the community together and let say what they want to those who can do something about it. In fact a hit list was drawn up and all but two - including the big new hall project - have been ticked off. It is something that the parish council is proud of and rightly so. (You can read elsewhere why I would suggest this is only part of the story.)
Back to Monday. The objective was rather like the village appraisal - give the people a chance to say what they want. Not a lot, is the apparent answer since so few showed up. The village groups gathered, the ideas of what people wanted in the new hall especially were canvassed and..
So what to make of it? Communities have changed a lot in recent years. Families operate differently, working time is different, people's interests have changed. No good harking back to the old days then. Which poses a question I shall come to.
Last evening one of the attendees made the valid comment:"This old battered building is not a reason for NOT having events here". How very true. It is dry (just), can be warm (albeit expensively), there is a kitchen (of sorts) and the loos while tatty are usable and there is ample parking. Even access is easy. So what's stopping people doing stuff? Which is the next question.
People is the answer and that makes it very, very hard to resolve.
A while back one councillor lamented how times had changed in response to a similar lament from the floor. They have and that is where the worry comes in.
Plenty of new village halls have been built around the county and the country. But are they really being used? Is the 'village hall' an anachronism in the age of the PC, laptop, tablet, Ipad and all those smart phones? Is an app all anyone wants these days?
The Fox tells us it wants the village to use it more. The shop says the same. What's changed is buying habits - supermarket booze is cheaper, DIY meals are easy, every supermarket delivers. Everyone is a chef in their own home, everyone a barista or a cocktail waiter. Meanwhile, the kids have their buds in the ears and their thumbs on the text.
Is it too a product of austerity? Are the OK-off saving their money and are the Not-OK simply unable even to go out?
PART TWO -
Thinking about what happened at the Open Event I decided to see what goes on in other villages which have already had a new hall. No names no pack drill so for this article the locations will be anonymous.
First I think we need to put some scale on the issue. A village hall is more than a big meeting room – even ours has loos and a sort of kitchen and a store room. But the hall is the letting unit so that's the bit to think about.
There are two ways – apart from finance – of measuring the success of a meeting place – bookings and footfall.
Bookings is fairly easy – a hall can be let for morning, afternoon or evening (or combinations) seven days a week. Each booking is one 'opportunity' and so one 'sale'.
A hall has 21 booking opportunities a week; two halls 42 and three 63. The issue, as in a holiday establishment, is occupancy rate. This can be seasonal of course but for a village hall that is less critical. And for a commercial business anything under 50% occupancy would be pretty disastrous. Less so in a community establishment I suggest, where 50% would be a pretty good rate, especially since weekends tend to be ignored by 'regular' events and the preserve of parties and the like.
I have no idea what the Big Lottery rates as success in this area but I would guess they would look for achieving a 50% rate within a year of opening.
All three of those I visited have done pretty well – only the venue with just one large hall to let is below the rate.
Next comes footfall, measured in the retail world by two processes – an electronic check at the
door and the outcome of the till roll. A low footfall but a high till rate would be good. But if footfall is high then
the till rate/profit margin can be critical. And of course low footfall AND low till rate is a disaster.
Just to explore this a major supermarket will have a high footfall and a high till rate but low profit margin – few people will just 'look' in a supermarket. But in a shopping mall it is different. The mall will expect a high footfall, thus delivering opportunity to its rental customers. A posh shop with high margins may have a high footfall from browsers but be happy with a lower till rate due to the high margins.
The village hall has all and yet none of these processes
to consider. It is after all intended to encourage community activity through use. Price it too high and use will fall; too low and the system breaks anyway. One hall reported it was 'wiping its face' – breaking even on the cost of delivering the venue and its facilities. But not on the costs of maintaining and repairing the facility. And that is the big problem.
There is another. You could of course pay for a caretaker, cleaners and kitchen staff. But not on these rates of income. So volunteers are essential. And attendance at the Open Event suddenly comes into very sharp focus..
One very successful hall open its coffee shop every day and that means having 'a person' on duty from say 9-5 every day. Assuming six days a week that sounds like six people-days but it isn't. The lady I met does about two shifts a week and an evening when needed. So that sounds like a team of a few – she said they never had enough. They have to be managed. And then there is sickness and holidays...
On the wall is a rota for hall duties – opening, securing, cleaning etc. More volunteers.
And if you want lettings then clean and tidy is not optional.
Back to footfall for a minute. This is dependant very much on the size of the catchment area. Lyng has a population of about 800 and this is about the number in the other locations sampled. So how many would we hope to see using a hall?
To be honest I would doubt that more than 25% would EVER use the hall. That sounds dreadful but we have had some big issues and public meetings – the wind farm, the broadband and Lyng Easthaugh. Attendance at each pushed the hall (200 maximum standing) but I counted each and none of them was anywhere near 200 attendees. And the faces were, well familiar.
But resident use is only part of the story. We know that many people with family events to celebrate are using others halls nearby. None of the new halls is more than three miles away – the stock distance between settlements in western Europe. So Lyng can hope to draw these back with a good hall. That will add to the footfall. But what can we reasonably expect?
If we assume one large hall (maximum 150 seated; 200 not) and a meeting room (24 seated; 30 active) we have a daily occupancy/footfall of 170-200 times three booking opportunities. That would mean 100% footfall would require a total of 450 to 600 'visits' per day – not very realistic of course.
If we look at the activities that our sample halls have on we can do some rough calculation and it comes out that about 40-80 people per day are using each hall on average. So this suggests we should anticipate about 10% footfall day by day. But there will be some very good days when something sparks interest and the number climbs suddenly.
These are not all different feet of course. We know already the phrase 'the usual suspects' and its a sardonic take on the fact that the core active people tend to be the same bunch most times.
So how should we expect our new hall to fare in this difficult environment?
And that is why I believe the Open Event had such a worrying outcome for us all.
Hang on a minute... is that on the agenda?
It is hard to know what to make of our local parish council, except that it seems at times to match very closely the village of Lyng. Which I suppose it should, but...
Now I should make clear that my expectations of parish councils is not excessive. They are minimally funded, poorly established in democratic terms, woefully short of powers and usually dependant on a lot of voluntary will, good or ill. And they have only the services of a poorly rewarded and often under-skilled clerk.
It is true also that living within the village one gets a very different view of what the parish council is about. Issues that may seem small beer can be writ quite large at times.
And things can get swamped or forgotten. And priorities are not always the same, street by street or house by house. So there is a long list of things which have not been done, taken too long to bet done or have simply slipped between the cracks. And yes it is up to the residents to keep their councillors up to speed, although not having 'ward' councillors makes that less than an obvious process.
Thing is those interested in council, affairs do keep coming back to mention what has not yet been done or has but badly. And still some things hang in the air.
But this is not where the real problem lies – what is wrong in Lyng is information flow, or rather its tendency not to flow at all.
First stage in the running of meeting is the timing. Lyng only meets six times a year and while this may seem sensible, sometimes it is simply not often enough. Planning issues especially can pop up in the gaps and cause Lyng to ask the District Council for extra time to discuss them. The question is: Why only six times? One can readily understand not meeting in August (holidays) or in December (Christmas) but that would still leave ten opportunities. Maybe six could be fixed and four moveable feasts?
Second comes the agenda. Now the rules on this (see panel) are simple enough. The agenda is NOT the province of the chairman alone but should be accessible to members AND residents. To make that work means ensuring residents and members have good knowledge of what is going on AND that they have the opportunity to ask for debates on topics of their choosing. That should mean making sure resident know well in advance of the next meeting AND be alerted that they can raise issues for debate (they can use the rules in the panel if their council contact refuses to help).
Thirdly is the meeting itself. Thanks to the chair, Lyng has a system that allows public participation – which is what it is called. The formal meeting is adjourned to allow public speaking (otherwise discouraged). In Lyng there are usually a handful of us residents and most of us have an issue or two to raise. The problem is that after the issue is raised and even discussed nothing seems to happen. Not every time but too often. Even if an idea germinates the process to achievement can be tortuously slow – one such (a new field edge pathway) has taken years to reach signatures and even now is incomplete. What makes this part of the process frustrating is that items like this rarely reach the agenda, even though the rules of engagement with parish councils permit resident issues to reach the agenda. So how about assigning each item raised by residents an agenda reference so the issue is automatically raised again? Even if the resident is not in attendance. And if interest wanes it can be dumped.
Fourth problem concerns the minutes. These are a vital and legal part of the process. Oddly the requirement to publish the minutes 'as soon after as possible' a meeting (see panel) does not specify that this has to happen within the parish! But the intention of the rules is clear – resident electors are to be informed of decisions. Indeed unless a decision is properly minuted it may not even be legal. Recently the need to publish these minutes on an accessible web site has been added to the guidance. A good thing but of itself not enough. The minutes are usually published in some hard copy form – the community newsletter is often the place – and this means every address in the community will get a chance to see them. It is the up to them what they do with that opportunity of course. But the problem is not just in this area but at the following meeting. The first and most important part of a council meeting is the approval of the minutes as a true record (members have the chance to correct content) and then the Matters Arising. Many people may see this as mere process but in reality it is during Matters Arising that important decision are
often made or embarked upon. If members of the public do NOT have a copy with them they will struggle to understand what is happening.
Earlier blogs HERE
Of course they can print them off the above web site if they are able, have a printer, or think to do so. But why not ensure that a few copies of the minutes are available for visitors at each meeting?
A fifth difficulty is during the meeting. Partly due to visiting residents not usually having an agenda (which might get items raised during the participation section) they find themselves unexpectedly either deeply involved in some items under discussion or in possession of useful information. Our chair is very relaxed about allowing interventions but naturally only up to a point and no mechanism for the process has been established. It could be of course. And what happens is that members of the public seek to input information or comment but clearly often have to wait until the substantive discussion has taken place. This often results in wasting time by re-visiting old ground but also causes frustration in the visitor and members. So first make sure all visitors have an agenda? And why not establish some process by which a member of the public can interpose comment or information.
Lastly, audibility is an issue in many village halls and Lyng's is a very bad example. Given the lack of soft materials this may be a surprise but the ceiling and walls are of fibre board which absorbs sound very well. And the way the meeting is laid out has a further serious impact. And finally not everyone has a strong speaking voice. So getting the lay out right is the first and most critical cure. A visit to any major council chamber will show the 'horseshoe' shape. This means that all members face inwards slightly towards the public and slightly towards the chair (the gap in between is often where officers sit). This means that every member has to speak up to be heard (these days they get audio assistance of course!). The visiting public is then usually at the rear and can still find hearing difficult (hence the audio assist). Well this is just a little old hall and a parish council with moveable tables and chairs – what can be done? Lots. First the chair and clerk should be at the centre of a horseshoe shape arrangement on which members sit. This would be in contrast to Lyng where they sit in a cosy little arrangement facing each other and within feet of the chair. Widening it out means they will all have to speak up a bit. And they will be speaking towards the rows of seat on which the most important people in the room are to be found – the resident electors and council tax payers. (See attached sketch).