Lottery throws lifeline to decaying family seat

National Heritage Bill paves way to aid private owners with upkeep of historic homes
For Richard Reynolds, needing pounds 100,000 for a new slate roof and without a Rubens painting to his family name, the National Heritage Bill published yesterday could offer a lifeline.

The bill widens the range of heritage projects eligible for support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and opens up the prospect of lottery money being spent on the upkeep of historic houses in private ownership.

The Reynolds' home, Leigh-ton Hall, near Lancaster, is a likely candidate. Visited by some 30,000 people a year, the neo-Gothic mansion has been in Mr Reynolds' family for nearly 300 years. His ancestors were the furniture makers, Gillow, whose business spread from Lancaster to become a European market-leader in the last century.

But Mr Reynolds does not command such wealth and for the last 20 years has battled to keep the house, with 65 rooms, from cellars to attics, in good repair. English Heritage has helped out as he has dealt with two outbreaks of dry rot and rendered the walls.

Another year of work remains to be done on the outer walls and then the roof has to be done. He thinks English Heritage might fund 40 per cent of the cost but that would still leave pounds 60,000 to be found.

"I just haven't got it," Mr Reynolds said. "We haven't got a Rubens on the wall or anything like that and there is no way that the estate could support the house."

Leighton Hall is noted for its collection of Gillow furniture and its setting in a bowl of parkland sloping down towards Morecambe Bay with the Lakeland hills in the distance.

It is possible Mr Reynolds will not get a penny of lottery money. Richard Wilkin, director general of the Historic Houses Association, representing 1,400 private owners, welcomed the bill but pointed out that its aims were far wider, including townscape schemes and repairs to theatres.

Both Mr Wilkin and NHMF are keenly aware of the sensitivities the bill could arouse in opening up lottery money to private owners of stately homes, land, or possibly shops in townscape schemes. Last year, the fund provoked a furore when it used pounds 13m of lottery money to purchase the Churchill archive.

NHMF emphasised that the prime criterion would be "public benefit, not private gain". Lottery money would be available where there would be improved public access to sites and also for educational projects and exhibitions.

But the pot of money will be no bigger and is already over-subscribed. The fund gets pounds 260m a year from the lottery. It has made 500 grants worth pounds 280m and has demands for over pounds 1.5bn in the pipeline.

Two-thirds of England's historic properties, large and small, are in private or commercial hands.

The Government's acknowledgement of their role in preserving built heritage stands in sharp contrast to the Tory stance of a decade ago, when Nicholas Ridley advised nouveaux pauvres to sell up.