Heritage Lottery Fund And The Future: An Interview With Carole Souter

By Veronica Cowan | 19 January 2007
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a photograph of a smiling woman leaning on the balcony of a stairway

Carole Souter: 20 years in public sector management, including in the Cabinet Office © HLF

Carole Souter, director of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), is enthusiastic about the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in London. She sees in them an opportunity to promote the UK’s diverse heritage to residents, competitors and visitors as part of the ‘Cultural Olympiad’.

For Souter, the Olympics will give our museums and collections a chance to reflect the diverse stories, histories and rich heritage of people who have come here from other countries. She has therefore passed the baton to museum curators to “look at their UK collections - in terms of the five continents - and get people from those continents to interpret and excavate what is involved from their histories. That will provide a wonderful way to re-interpret collections for the UK populations.”

A former director of planning and development at English Heritage, Souter is passionate about heritage, but she says 20 years in public sector management, including in the Cabinet Office, have given her the detachment to stand back from the issues in a way that those applying for funds cannot always achieve.

“One thing we often find is that people object to our searching questions, but at the end of the project they acknowledge it has helped them to think about what they were doing,” she says. “It doesn’t help if we give the funding and they find out afterwards that it costs more to run it than they expected or they need additional staff.”

a screen shot of a pamphlet with the words setting the pace on the cover

Setting the Pace - the Museum Libraries and Archives Council's rallying cry for the 2012 Olympics.

She points out the HLF is not meant to fund heritage projects as an end in themselves, but to provide the opportunity for grassroots participation. This is why the focus is on encouraging access to collections and heritage sites from all sections of society, an aim that has been endorsed by a Select Committee from the Department for Culture, Media and Sports.

There may be a perception in some quarters that perhaps the HLF only funds big projects because they generate the most publicity, but Souter points out that three quarters of HLF awards are for less than £50,000. It’s just that smaller projects don’t grab the headlines. “If you are a national newspaper you are less likely to write about a project in Cornwall than about the Cutty Sark,” she observes.

The £13 million awarded towards the conservation and preservation of the 137 year old tea clipper caught the media’s attention. The Guardian’s heritage writer Maev Kennedy described the ship as “arguably the most beautiful on the high seas,” and the funding saved it from losing its public safety licence, which would have forced its closure as a visitor attraction. The two-stage grant (£1.2m development grant and £11.75m Stage 1 pass) represents half the £25m needed to conserve and regenerate the ship.

The HLF has a good record in supporting the historic maritime sector, but to justify large sums of public money projects have to be demonstrably sustainable in the long term. Another historic ship proposal, The Mary Rose project – the Final Voyage – asked for over £13 million to house the remains of the vessel and its artefacts in a new building.

Shows a photograph of the Cutty Sark at night, set against a backdrop of lit-up London landmarks.

The Cutty Sark is an iconic feature of the London landscape, but was in desperate need of conservation work. © Cutty Sark Trust.

It failed the HLF’s test of sustainability amid concerns about lack of audience research, management and leadership, and the long-term strategy for Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. The outcome of the Ministry of Defence’s review of Britain's naval bases, bringing with it the threat of closure for one of them, (see Hansard 5 December 2006) will not be known before the spring of 2007.

“We must be confident that if we put a lot of money into a project it will achieve its aims and be there in the long-term,” explains Souter. “It is not acceptable to spend what is public money on something that is going to keel over after a few years,” The HLF is however, says Souter, “still talking to the Mary Rose.”

The directions under which the HLF operates also specify that it must ensure money is distributed to “projects which promote the public good or charitable purposes and which are not intended primarily for private gain” – entirely in line with the Charities Bill 2006 which received Royal Assent on November 8 2006.

Accordingly, the HLF does not fund private heritage projects: “While our trustees are not prevented from funding private projects, they will always be a terribly low priority compared with the many others,” says Souter.

computer graphic of a wooden building with a domed roof and long glass window next to the stern of an old warship

The Mary Rose Trust missed out on HLF funding for its new Museum but is "still talking " to the HLF. © Wilkinson Eyre Architects

HLF trustees are also instructed to take into account the need to promote access for people from all sections of society. As to whether there are any specific groups that tend not to benefit, Souter says that applicants from some minority groups are relatively underrepresented. One of the initiatives for 2007, relating to the 200th Anniversary of the Parliamentary Act to Abolish the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, may redress some of the imbalance:

“The reason we did a lot of work on the bicentenary was as a terrific focus for saying ‘everybody’s heritage matters to us’, and some groups might find that this is a topic they can get interested in which they might not have thought of talking to us about in the past.”

Applicants for HLF funds have to provide matched funding, but this is more flexible a concept than it first appears. In the case of the recent successful application from the Tank Museum at Bovington, the fact that the MOD gives the museum the building at a peppercorn rent can be quantified and count towards this goal.

But the amount of matched funding an applicant must raise depends on the scale of the project. “For smaller projects we accept an ‘in-kind’ contribution - so if volunteers give their time or someone will provide materials - that can count.” All of this helps to demonstrate that the project is important, either in terms of showing that people have raised money, or that it has the support of a group of volunteers willing to put a specified amount of time into it.

a painted cut out of a figure holding a cello

Uncomfortable Truths at the V&A is one of the many exhibitions that will commemorate the bicentenary of the act to abolish the slave trade. Anissa-Jane, 'Lucy' from the larger work 'The Spirit of Lucy Negro', 2004. © Anissa-Jane

There is also no bias in favour of public museums, says Souter, pointing out that a number of the HLF’s biggest grants have gone to museums that are part of the Association of Independent Museums, like London's Transport Museum, or Chatham Historic Dockyard.

As to whether there is a tendency to support areas of social deprivation, she notes that funding can be very important in regeneration terms. “Forty-nine per cent of our funding has gone into 25 per cent of the most deprived areas. One of the reasons is that people can see heritage and culture as a way of regenerating their area, of giving people pride in it, and saying ‘this area matters, we care about it and are going to spend money on it’.”

The HLF points to its Townscape initiative as having had a huge impact on the areas affected. “It is probably a little bit more difficult to badge as a HLF project but it can transform an area,” she observes.

Even places of worship are beneficiaries of HLF funding through the Repair Grants for Places of Worship programme, which helps conserve and sustain heritage at risk, through urgent repairs.

Shows a photo of a ruined church with walls but no roof. The churchyard has many gravestones and trees.

Auld Alloway Kirk. Courtesy HLF.

Out of the Church of England's 16,000 church buildings, and 43 cathedrals, around 13,000 are listed as being of exceptional historic or architectural importance, and about 45% of all Grade I buildings in England are churches, many the most visited building in their village, town or city.

Souter observes that this is one of the most important heritage challenges in this country: “If you think of any place you know, there will be a place of worship that is a focus for the community and if it was not there it would leave an enormous hole.”

Amen to that!