In ten years the Heritage Lottery Fund has preserved glories, scuppered the V&A spiral and bowed to social inclusion. What is this "heritage" idea?by Annabel Freyberg / November 21, 2004 / Leave a comment
The beautiful and architecturally important building of Christ Church Spitalfields, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor in the early 18th century, reopened this autumn after major restoration to a fanfare of praise. It had been in a parlous state since the 1950s, and decades of campaigning and fundraising had achieved little more than holding up the roof. It took a £2.4m grant from the still fledgling Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) in 1996 before a proper programme of restoration could be embarked upon, and a further award of £3.5m in 2002 to complete the project.
The Christ Church project exemplifies the HLF’s remit: to safeguard buildings, objects and environments which have been integral to the formation of the character of Britain. The church had failed to qualify for funds elsewhere, the cost was substantial but not outrageous, and there was a carefully monitored programme over a number of years. This was an HLF success story.
But there is another kind of HLF story. Daniel Libeskind’s abortive spiral at the Victoria and Albert Museum, for example. The Millennium Commission – the obvious funding body for such a project – turned down the bid in 1998, and five years on, after due modification, the £70m scheme was submitted to the HLF, with a grant of £15m requested. At the HLF’s most recent major grant meeting (held biannually, for sums over £5m), the vote went against the spiral, thus scuppering the scheme. When the HLF says no, a project is usually doomed. Brighton’s West pier is being left to rot after the HLF’s decision in January not to award the £14.2m it had put aside for restoration six years ago.
So what has HLF achieved in the past ten years? Has it been too conservative? Or too politically correct? Is it right that a non-governmental body, funded by our gambling appetite, should be the last refuge for Britain’s most important distressed buildings, artworks and natural environments? And has the HLF’s change of direction since Labour came to office meant support for too many “inclusive” projects at the expense of the more traditional kind?
The HLF has presided over a decade of unrivalled munificence towards the heritage world – £3.33bn awarded to 1,680 projects throughout Britain. The magnificent buildings of Somerset House have been reborn as a complex of museums (£40m), the glorious glass domes of Sefton Park Palm House in Liverpool have been rescued from…