Council to use discretion to keep Richmondshire community venues open

Askrigg Village Hall.

A council has agreed to use its discretion to decide how much fuel bill support to give to community venues to prevent many from shutting over winter after being told the proposed criteria to qualify for the grants was flawed.

A full meeting of Richmondshire District Council heard great enthusiasm from councillors for supporting places where residents met, and officers state the proposals were “practical, understandable” and went straight to the issue of the difference in energy costs this year over last year.

Councillors were told the awards would be evidence-based and open to all community venues, except for Richmondshire Leisure Trust as the authority had already agreed to help it with rising fuel costs, and be “based on the percentage increase they have seen on their bill”.

The move follows the authority approving a £71,000 Warm Places grant scheme for community venues, village halls, social clubs and places of worship to provide a place where people could be together and keep warm.

The latest grants being offered will be between £300 and £3,000 per community building.

The authority’s leader, Councillor Angie Dale, underlined that community venues were facing huge rises in costs and the authority was responding to “very evident” fuel poverty across the district.

She said: “If we don’t do it we will have a lot of closed buildings on our hands.”

The meeting was told the council would invite applications for the £99,000 fund until January, when the authority would compare the costs of fuel used at community buildings in the third quarter of each year.

The authority has previously faced criticism over prohibitively complex grant application forms, and elected members said despite efforts by officers to simplify matters, under the proposals some voluntary groups would face significant hurdles.

Councillors said many of the community halls across Richmondshire, particularly in the Yorkshire Dales, had coal and oil-fired heating systems, which did not have meters and for which the bills could not be compared over a short timescale.

They called on the authority to give places that did not have mainlined gas or electricity special consideration as people topped up oil and bought coal as and when they needed it.

Raising further concerns for venues with oil-based heating, Councillor Yvonne Peacock said the costs of fuel used over two years could not be compared as weather conditions could be significantly different.

She added: “You don’t order the next 1,000 litres until you have run out. Isn’t it time we trusted our village halls and the communities? These are voluntary groups that spend their life doing what they can for people.”

Councillor Ian Threlfall suggested a simpler system would see the authority award grants based on the community venue’s rateable value.

After a lengthy discussion, councillors agreed to leave applications to the fund to a senior officer and the council’s leadership, when there was no data available.