Gambling on our heritage

As the Government allows lottery money to replace official spending for building projects, the Heritage Fund steps in
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
All Saints Church, Dunsden, pounds 3,000. All Saints Church, Roffey, pounds 8,600. All Saints Church, Newborough, pounds 23,000. All Saints Church, Grafham, pounds 10,000. All Saints Church, Hereford, pounds 430,000. You might expect a Private Eye-style interruption here (that's enough saints, Ed), but Britain has a lot of saints and, more significantly from an architectural point of view, a beautiful superfluity of old churches.

The list above is not the amount collected each Sunday by vergers at Holy Communion but the grants made to these Christian pantheons by the Heritage Lottery Fund. If these sums represent a drop in the ocean, they are nevertheless a lifeline to a type of building that if we do not pray in we visit in our millions. About 20 million people visit churches and other places of worship each year. We love them as we love old country houses, windmills, old ships and railway locomotives. At least we say we love them, but often leave someone else to drop a pounds 1 coin in the collection box that will help keep them safe for future generations.

The Heritage Lottery Fund, run by an independent board of trustees under the chairmanship of Lord Rothschild, is that "someone else" writ large. Yesterday, Lord Rothschild told us in a speech at the Bishopsgate Institute that the fund has awarded pounds 286m in grants to 478 projects. These have ranged from major capital projects such as the Imperial War Museum's new outpost at Duxford (pounds 6.5m), designed by Sir Norman Foster to house a collection of historic US military aircraft, to the pounds 42,250 awarded to the Rutland Railway Museum (yes, it really exists) to put steam back into the iron belly of "Singapore", a tank engine that survived Far Eastern duties during the Second World War. The fund has tried to be as wide-ranging and as democratic as possible, but has concentrated on a number of key areas: museums, churches and urban parks. Museums from Stromness to South Kensington have benefited, as have places of worship, from Hawksmoor's daunting Christchurch Spitalfields (pounds 2,441,500) to the Methodist chapel at East Prawle (pounds 10,000). The restoration of Clevedon Pier, in Avon, has received pounds 475,042.

As for parks, Lord Rothschild said: "We believe that two decades of padlocked public lavatories and withering flower beds, sometimes heroically maintained in the face of vandalism and shrinking local government funds, are coming to an end."

In this sentence, which begins with public lavatories and ends with national government (an odoriferous pairing), the whole justification for the Heritage Lottery Fund and other millennium bodies is put into focus. They are necessary not just to repair the fabric of our old churches and chapels, or to put "Singapore" back on the iron roads of Rutland, but to step in where governments fail to tread. And here also lies a worrying trend. Increasingly, Westminster sees bodies like the Heritage Lottery Fund as ways and means of replacing central government funding.

A year ago I interviewed Virginia Bottomley, Heritage Secretary, on this very issue; the fragrant Mrs B assured me lottery funding would not replace government funding and that there would be no cuts in arts spending. Three weeks later, she announced cuts. Yesterday, Lord Rothschild pursued the same point. "When the Heritage Lottery Fund was launched," he said to his audience, "the Secretary of State made it clear that lottery funding would be strictly additional to government funding. A year following cuts in public expenditure across many of the heritage-related bodies, the fund has been encouraged to take a more liberal view as to how additionality should be interpreted."

Well, what do you expect of a government that specialises in instant U-turns as much as in raising revenue from Instants? At an English Heritage conference in 1994, John Major said: "On the government's side - treasury please note - we will make no case-by-case reductions in conventional public spending programmes to take account of awards from the lottery. The money raised by the lottery will not replace existing government spending."

Yesterday, Lord Rothschild quoted the economist JM Keynes, who wrote 50 years ago of prime ministers living "in thrall of sub-human denizens of the Treasury". What is worrying from an architectural perspective is that a national addiction to gambling on the lottery is becoming the only major source of funding for both restoration and new building projects. Looked at one way, this is not a bad thing. The Heritage Lottery Fund, for example, could invest considerable sums in adventurous new buildings - there are many historic collections that need rehousing, from the American military aircraft at Duxford to the manuscripts and books that will form the centrepiece of the excellent new Ruskin Library at Lancaster University (pounds 2,314,259) , designed by MacCormac Jamieson and Prichard.

In rehousing our past and both reinterpreting and reinvigorating it for future generations, the Heritage Lottery Fund is able to act as a patron of new architecture. However, already there is talk of trying to curb capital projects (new buildings, that is) financed through the lottery and placing a new emphasis on endowments for future running costs and revenue. While these things are essential for the future of our museums and galleries, for example, the two must go hand in hand. We need imaginative new architecture to house valuable collections that are propped up by long-term funding. The best we can aim for at the moment - while the government is looking to cut public expenditure and to undermine the whole notion of a public realm - is for spirited quangos to commission, build and fund great new buildings and to restore the existing stock as quickly as possible. Now is no time for committees to sit poring over minutes, jockeying for position as time runs out and we approach the millennium with few new buildings of any real merit to celebrate.

There is much the Heritage Lottery Fund itself can do. Next year it will have up to pounds 500m to launch a number of significant new buildings. The Fund could also extend its increasing belief in national programmes for urban regeneration, concentrating its funds on repairing and enhancing areas of our national inheritance that have long been neglected. Aside from urban parks and town centre improvements, it might yet consider a national programme for restoring public fountains (encouraged by this newspaper) markets and market buildings, ferries and ferry stations and hedgerows where pavements have replaced them. It might consider a programme of what to do with the sites of decommissioned nuclear power stations and gasworks.

It could work with local authorities and city councils to strip our town centres of "heritage" street furniture, paving and equipment, replacing them with decent materials and fixtures - York stone rather than herringbone brick pavements, discreet modern street lamps in place of crudely cast neo-Victoriana painted in Railway Children colours. It might even, although this would give it too much power, consider a national programme of demolition, whereby truly horrid buildings defacing our city centres were replaced by superb new ones. Consider Edinburgh. It needs only a tweak here and a demolition there and it could out-Athens old Athens. Of course we would all like that job, but because we all have different views of what makes a good building it would be best left as something to think about than to act on.

Lord Rothschild's speech yesterday showed that a quango can have teeth - straight, clean, neatly capped and filled, of course, but teeth nevertheless. However much an individual body can do to improve our built heritage, it can only do so much. Governments and those that advise them must call for intelligent spending on arts and architecture; we must not learn to rely on the lottery to pay for what we deserve - if not for ourselves then for future generations. Now, can someone think of a word to replace the overworked "heritage" and means past and future at one and the same time?