75% Support? Impossible, surely…

I was at the official opening of The Pennoyer Centre in Pulham St Mary last week. Quite apart from the fact that it was designed by our studio, Lucas Hickman Smith, and has just received design-awards from South Norfolk District Council and the CPRE, it is a really interesting project – especially in the context of the Community Right to Build (CRTB).

The Pennoyer Centre is a £1.6m community-led project which has transformed a derelict school into a village centre with flexible facilities including a large hall, meeting rooms, an IT suite and an internet café. The school, which closed in 1988, was endowed by William Pennoyer in 1674 and occupied an early fifteenth-century Guild Chapel, much extended in the 1870s. The derelict Grade II-listed buildings were the subject of various proposals for refurbishment which came to nothing, and blighted the centre of the village ever since. In 2005 a group of local residents put forward the idea of a new multi-purpose community-centre on the site, replacing the existing rather dilapidated village hall down the road. In 2006 the project featured in the BBC series ‘Restoration Village’ which galvanised local support for the project. 3,000 visitors attended an open-weekend during filming. Despite not winning the show’s grand prize (BBC and Heritage Lottery finding for rennovation) the project team were inspired to carry on, and did eventually secure funding, primarily from the HLF. The opening last week was the culmination of five years’ hard work by the community-based project team, their supporters, volunteers and consultants.

The project has some striking parallels with the sorry story recounted to me by a farmer at a wedding recently (see ‘Two Farmers and Wedding’). Both involved the replacement of a village hall in a situation where it appeared there would only be winners. What the successful project had over the unsuccessful one was evident at the opening event last week: a well-connected, broad-based and charismatic project team who stood to gain nothing personally from their efforts and understood the importance of wide-spread community ‘buy-in’.

Speaking on behalf of the Pennoyer project team at the opening event was Sheila King. I explained to her afterwards about my interest in the Community Right to Build, and asked whether she thought the project would have secured the minimum level of support needed for a CRTB project to progress, namely 75% of those voting in a formal referendum. By strange co-incidence the Pennoyer project did indeed pass a 75% support-threshold of its own, that being the majority necessary for the sale of the former village hall site, as set out in the Village Hall Trust’s constitution. In fact 97% had supported the idea, at a public meeting attended by 100 residents – a turnout of around 25% (impressive by community-project standards). According to King, the attendees included a number of ‘doom-mongers and nay-sayers’, several of whom were persuaded to change their minds during the meeting, and ended up voting ‘yes’!

Maybe the Community Right to Build skeptics have under-estimated the Big Society, which (as Sheila King was keen to stress in her speech last week) was already very much alive and kicking before becoming the Conservatives’ ‘big idea’!

Post script: The threshold of support has since been reduced to a simple majority – 51%. See more here.

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