TAITMAIL. Your place in history
When the Heritage Lottery Fund first emerged from the National Lottery bonanza 30 years ago its first chairman, Lord Jacob Rothschild, had lunch with a group of arts journalists who asked him what the new fund would do. “That’s what I was hoping you would be able to tell me” he joked.
Actually, he kept it fairly plain and simple, bound by early Treasury constraints on what could and could not be eligible for lottery grants - though the complexities of the application process put more than a few off. Still, in these three decades it has handed out almost £9bn. Its focus seemed to be on what of our history we could see and what we wanted to keep, and it gave out large lumps of money. There was £11m to do up the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, £13m for Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, £25m for the Kennet & Avon Canal.
But beneath the brick-built evidence, it transpires, there was a deeper mission. The remit broadened through the nineties and noughties as the shackles on spending were loosened and the parameters were manipulated in a more forensic way. Along the road, under CEOs Ros Kerslake and now Eilish McGuinness, it has been rebranded at the National Lottery Heritage Fund to emphasise the breadth of its remit, and now it has launched a new ten year strategy called Heritage 2033, a decade in which it will hand over £3.6bn to what it judges to be good causes, to “make a decisive difference for people, places and communities”, as the NHLF website says. At its heart is a £200m placemaking programme, Heritage Places, the first Heritage 2033 programme.
Whether it was engineered or not, the announcement coincided with, and complimented, Keir Starmer’s reported conference promise that a future Labour government would endow towns and cities up and down England with new powers to boost local economies along the lines of what operates in places like Manchester, the West Midlands and London, to “give power back and put communities in control” the Guardian reported.
Communities anonymised in 13 years of hostility from central government would be freed to build their own economies based on their civic personalities, and as civic leaders already know well, those personalities grow out of the collective creative instinct. Asked on Wednesday, as he launched his London Creates promotional capital campaign celebrating London’s creative industries, where the best place was to get a sense of the city’s cultural life, Sadiq Khan said “sitting on the top of a London bus”. In other words, just look around you.
Placemaking is not easy to pin down, but it is a holistic approach to planning, design and management of public space that exploits a community’s inspiration, assets and potential to promote its health, happiness and wellbeing. Place-making is meant to improve something called “urban vitality”.
NHLF have been buying into the notion and with a group of charitable trusts a few years ago set up a Creative Civic Change which examined the effects more than 800 artists had had on places, many of them working on heritage projects as well as theatre visits, trips to craft markets, storytelling, photography, artist residencies in schools and even a scheme to plant flower beds.
Now comes Heritage Places, a £200m investment scheme to “engage communities and develop partnerships which unlock possibilities from the heritage on their doorstep” said NHLF this week. There will be 20 places around the UK and nine of them - Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon; County Durham; Glasgow; Leicester; Medway; Neath Port Talbot; North East Lincolnshire; Stoke-on-Trent; and Torbay - have already been chosen to “bring heritage, cultural, community and civic organisations together to combine their knowledge, experience, and investment to transform heritage”.
It's been building up, this civic investment of lottery money, since Rothschild’s tongue-in-cheek appeal. “For the last 30 years, the Heritage Fund has invested in heritage making better places for communities to live, work and visit” revealed McGuinness. “Our Heritage Places builds on this and is designed to support in challenging times, to achieve even greater impact, and commits our funding for the long-term” and the NHLF will work with the chosen areas, communities and partners - including local authorities - “to target place-based investment that boosts pride in place, connects communities with heritage, and takes confident strides forward using heritage as the foundation for change”.
It's a beacon initiative from the fund, but while the promise of £1m per place over ten years will make an initial difference, to establish the vitality of a place will need sustained investment over time - not much, just consistent - if there is to be a genuine impact on a local economy, from jobs and skills to wellbeing and community-building. And key partners in this will be local councils. The Local Government Association reckons that councils in England are facing a £3bn funding gap in the next two years thanks to the halving of their central government subvention (which accounts for 22% of their income) over the last decade, with Woking, Croydon, Thurrock, Slough and now Birmingham and Hampshire holding the door open for administrators.
Ergo, unless local authorities can get back onto a properly funded footing dependent on Labour winning the general election next year and Starmer keeping his word, initiatives like NHLF’s Heritage Places will sink back and the waters will close over them. They must not be allowed to. “Heritage” McGuinness affirmed “has a core role in reflecting the close bond that communities have with the places (where people) live and work.
“It brings to life their stories and is a foundation for the economic, social and cultural life of villages, towns, cities and countryside.”
Vacancy for Vital Exposure artistic director, see http://www.vitalxposure.co.uk/new-artistic-lead/