The Heritage Lottery Fund – sorry, the now rebranded National Lottery Heritage Fund – has just issued its new Strategic Framework for 2019 to 2024 and it includes some of the most significant changes to heritage funding since the National Lottery was introduced. Here is a ‘hot take’ on some of the bigger changes and what they could mean for the sector.
1. A Streamlined Application Process
Well, to be fair, every new Strategic Framework has promised to simplify and streamline the process. Until heritage organisations can start drawing down cash with a contactless Tesco card, applicants will continue to call it a cumbersome, bureaucratic process that favours larger, well-resourced applicants at the expense of smaller ones.
In the Fund’s defence, there is only so much that you can do to simplify the process and still be a judicious steward of public money. The Fund is always vexed by this riddle: if an organisation does not have the wherewithal to make an application for £1 million, then does it really have the capacity to deliver a £1 million project?
That said, the new Strategic Framework does look like it is suited to a more straightforward process, with a single entry-point for applicants and an Expression of Interest stage for applications between £250,000 and £5 million.
More important, it seems geared towards distributing more and smaller grants, with much of the decision-making devolved to regional offices, which is a material change from the current system.
2. Devolution to New Regions
This is a big deal.
To date, any applications of more than £2 million were decided in London by the national Board. It meant that any substantial capital project had to slug it out in an ultra-competitive pool that included all the signature projects and every heavyweight applicant around the country. It wasn’t enough for a project to be ‘good’ – it had to be better than most of the other applications received in any given round.
Going forward, three regional Boards – North, East & Midlands, London & the South – along with the offices in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, will be authorised to decide on grants of up to £5 million. This is a strong incentive for applicants to keep their submissions below the £5 million threshold and thus to focus on smaller capital projects.
3. Priority Areas
By comparison to other Lottery funds, the Heritage Fund has generally been good at ensuring that money is fairly distributed around the country and that it finds its way to the places that need it most. Going one step further, the Fund has assessed its per capita spending to date, as well as national deprivation indices, and identified thirteen ‘priority’ areas where it is keen to address an ‘under-representation’ in heritage. Or, to put it more succinctly, the following places should be sharpening their pencils as I write this:
- North East Lincolnshire
- North Lanarkshire
- Neath Port Talbot
4. Ongoing Commitment to Heritage Enterprise
The last Strategic Framework introduced the Heritage Enterprise programme, which filled an important gap in the sector’s funding ‘ecology’. We’d love to preserve every historic building, but not every historic building can be a charitably run museum or visitor attraction. Heritage Enterprise allowed for investment in heritage assets without the punishing demand for continuous public access.
Fourth Street had the privilege of reviewing the first batch of Heritage Enterprise applications. It boasted some noteworthy success stories like Ashton Old Baths, where HLF funding saved a derelict, at-risk building by converting it into a stunning new workspace for creative start-ups. It also exposed all the teething problems and unintended consequences of any new funding experiment.
The new Strategic Framework keeps the baby and throws out the bathwater. It notably relaxes one of the key conditions that previously frustrated a lot of would-be Heritage Enterprise projects, by now making it possible for private sector organisations to be the lead applicant. It means that projects don’t need to put local authorities, charities and developers into a fraught and fragile ‘shotgun marriage’ simply to avoid the perception that public money is being used for private gain.
The Fund will obviously need to ensure that the system is not abused, but – on balance – the benefits of this simpler approach should far outweigh the risk.
5. Place, Wellbeing and Enterprise
Anyone working in the sector has, by now, absorbed and assimilated the Fund’s preoccupation with achieving benefits for people, for communities and for the heritage itself.
The mantra hasn’t changed, but it has got longer. To Heritage, People and Communities, we can now add Place, Wellbeing and Enterprise. Factors that were once treated as intangible benefits — an afterthought in previous applications – are now conspicuously written into the new Strategic Framework.
There will be a lot of devils in the detail here. Economic and social impact assessments in this sector have always been a little spurious. And how do you assess a project’s contribution to ‘place’, let alone ‘wellbeing’?
The added complexity notwithstanding, the Fund deserves a lot of credit for making the sector work for its money. Arguing conservation for its own sake won’t go very far. Liberal use of the word ‘iconic’ as shorthand for some indefinable place-marketing windfall, won’t go much farther. Applicants will need to articulate a wider set of benefits to a broader range of stakeholders.
What are you doing for a high street on its knees? How are you supporting cultural and creative businesses? How will people participate in the success of this place?
Applicants will have to start framing projects in terms like these, which can only be a good thing for the sector in the long run.
6. Appetite for Risk
It’s unclear whether this was intentional or not, but the new Strategic Framework seems to describe a National Heritage Lottery Fund with a greater appetite – or, at least some tolerance – for risk.
This is partly a function of the ‘more and smaller’ ethos described above. You can take some risk with a £500,000 grant that you can’t even contemplate with a £5 million grant. To the extent that the Fund seems to be incentivising smaller applications, we might expect some wilder and more imaginative ideas to challenge all the ‘samey-samey’ museum extensions and visitor centres to which we’ve grown accustomed.
Second, the Fund is proposing to go beyond its standard role as grant-funder to provide loan finance and social investment where appropriate. That is a sea change from what it has done in the past and – even if only on a limited basis – could unlock projects that, in previous years, would have been unfundable.
It would be an exaggeration to call this as a ‘new direction’ for the Heritage Fund. Old policies and priorities are all still there. It is still very much the expression of an organisation that is rightly sensitive to the fact that it is not their money they are spending, but ours – or, more precisely, the money of people who play the National Lottery. That sense of responsibility and stewardship is baked into the culture of the organisation. The new Framework isn’t going to change it.
But this does feel significant. These Strategic Frameworks come along every five years and they usually tinker at the edges of a system that has remained mostly unchanged since the Fund was established in the mid-1990s. This one is different. This is the work of an organisation that seems more comfortable with the de facto leadership it enjoys as the sector’s principal funder. It is shaping an incentive structure which could propel the whole heritage sector into a more prominent, relevant and contemporary role in today’s economy. That’s an exciting opportunity for applicants that choose to take it.