In 2022, ten years after its official opening, Fairfield Community Hall stands proud at the heart of our village, both physically and metaphorically. Available to residents for events, gatherings, activities, parties, sports and much more, it is a place in which many of us have met and bonded with our neighbours, and which is largely responsible for bringing us together as a community. But not so long ago, it was a huge white elephant – an impressive but unfinished building that threatened to be a drain on Fairfield’s finances rather than an asset. It was only the vision and perseverance of a small group of residents that turned it around. One of them, Robin Horsley, gives us a potted history.

Planning and building

The date above the door is slightly misleading: Fairfield Community Hall has existed, at least on paper, since Fairfield Park was first approved for residential development – and it was standing long before 2012.

A community hall was one of several items that had to be provided by developers under Section 106 of the Planning Act – along with a contribution towards access of the A507, a financial grant to the Arlesey Medical Centre and a school. However, the hall that was delivered was manifestly unfit for purpose.

In line with the agreement, the local authority (then known as Mid-Bedfordshire Council) and builder (Stamford Homes) had both referred to the building in their communications as a multi-purpose community hall – which they named ‘Victoria Hall’ – but they proceeded to plan and build a sports hall, with two badminton courts and two changing rooms (complete with showers!), but no provision for other activities.

Objections were raised at the planning stage by Bedford Rural Charities Commission Officer Sue Norman, who argued that the building was completely unsuitable as a community hall, but planning permission was granted in 2007 nonetheless.

The name Victoria Hall had not survived beyond the communications between Stamford Homes and Mid-Bedfordshire Council. It was while conducting their feasibility study that the committee started to refer to the hall as the Fairfield Park Community Hall to avoid confusion when comparing it with other community halls. Later, when Fairfield Park was renamed just Fairfield, the community hall was officially named Fairfield Community Hall.

Fairfield residents take charge

Bringing the building up to its current standard was a process that started in 2010 when a steering group of volunteers was formed at the June 2010 committee meeting of the Fairfield Park Residents Association (FPRA). I led this group, which also included Alastair Lochhead, Barrie Dack, Elaine Fox, Anna and Adam Titmus, Peter Nash, Geoff Smith and John Tyler. Together, we undertook to investigate how the new hall could be best used, managed and operated for the benefit of Fairfield Park residents. We quickly realised that this would be an extensive and time-consuming undertaking.

One of the major problems with the hall was that it was completely open plan. We learned that in 2008 a request for the building to be made divisible by the installation of partitions had been refused by the builders and the council on the grounds that the building structure would not support partitions – even though they had been included on an earlier version of the plans.

Another issue was the lack of furnishings and equipment. The builder had only agreed to provide two sets of badminton nets, three tables, ten chairs and a domestic kitchen with a fridge and electric cooker.

It was decided that the steering committee would conduct a feasibility study, using the models that other local community halls worked to, before considering how best to proceed. We found that our options were limited. We considered refusing to accept handover of the building from the contractors, but were told this could risk the running costs being added onto the Fairfield Park management fees. The alternative was to proactively move forward and try to get the necessary modifications carried out to turn the building into a usable community facility.

Our considerations included the running costs – heating, lighting, cleaning, security, maintenance, staff and advertising – but also the capital outlay that was necessary to make the hall usable – the purchase of chairs, tables, cutlery, the provision of storage… an endless list taking hours to research.

We also had to think about what activities people would like to use the hall for, and how much they would pay for them. Should the hall host commercial as well as communal activities? Should a trust be formed? Bank accounts and Facility Hire Agreements would need to be created. Building and public liability insurances and an operating licence were needed. Noise pollution, parking and other impacts on local residents had to be considered…

Getting the hall up and running was akin to setting up a new business. The list of things to do was growing and so were the problems with the building itself.

The contractor’s ultimate intention was to pass the building and freehold to the Fairfield Park Residents Company Ltd, but to safeguard residents’ interests, it was obvious that we needed to make sure the building was finished and suitable for use first.

The steering group was starting to take on separate roles: mine was the building itself, Elaine’s was paperwork, administration and accounts, Barrie’s was finance and banking, Adam and Anna’s was secretarial, business planning and trust advice. The other members did what they could to support us in the uncharted waters we were entering.

The claims that the building would not support partitions were subsequently proven to be incorrect – as you will know if you have visited. Before partitions were added, there was just one huge hall – far bigger than most hirers would need. Now, there are two large halls and a shared area between them which connects to the kitchen, allowing for more than one group or hirer to use the community hall at a time.

Dealing with the defects

The building is huge, and at that time consisted of a single hall more than two and a half badminton courts in area with a very high ceiling (a hall far bigger than most hirers need), plus a kitchen, changing rooms, showers and many toilets.

For this to have any chance of being an effective project, we needed to divide the building to maximise the marketing possibilities. It was decided that we should re-investigate the previously refused partitions. A structural engineer was instructed to measure and calculate whether the building would support 3,000 kg of partitioning. His confirmation that the load-bearing roof beams could easily support the weight of the partitions was music to our ears.

Quotations were sought and obtained for openable partitions and we turned to raising the £42,000 which would be necessary for the project. Neither the recently rebranded Central Bedfordshire Council (CBC) nor Stotfold Town Council would help with the finance – this was before Fairfield Parish Council existed – so we asked CBC whether any Section 106 money was available. They responded saying yes, but that it was earmarked for art projects in Fairfield Park and could not be used for anything else.

Not to be defeated, John Tyler suggested that a mural depicting ‘The Hospital Through the Ages’ could be added to one of the partitions. This was accepted as grounds for releasing Section 106 art funding, and we commissioned local artist Wendy Briggs to undertake this. What can be seen on one of the partitions in the hall today is the result of Wendy’s work.

Having secured and installed the partitioning, it was to take three more years for the building to be made usable due to a lengthy list of issues that needed to be overcome.

Starting with fire safety: both sets of front automatic doors had been installed to open inwards, in serious contravention of fire regulations. The double doors to the main halls were also fitted the wrong way round, also contrary to fire regulations. All had to be reversed. The rear side fire exits also opened in such a way that they impeded, instead of assisted, escape. This had to be addressed. None of the fire-resistant ceiling tiles were clipped down. None of the ceiling lights in the corridor rooms were fire rated.

On to flood: A major roof leak was discovered where the lead flashing didn’t cover one of the roof valleys adequately and every time it rained heavily water would pour through onto the semi-sprung floor. There were also several issues with plumbing. The heating system supplied was inadequate for a community hall and required upgrading. All the central heating pumps failed due to inadequate flushing through of the pipes at installation. Every part of the hot water system had to be replaced. The ladies’ shower room floor sloped away from the drain and had to be re-laid. A contractor’s drain rod was lodged in one of the soil drains, causing blockages. The main soil pipe across the car park had sunk, forming a dip, and needed to be dug up and re-laid. There were no covers on the wall extraction fans, resulting in the main halls being always cold and damp. The sprung floor used to expand from the damp air so much that it pushed all of the rear fire exit frames off the walls. The ceiling fans in the main halls were not connected so they couldn’t push the hot air down.

There were other problems that arose where corners had been cut. The main hall walls were finished with plasterboard instead of hard plaster as specified in the building plans, which meant that they would not have withstood impacts from sports use. The solution was to cover them with protective plastic sheeting. There was no glass screening to the office, meaning it could not be locked securely. The rear gates in the railings were not supplied. So many things wrong – and yet a completion certificate had been issued.

However, after much perseverance from the team and many meetings with Stamford Homes directors over three years, we succeeded in getting all of these items rectified at the contractors’ expense.

The mural designed by local artist Wendy Briggs allowed us to access arts funding to help with the costs of partitioning the hall.

The Community Hall now and in the future

At present, Fairfield Community Hall is owned by Linden Homes and is used and operated by residents under a new trust called Fairfield Community Trust. The new trust will enable a wider sphere of activities to be undertaken, including outside events.

The handover of the freehold has been frustrated for several years – first by the rectification of building problems and more recently by the protracted and complicated legal process necessary to carry out the transfer. It is now planned for the freehold interest of the building to pass into the ownership of Fairfield Parish Council (not the Fairfield Park Residents Company as originally planned) early in 2022. Fairfield Community Hall has been the official home to Fairfield Parish Council since its inception in May 2013, so it is sensible that its ownership should come into their safe hands for the benefit of all Fairfield residents.

The Hall is already home to several community groups including the Fairfield Scout Group, the Fairfield Women’s Institute, Fairfield Friends, the Fairfield Community Church, the Fairfield Art Group, indoor short mat bowls, table tennis and badminton groups and a wine group. Residents are encouraged to set up their own groups if they find their interests are not catered for. Commercial hirers include dance clubs, children’s sports clubs, adults’ fitness classes, martial arts, baby and toddler activities, school holiday clubs and more. Some of them have been with us for many years now. The hall also continues to be a popular party venue.

2022 sees the tenth anniversary of Fairfield Community Hall being officially opened, and in spite of the Covid-19 pandemic and the necessary safety changes it caused, improvements have been ongoing throughout that time.

Foldaway staging is now available for groups needing a platform for their events and a new modern sound system that can be used indoors and outdoors has recently been added. The changing rooms have been revamped and the unused showers removed, creating some much-needed additional storage space. Outside, too, extra storage space has been provided by the erection of metal sheds. The Trust has taken out the old domestic kitchen and replaced it with commercial grade stainless steel units. A new fridge and a new easy to-use cooker have also been installed.

Mindful of our green responsibilities, we have changed all of the interior lights to economical LEDs and have installed 30 solar panels on the large flat area of the roof, resulting in a 60 per cent saving in electricity charges.

Outdoor events – like last year’s Remembrance Day service, Christmas Lights Switch On ceremony, Christmas Carols in the Urban Park and the screening of the European Cup Final on the cricket field – were all made possible by the coordinated efforts of the Community Hall and the Parish Council. More outdoor events are planned for this year.

The artefacts from the old Three Counties Hospital are now on show in display cabinets in the meeting room, after being hidden away for so long. We are fortunate to have received some financial help through grants and support from Fairfield Parish Council to enable many of these improvements and activities to be carried out during the last difficult two years. Careful stewardship by Chairman Nick Andrews and tireless support from the trustees and volunteers will ensure the Hall will continue to move forward for the benefit of the whole of Fairfield.

Robin Horsley