Village hall's 24,000 percent rent rise stirs revolt: A modern approach to finance threatens a small rural community. Peter Dunn reports

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The Independent Online
LAWYERS, money men and church dignitaries have decided that the time has come to tidy up the rumpled financial affairs of Bentworth, a Saxon village of 425 souls near Alton in Hampshire that has quietly minded its own business down the centuries.

Backed by the Charities Commission and a new law - the Charities Act 1992 - the Church of England is proposing to raise the annual rent of the village hall from five shillings to pounds 6,000 a year, a 24,000 per cent increase and double the annual poll tax precept of pounds 3,000 paid by the entire community. 'Can't pay, won't pay,' has become the rallying cry of the parish council.

Tinkering with the community's penny-proud budget could have calamitous consequences. The timber-clad hall - home to the Women's Institute, Mothers and Toddlers, the Over-Sixties Club and harvest supper for 30 years - will close; its landlord, the church school with 80 pupils, will be driven into debt and people will start quarrelling with each other. A new village drama group, the Bentworth Mummers, now resting after its first triumphant production of Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound, will be homeless.

John Mann, the rector of St Mary's, the flint-clad village church, cannot conceal his dismay. 'The damage to the community, I think, could be quite great. People will blame the Church, there's no two ways about that, and that would have a knock-on effect for the school which is much- loved and very well integrated. People in the village are very cross about the whole situation.'

Bentworth's problems began with the expiry - due next month - of the hall's 28-year lease. The building, with its stage and well-polished parquet floor, was financed through public subscription 30 years ago (one local gave pounds 5,000) and erected on the site of an old cess pit in the grounds of the village school. The hall, like the school, thrived on charitable status, careful housekeeping and a certain give and take. No one remembers, for example, paying the five shillings annual peppercorn rent due to its new landlord, the Church.

Fiscal harmony, based on mutual advantage, ruled for three decades. Supported by council grants, the school stumped up pounds 1,600 a year to use the hall for its assemblies, a vital contribution to the annual running costs of pounds 5,000. The balance was raised through donations from the parish purse and modest fees charged to the community's thriving network of local groups.

Lawyers, valuers and the Charities Commission have now decided to put the affairs of Bentworth on a more businesslike footing. A new 20-year lease, with a pounds 6,000 annual rent renewable every five years, has been proposed. 'There's absolutely no way we can pay that,' Gerald Harding, chairman of the parish council, said. 'There's no dispute locally about it, but the school's a charity and it's a church school of the diocese bound by rules of the Charities Commission. They say that all charities, the Church in particular, must optimise income of their assets. As a plain statement of fact that's not unreasonable, actually. But there's a woman with the commission in Taunton, Valerie Nuttall, who's been told the implications by our solitictors and says she's not interested. She works by the book.

'This is an extremely happy village . . . Relations between school, parish and church are absolutely wonderful. If they go ahead with this the whole thing could fall to pieces. If we don't renew the lease the building reverts to the school and they can't manage it on their own. They could pull it down if they wished.'

A letter from the parish council's solicitor, reporting on discussions with Miss Nuttall, said: 'The fact that it might be more expensive for the school to run the building does not cut any ice with her (Miss Nuttall). Equally, she had no sympathy with the fact that the hall had been built by the village . . . (that) merely compensated for the fact that the village had had it at a nominal rent for many years.'

Miss Nuttall, a commission lawyer, said: 'It's not my wish to sound hard-hearted and I do think his choice of words may have been unfortunate. Everyone's in some difficulty over this. I can only grant a scheme if it's in the best interests of the school charity, and how could it be in their best interests to make the scheme rent-free?'

Senior church officials at diocesan headquarters in Winchester have now written to the parish offering to postpone a new lease pending further talks with the Charities Commission. And Miss Nuttall adopted a more flexible mood while talking to the Independent. 'A rent of pounds 6,000 seemed rather high bearing in mind this is a pokey little village hall in the middle of nowhere,' she said. 'I can't comment fully until I've heard all sides, but if the village hall charity is the only possible occupier and the school values the present arrangements, it seems to me a compromise can be reached and we can make a scheme of some kind.'

Mr Mann's solution to the cold calculations of the money men is widely supported in Bentworth. He thinks they should go away and leave the community in peace.

'It's the old thing of a small village feeling that it's being told what it must do by people outside,' he said. 'They've legal right on their side, there's no doubt about that. But the over-riding concern must be for the community as a whole, and the best solution for that is a continuation of the way it's been run for 30 years.'

(Photograph omitted)