Learning to love the Lottery

The image of Mystic Meg distorts what we ought to be celebrating as a huge national achievement
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THE LAST time I went to 10 Downing Street was for a party for the arts in 1994 at the very moment that the Lottery was born. I recall congratulating the then Prime Minister, John Major, who said that Margaret Thatcher, with her Methodist background, would have none of it.

The Lottery has now been in existence for four years, which inevitably gives rise to the question as to whether or not it is working.

Let me begin by saying that it is striking how little the public knows of this new leviathan and its workings. Indeed when a survey was done all that most could throw up was the contentious grant for the acquisition of the Churchill papers and those to that universal whipping boy, the Royal Opera House.

Four years on there in fact exists an ever-escalating bureaucracy of boards, committees, consultants, advisers and assessors as a consequence of the rudimentary decision that 25p out of every pound should go to "good causes" via five different organisations: the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Arts Council, the various sports councils, the Charities Board and the Millennium Commission. To these, as of this summer's revisions, we can now add the New Opportunities Fund.

All told there must be about a thousand people scattered over the country involved in the mechanisms for distributing this largesse. Of the various bestowing organisations only two were already in existence, the others having been created from scratch. They are very different creatures.

Of the six, the two which are least contentious are the charities and sport. The former is just about to commit its billionth pound and seems to have been successful in running a tight bureaucratic ship. The chair alone is paid, a modest pounds 24,000 for two days a week, everyone else being voluntary. Some 300 staff on the ground deal directly with applications. The average size of the grants is pounds 70,000, and they have been awarded to 16,000 individual projects. Problems only arise when money is given, for instance, to man a gay and lesbian switchboard.

Sport equally is a straightforward story. Like the charities, sport fits comfortably into the New Labour Elysium, easy of access, calling for little grey matter and reaching even those designated as the "unwaged". Sport quickly blurs into health and hence declining bills for the Health Service. In addition it has for over a century been a mechanism for channelling the physical energies of those who might otherwise take to the streets and riot.

With the Millennium Commission we move into stormier waters. Some pounds 449m has been assigned to the Dome - arguably, along with the Opera House, the two projects which rankle most in people's minds as gigantic follies. In the case of the Dome I have yet to meet one person who is in favour of such prodigality for what will be an ephemeral theme park.

Sadly it has detracted from a raft of really praiseworthy schemes, from the Eden Project in Cornwall to the Space Science Project in Leicester, not to mention grants to village halls and churches and those to reinvigorate urban centres.

But we need to watch that Commission. Officially it is to be killed off in 2001 but it could become like the Cheshire cat and be back again, for someone has to run the pounds 100m Millennium Fund Award which is destined to go on in perpetuity. Most of us are unaware that the Commissioners for the 1851 Great Exhibition are still in existence, so be warned.

The Heritage Lottery Fund started with a staff of eight. It now has over 200 hard-pressed, so they say, employees. The Museums, Libraries and Archives Panel, for example, is full of ex-members of the profession. Knowing the latter well it would be difficult not to believe that prejudice and intrigue are totally excluded from the advice-making process.

When, however, it comes to the firing line it is the Arts Council which tops the list. But then it always has. Here some pounds 15m is spent administering the Lottery with another battery of unpaid committees ranging from the National Lottery Advisory Panel to the unbelievable Stabilisation Committee, which seems to hand out money to institutions whose internal management is in a mess.

What are we to make of all this? To my mind it is still too early to say, which may be a feeble reaction but it is a true one. Put together, this adds up to a huge sea-change in funding whose consequences we can as yet only dimly perceive. Nonetheless, four years on certain things are abundantly clear.

One is that a great opportunity was missed with the decision to distribute the money on a first come, first served pragmatic basis. The Lottery offered a magnificent and now lost chance to review the country's infrastructure in arts, heritage, environment, sports and social causes and put them in good order for the next millennium.

We could also have built some major new national institutions, like a Museum of Modern Art and a home for the Royal Ballet in London. Instead these things have happened piecemeal, if at all. So far there is not one major building to show for all that new money.

It has also unleashed the danger of white elephants going up and, even more, of things that cannot be maintained. There is no truth, for instance, in the notion that a new or renovated building is cheaper to run - we're told the Opera House will need its grant doubled when it finally opens. And how are the British Museum and the vast new empire of the Tate going to man all those acres of new galleries? And will there be enough product to fill all those spaces?

Thatcher and the Lottery have also changed radically the people who make the top of these areas of largesse. In the old days it used to be those who actually knew about the subject or were from the world of academe. Now the ability to raise money and work the financial labyrinth are the prime sought-after attributes and the only expanding staff areas are those dedicated to sponsorship and fund-raising.

Looking back over the last four years there are those who have done extremely well on the pickings. They are the army of architects, designers, surveyors and accountants who have reaped a fortune in consultancy fees both from the Lottery organisations and from the luckless institutions who have often bled themselves financially while putting schemes together for submission. The Arts Council pays pounds 250 a day, others pounds 500.

There is also some embarrassment that this is a voluntary tax which in fact milks the poorest sections of society. I for one have never purchased a lottery ticket but I have certainly benefited from what its proceeds have done. Indeed, much of what it does achieve will be of little or no interest to the majority of ticket-buyers,

But I embarked on this lottery quest sceptical and leave it impressed, in particular by the thousands of projects all over the country, many very humble, which would never have happened but for those funds. Readers of their local paper know just that.

But at the same time, the Lottery money for "good causes" has been a public relations disaster. Our image is of Mystic Meg in a cloud of smoke and a shallow, sequinned show. I have no objection to that but it undersells and distorts what we ought to be celebrating as a corporate national achievement across the country. There's not an area that's not benefited. Look at that sports field, hear those church bells ring again, savour those wild flowers, delight in that masterpiece, sit comfortably in that new auditorium... the list is endless.

If I ran the Lottery I'd take the Albert Hall once a year and stage a gigantic spectacle in celebration of what annually has been achieved. That would give us back some of the national pride which seems so signally these days to be missing. So, yes, three cheers for the Lottery!