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It has taken a gamble to restore our heritage

Why is no one cheering the Lottery fund that has saved the Cairngorms for the nation?
Lord Rothschild could do with a little help with his public relations. Last week, his Heritage Lottery Fund contribution of £1.5m helped to secure for the National Trust for Scotland some 20 mountains and an area the size of Birmingham. Yet reaction to the purchase of the Mar Lodge estate has been less than universally jubilant, simply, as far as I can see, because the announcement also coincided with that of the purchase of the Churchill papers.

So one reads in the Financial Times, for instance, that "the lodge and its grounds will be developed partly for commercial deer-stalking. Deer will have to be culled. The two decisions [ie, the purchase of Mar Lodge and the Churchill papers] suggest that the Fund needs to develop antennae capable of predicting popular reaction." And an editorial in this paper thought that, if Mar Lodge had been bought in some other way, "that would have left more lottery money available for causes closer to the hearts of those who buy most tickets and cards".

But the relevant news item in this same paper pointed out that another way had indeed been tried (by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and others) and had failed, because the Government would not support it. So this was the only remaining means available.

The Easter Charitable Trust put up £4m. The Heritage Lottery Fund topped up the purchase price and added a further £8.7m to endow the place and improve it.

This is not being done in order to create a commercial deer-stalking business. The deer will be culled, as they must be, in order to help the regeneration of the Caledonian Forest. The chief priority of the National Trust for Scotland will be nature conservation in the Cairngorms.

One wonders whether people who attack such projects as being not exactly in tune with popular feeling have ever been in Snowdonia, the Peak District, the Lake District or the Highlands, and who they imagine all those people are in walking boots and brilliant socks. They are not creatures from outer space, but they may well be from the inner cities.

It is an extraordinary kind of misconceived populism to say that people who live in cities have no interest in winning public control of the mountains. It is demonstrably untrue that there is no popular interest in the environment. (The evidence? Put David Attenborough on television to show us round the Mar Lodge estate, and observe the viewing figures.)

Lord Rothschild made it clear some time ago that he did not consider that the Heritage Lottery Fund should be spent predominantly in the London sale rooms, stopping works of art leaving the country. The definition of heritage was to be broad, and it was certainly to include important environmental projects.

The purchase and endowment of a vast tract of the Cairngorms falls squarely within his remit. One can hardly think of a better use of the money: nationalising the Highlands.

As for that other matter, what saddens me is the thought that we have missed the court case in which the Churchill family, or their representatives, were going to have to argue that there was no such thing as the Prime Minister of England. In 1990, the family trustees had changed the terms of the trust which, on Sir Winston Churchill's specific instruction, had said that his papers should not be sold without the express permission of the "Prime Minister of England of the day". The trustees claimed such a beast did not exist. There was only the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. So it appears that, if John Major is Prime Minister of England in any defensible sense, he could have blocked the sale. I should have liked to have seen the Churchills arguing that he was not.

Young Winston, in yesterday's papers, argued that this stipulation about getting the PM's permission first was, in effect, out of date, that his grandfather had "put in that requirement because it was one year from the end of the war. The clause was inserted entirely on the grounds of confidentiality and secrecy." A convenient reading, to say the least. Surely the Government itself could take care of the secrecy question?

Young Winston also told the Sunday Times that "the Churchill family had never really intended to sell abroad. It was all a gambit to squeeze the Government for the best deal." But if the intention had never been to sell abroad, then the whole valuation of the archive collapses.

The value of such an archive must be its value in the marketplace. The market in question must be international. Which are the institutions in Britain that would bid to deprive Churchill College of the archive it had been endowed to hold? And where would they get the funds?

If the Churchill family hoodwinked the Government about their intentions (which is the implication of what young Winston says), then that is bad enough. But if they also deceived Lord Rothschild about the type of sale that was envisaged, then it is a terrible thing to brag about in the Sunday papers.

But I do not believe for a moment that all parties to the negotiations were simply outbluffed by young Winston or his cousin Peregrine (the one who had the gall to take the money on behalf of the trust while criticising the use of lottery funds). A serious valuation must have been based on a serious attempt to sell, and to sell in a manner that was well understood by all involved: the trust, the Government, the Heritage people, Sotheby's and the other valuers.

When the deal was announced, David Mellor was quick to say that it was the kind of misuse of the lottery which would bring the whole question of funding into disrepute. To an extent, he has already been proved right. But I doubt that this is the last time we shall see large sums of lottery money passing into the pockets of undeserving-looking figures.

Many people might have been under the impression that the Cairngorms, for instance, "belonged to us", rather than to the American billionaire John Kluge, who bought the Mar Lodge estate in l989 as a wedding present for his third wife, but then appears to have taken it back when they divorced three years later. Well, it did not belong to us, but now it belongs to the National Trust for Scotland. I say: roll on, the nationalisation of the Cairngorms; roll on, the Caledonian Forest.