What I learnt from my placement at HLF

I’ve learnt a lot – not least that folk in the heritage sector are amongst the finest there are, that large national organisations move slowly (and I’m impatient) and that there’s just not enough money to go round….

As part of the Clore Fellowship, you undertake a placement in a cultural organisation very different from your usual working environment. So, what might I learn from the Heritage Lottery Fund; a UK-wide organisation and funder, committed to supporting, advocating and driving forwards the heritage sector? With a new-ish CEO and based within a strategic team considering its priorities for a new framework for the coming years (and in the midst of a Tailored Review), it seemed a fascinating time to find out. Time to seek a larger perspective, above and beyond the museum sector I call home.

There is no doubt that HLF has changed the cultural and heritage landscape in my generation, for the better. I have only ever met committed, engaged and knowledgeable staff and as an organisation, it promotes values I share and hold dear;

“from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks we love, from precious memories to rare wildlife….we use money raised by National Lottery players to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about”

It is the largest dedicated funder of heritage in the UK, with over £7.7billion awarded to over 42,000 projects since 1994.   But, like many other cultural organisations and funders, HLF does not engage with and reach as widely as it could or should. Widening access, entitlement and equity within the cultural and heritage sectors has been a motivating factor in my placement, research and throughout my Clore Fellowship.

So, for four months, I led an inquiry to explore how HLF might change their funding approach to support communities to catalyse new heritage activity. (Some of my study visits are covered in previous blogposts). I split my time between the strategic team (London) and HLF North West team (Manchester), but mostly I’ve been on the road meeting people and seeing stuff.   I’ve not done an exhaustive study and I’m no consultant. As a Clore Fellow on placemement, rather than a member of staff, I’ve had a licence to do things differently. I’ve been listening to those leading change, unearthing and distilling new insights, ideas and perspectives from within communities and beyond the heritage sector.

I shared headline findings as a provocation to HLF’s Board (aboard SS Great Britain!) and I’ve just completed a final report. In September, I’ll share this and the propositions for change that have emerged more widely.  In the meantime, I’d like to thank the Heritage Lottery Fund and particularly Karen Brookfield, Judy Cligman, Nathan Lee, Ros Kerlake and Sir Peter Luff for their welcome, support and encouragement (to stir things up).

Here’s my top 10 learning points;

1  The power of resisting definition

2 Heritage is about the future 

3 Spend more time outdoors

4 Keep it local

5 Lets talk more about love and care (and less about saving stuff)

6  Keeping it simple isn’t easy

7  Find and support “powerhouse people”

8   The challenge of ‘projects’

9  There’s just not enough money

10  And its not easy giving away the money there is..


1  The power of resisting definition

When the Heritage Lottery Fund was conceived, there was no definition of the word ‘heritage’. The first Trustees discussed the question of how the national heritage could be defined,

“We decided that [the question] was unanswerable; we could no more define the national heritage than we could define, say, beauty or art… So we let the national heritage define itself. We awaited requests for assistance from those who believed they had a part of the national heritage worth saving” (NHMF Annual Report 1980-81.2)

This became a founding principle (and a politically astute one at that) that still holds true today,

“Over the years we have resisted offering a definition of heritage, and will continue to challenge others to tell us what is important to them” (Liz Forgan, HLF SP2.19)

2 Heritage is about the future

During my placement, I’ve met lots of new people and visited new places. My opening question is usually ‘what do you really care about, here and now?’ It’s a question that gets to the heart of the matter and, if like me, you believe heritage is the story of us and as much about the future as past, it seems the right place to start.

In Hackney, heritage was described to me as “the glue”, “the mortar between the blocks” that “reminds communities of who they are, the values they share and the future they might collectively build”.

As someone who has, throughout my professional life, worked hard to engage communities with ‘art’ and ‘culture’, it strikes me that in comparison, the word ‘heritage’ is much more readily accepted, understood and liked (helped, in part, by HLF’s definition of heritage as what is meaningful to you). Time to talk about heritage more, not less. People spoke to me about the possibilities and opportunities for their communities and how a more complex understanding of their past and place informs and encourages their vision.

As Matthew Taylor from RSA once put it, “the question is whether the heritage sector can raise its sights from the day to day grind of protecting old stuff” How we, as a sector, engage in conversations about the future and might play a critical role in broadening the civic and cultural imagination will increasingly be my focus moving forwards.


3 Spend more time outdoors

As someone who has spent most of my working life in museums (though spends most of my private life outdoors), I’ve made the most of the opportunity to visit parks, landscapes and natural heritage. Some of the most valued and inspiring work I’ve seen has been in landscapes; coastlines, moors, forests, parks and yet more parks.

I think we have much to learn from the environmental sector and natural world. It’s led me to start working with the Forestry Commission as Project Advisor helping shape the future of Grizedale Forest, plan a forthcoming trip to Yosemite, co-produce a publication on museums and parks (2018) and reminded me of the value and joy of spending more time in the great outdoors. How an organisation like HLF, responsible for supporting and nurturing natural heritage, enables its staff to step away from the desk and get out and see more of the great outdoors, is an ongoing but important challenge. It’s good to get out, never time wasted.

4 Keep it local

‘Focus on the local’, interviewees said, time and again.

“The focus should be hyper-local, at block or street level.  Start small, build belief and capacity”.

One size does not fit all. Good. Be adaptable, respond to place. Be involved in decision making, creating relevance and building confidence.”

Local is a tricky concept for a national organisation. How regional teams respond to their regions and what constitutes ‘local’ in the Highlands as opposed to our inner cities varies wildly. And devolution shows little sign of slowing down. (In addition to varying forms of long-standing devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there has recently been a spate of devolution agreements with cities and regions across the UK, including Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands). Amongst other national funders, there is an increased commitment to and interest in place-based investment and localised decision making. Great Places has started to address this but now is the time for new and ambitious thinking at HLF about ‘localism’ and place-based funding.

5 Lets talk more about love and care (and less about saving stuff)

The value of heritage in supporting wellbeing came up time and again, though framed in a narrative of empathy and care rather than health determinants or provision.   One of the participants at Womens Community Matters at Barrow in Furness, expressed it beautifully,

“We build on love, on faith, on meeting of minds, A bundle of hope, creativity and rhymes”.

Many of the community-based organisations I met spoke about how important a sense of heritage and identity was for their clients and town and how heritage could encourage care, kindness, compassion and love.

“People want emotional connections, not civic commemorations”

Its time to make room for real words and feelings.

6 Keeping it simple isn’t easy

HLF is a highly process-driven organisation. Energy goes into managing the risk and processes and there is real expertise in this area within the organisation. However, there was consensus among interviewees and staff that it had all grown too complicated. Simplification should be (and is) a priority. Its not easy. Italian artist, designer and inventor Bruno Minari has it right I think – “to complicate is simple, to simplify is complicated”.

I know, from my conversations and working with development teams, there is real commitment to building relationships and a sense that this is what is needed to be more inclusive and reach new people. However the more systems and processes, the more divided you become from the people applying. This speaks to a wider concern, regularly expressed to me, that HLF should become more relational (and less transactional) in its approach. The current review of processes and plans for the future will, I am hopeful, create space for this shift and thinking.

7 Find and support “powerhouse people”

Mavericks, champions, visionaries, activists, “powerhouse people”, the ones who drive things forwards – we all know them in our organisations, communities, lives.  How HLF might seek and support them formed a cornerstone of my placement. I was encouraged to think about reaching ‘beyond the usual suspects’ and consider how HLF could engage and work with them. This ranged from exploring how they might fund individuals and their ideas (even if not fully formed) to exploring different forms of public knowledge and wisdom,

How to take account of the expertise of those like elderly botanist Margaret Bradshaw, with her long-held knowledge of plantlife in upper Teesdale? We need to broaden our notion of what expertise is.” (Ewan Allinson, Heart of Tessdale Landscape Partnership).

Beyond HLF, in the wider sector, there’s an opportunity to create new forms of debate, to bridge the authority gap. ‘Community expertise’ could and should be mobilised and given authority. Maddi Nicholson from Artgene and Coastal Communities in Cumbria, explained why this matters so much.

These folk are the stuff of change. But pride of place has been knocked out of people. Essentially, we’re in a civil war. Let heritage be the flagbearer for how communities like ours are empowered.

 8   The challenge of ‘projects’

“The work is never done but the project funding is over”

HLF is accountable to Parliament via the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). It’s what’s called an “arms-length public body” (though the length of that arm varies). It is constituted as a project funder by Policy Directions from UK Government. At present, HLF chooses to interpret ‘projects’ as work within time-limited frame (maximum 5 years) and at a range of different levels and scales.

The ongoing debate about investment in parks highlights the challenge of this approach. HLF has invested in parks for over 20 years. In recent years, in light of the absence of a leading voice for parks, it has stepped up to convene and lead debate about the future and state of UK parks. But it is not able to fund revenue and instead supports a wide range of transformational projects and supports new thinking about operating and business models for parks. As Dave Morris, Chair of National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces summarises;

“Those seeking alternatives to a statutory duty have recognised there’s no silver bullet available, in fact there’s not even a wooden bullet.  Recent governments have been causing the current under-funding crisis and park lovers need to put a rocket under the government.  They big up the Lottery funding but this is just taxation in reverse, with the poor punters being used to subsidise the government and its tax cuts for the rich.  The recommendations in the recent Parliamentary Select Committee Report do not go far enough.  Yes, the report set out the situation and challenges well, but, for me, its recommendations ran pitifully short of what is needed. Parks should simply be recognised as a statutory service and be backed by adequate public funding.  There are ways to find the money.  Its about political will.”

Dave Morris does not doubt HLF’s commitment to parks, nor its ability to convene and mobilise a disparate sector. He values HLF staff and support. But, rightly, he highlights the limitations of their remit and the complexity and challenges of public funding and political decision-making. For many projects, there are limited or no other options. HLF is the only game in town.

And of course, this sits within the broader context of austerity and the decline of community infrastructure. For over a decade, there have been ongoing cuts to public services. The impact of this was raised by every single community leader and organisation I interviewed.

“There are no longer housing offices, the role of the church in public life is diminishing, the closure of post offices, collapse of the high street, growth of online services, all of this is about community infrastructure being stripped back. Heritage is about people’s connections to places and each other and this is needed now more than ever”

My conversations have often focused on generational change and impact and, not for the first time, I’ve been conscious of the gap between funding (usually aligned to electoral cycles) and practice.   So, how much flex is there to reinterpret “projects” in a time of austerity?

9 There’s just not enough money

HLF’s CEO Ros Kerslake recently spelt it out,

“Demand for our funding has never been higher. For this year’s “major batch” Board meeting, we received grant requests totalling £224m for an available budget of £40m.”

The focus of my enquiry has been on small amounts of money that make a big difference within communities. These are also oversubscribed but their impact and ‘value’ is significant and I hope that, moving forwards, there will be further opportunities for lower-level community-based investment. I’ve observed how the need to balance bigger flagship projects and smaller-scale work forms an ongoing and important debate about what HLF is for. There’s just not enough money to go round. Lottery takings are variable and with increased competition from other forms of Lottery, there is real nervousness that funds will decrease.

10 And its not easy giving away the money there is..

Making the right decisions and being transparent about that decision-making takes time, energy and a lot of debate. I’ve been so used to working my socks off to build a compelling case for investment (as grantee), I’d not fully considered the challenges and demands from a funders’ perspective. I’ve been impressed by the commitment and skill of HLF staff and the Board to invest Lottery money with a balance of care and ambition but as demand increasingly outstrips supply, austerity deepens and the civic infrastructure declines, the concept of need and what is ‘at risk’ is also changing. Its not going to get easier any time soon.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s