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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Gambling with the lottery

By Norman Lebrecht / July 9, 2003

The notion that "the Lottery has made Britain a better place", as Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell averred last week, is about as viable as maintaining that Las Vegas was much improved by the legalisation of lap-dancing. In both cases, the blessing has been mixed.

On the one hand, it exposed striking new attractions and boosted general earnings from tourism and adult-oriented entertainments. On the other, it sowed moral confusion above a rash of social injustice.

Without the National Lottery, say its defenders, there would have been no Tate Modern (£66.2 million), no new Royal (£79 million) or English National (£27 million) opera houses, no Eden Project in Cornwall, no Baltic in Gateshead.

These are the lasting benefits that were instigated - or maybe just accelerated - by the Napoleonic vision of a pedestrian prime minister, John Major, and by the fathomless optimism of millions of lottery players.

But now that the boom is over and the rush of cash has dwindled to a steady stream, we need to integrate the diminished Lottery more healthily into the national fabric. For the Lottery awakened a green-eyed monster in the torpid English soul.

From the day the first cheques were dispensed, grass-rooters wailed that it was tilted towards metro-monumentalism, while red-top dailies shrieked that "our" lottery cash was being lavished on the "elitist" opera houses of the idle rich. Both charges are mythical and morally baseless. Those who buy lottery tickets, mostly of the urban working classes, have no more right to dictate what is done with their twice-weekly spend than a pub-drinker has over the brewery's investment portfolio.

Over seven years, fat and now lean, the spread of benefits both regionally and between good causes great and small has been relatively equitable. Certain cities (Bristol, notably) missed out; some counties (Cornwall, Tyne and Wear) gained more than their fair share. Discos got more grants than bowls clubs, other faiths more than Christianity. In time, it will level out.

Nevertheless, the myths of favouritism have seeped into the system to the point that politicians came to accept them. Both main parties - Tories first, then Tessa last week - have promised to give "local" people "real consultation" on how the profits are spent. This is a bad proposal, profoundly anti-democratic.

If lottery grants are thrown open to local voting, any well-organised minority group - fetishist, cabbalist or nakedly populist - can sway the outcome by massing members at key meetings. It is only a matter of time before a lap-dancing club gets a lottery award as a popular amenity. All local voting will do is allow politicians to dodge the consequences of decisions they were elected to make.

The rot in the National Lottery lies not in any lack of public accountability but in a surfeit of grey accountancy. To administer lottery grants, half-adozen bureaucracies were created or empowered. They include the Arts Council and Sports Council, the Community Fund and the New Opportunities Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Millennium Commission ( remember the Dome?) and more.

Before these tribunals can judge any project, it is subjected to stringent vetting at extortionate cost. For an orchestra to claim £5 million as a "stabilisation grant" from the Arts Council to wipe out accumulated debts, it has to spend £1 million on accountants, lawyers and ACEapproved "advisers" who match the request to current criteria.

When a submission is rejected, as occurs from time to time, the only ones to leave the room smiling are the lavishly remunerated assessors and advisers, who get to try, try and try again at limitless public expense.

Since lottery allocation is supposed to be independent, the right hand that gives the cash must pretend that it has no connection to the left which is meant to sustain the project.

So it was that Sheffield, renowned for snooker and steel, acquired a £15 million National Centre for Popular Music. It was opened in 2000, closed the following year for want of funds, had a £2 million relaunch in 2002 and was finally sold off five months ago to the local Students' Union for a paltry £1.85 million. That is 15 million lottery tickets washed down the drain.

Last week, Sune Nordgren, the Norwegian director of the £45.7 million Baltic, announced his departure, apparently because the Arts Council cannot provide a proper budget to run a gallery that it built with £33.4 million of lottery revenue. The Baltic, it is rumoured, may have to go part time.

Kendal, in the Lake District, was given a bijou new theatre with state-oftheart disability access backstage, but not enough capital to stay open most of the year. New Labour, by adding health and education to the five extant good causes, created more bureaucracy and attached more strings to grants. Some arts bodies stopped applying for lottery grants, deterred by the profusion of conditions on ethnic diversity and environmentalawareness programmes.

Others have been paralysed by gigantism. The South Bank was urged by the Arts Council to put in for a £175 million refit, only for its grand plans to be progressively reduced to a modest facelift for the Royal Festival Hall. Millions were burned on paperwork before a stone was steam cleaned.

The first lesson to be learned is that England is resistant to Napoleonic grands projets. Let there be no more eight-digit cheques. Lottery grants must be capped at £9.9 million.

Those lottery schemes which have indeed "made Britain a better place" are the ones which would have happened anyway, but where a modest application of lottery lubricant facilitated a triumphant resurgence.

Take the Royal Naval College at Greenwich. Wren's seminary has grown surplus to sea-going requirements. Two of its great courts are occupied by the University of Greenwich, the third by Trinity College of Music, which had outrun the lease on dingy Marylebone premises.

The Heritage Lottery Fund, the most far-sighted of the distributors, gave £4.5 million to convert the building for Trinity. That was last year. Now the area and its economy are abuzz with collegial activity.

Without additional public money, Trinity's director Gavin Henderson stepped in last week to rescue the debt-ridden Blackheath Concert Halls and restore them to nightly performance. Henderson is also about to announce a merger with the Laban Centre for Dance, newly installed in the area with a £12 million HLF grant. Two key conservatories have come together in a part of south-east London that needs a shot of adrenaline.

That is what the Lottery does best - making good ideas that bit better. Tessa Jowell must now act to end the huge grants, cut the red tape and reinvent the Lottery as an enabler of modest dreams.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001