Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried
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The Independent Online

It was the lure of the stage and especially the desire to be a principal ballerina rather than a passion for news that was the first motivating dream of the woman who conquered a male-dominated newsroom to become the first female editor of the BBC's Today programme.

Dame Jenny Abramsky spent years at Ballet Rambert every week after she finished school. But she failed to make it as a dancer. "I was very serious about ballet, it was my absolute dream. But I wasn't good enough."

Ballet's loss was the BBC's gain when she rejected suggestions that she become a choreographer and instead joined the broadcaster. Now 67, Dame Jenny spent her entire working life at the BBC, rising to become director of BBC Audio and Music. For many, retirement after such a career would have been warmly embraced, but instead she took on the task of saving Britain's heritage, as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The years since have seen her preside over the distribution of hundreds of millions of pounds of Lottery money – for everything from restoring pathways and dilapidated buildings to supporting parks and museums and creating cultural archives.

Next month, she steps down, but the good news is that things are better than they were 20 years ago. "The state of heritage in this country is far better than it was in 1994, when actually it was shocking, it was truly shocking. It was in a really bad state," she says.

The future is far from rosy, however. Huge cuts to funding mean Britain's heritage is now "at a crossroads", she explains. "Public funding support has shrunk significantly. We reckon since 2010 about £2bn has come out of money that used to go into heritage and it's going to get [worse] – that figure is going to significantly increase – over £500m a year less of public funding is spent on heritage than there was."

The Lottery is "not going to be able to make up for that huge loss" and "therefore people are going to have to be very inventive find new funding models". While she does not think it's impossible, she warns that heritage chiefs must "be aware that things aren't going to go back to where they were before".

Although she chuckles when referring to projected spending cuts as the "graph of doom", it is clear that it is no laughing matter. To hammer home the point, she grabs some paper and quickly sketches a graph showing the shrinking amount of money that will be available for heritage in a few years' time. By 2018, just 10 per cent of local authority money will be available for all those things that they do not have to fund by law – down from 40 per cent in 2010.

This means people need to have a more practical approach to finding funding. "There's no question about it, people need to have more of a business sense."

Her fear is that "the scale of what is going to be asked of the voluntary sector might be too high to reach", and she is also concerned that "we don't have a good enough culture of philanthropy in this country".

There's a lot at stake. "If we don't think of new ways of doing things, of new business models, we are going to see museums close, we are going to see parks becoming run-down and we are going to see, in 10 years' time, our museums feeling tired and unable to respond to changing needs."

Local authorities should view heritage as "an essential contributor to the future health of the community" and realise that "it is not a 'nice to have', it's an absolutely essential 'must have'."

"If you approach heritage just thinking about preserving things in aspic, it will die – it won't have a future," she says. It is about the future, not "stately homes or posh galleries". For her, heritage isn't just about history. "It's really about people, and I think it's about the future because it is about identity."

Chancellor George Osborne's decision in 2012 to impose 20 per cent VAT on the cost of restoring listed buildings "deeply saddened" her. "It's incredibly short-sighted in terms of the maintenance of the fabric of this country," she says.

Her passion for the nation's heritage is only matched by her passion for the BBC, which she describes as "the most important cultural institution in the UK". "I think it's been a pretty dreadful year for the BBC," and while Tony Hall "has been doing a very good job, I think it was a great mountain to climb. And I think he would probably acknowledge that he is still having to climb it." On budget cuts, she warns: "I am worried about the BBC being adequately financed. I think the scale of cuts they are having to do will affect overall outcome of programming."

Dame Jenny smiles ruefully at the fact that, almost 20 years on, she remains the only woman to ever serve as editor of Today, the BBC's flagship radio news programme. "I think it's just extraordinary. I was the only female editor in what was a very big news and current affairs empire, and for 10 years I was the only female editor."

After she was made head of department, she "appointed a number of women... because they were the best candidates, and the real question to me was why was nobody appointed in the 10 years before?" She adds: "I'm still curious to know, while there have been female controllers of BBC television, where the female editors of Today and Newsnight are?"

Retirement does not feature in her vocabulary. Dame Jenny, whose husband, Alasdair, died in 2012, has a son, Rob, and a daughter, Maia, both of whom work in television. As well as spending a day a week looking after twin grandchildren not yet a year old, she will add the post of chair at the Royal Academy of Music in September to her workload. This is on top of her other jobs as chair of the Royal Ballet governors, trustee of the Shakespeare Schools Festival, and governor of the Birmingham Royal Ballet.