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redefining our heritage

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Liz Forgan is breathing new life into the Heritage Lottery Fund, bringing a no-nonsense approach to effective grant-giving and an enlarged definition of just what constitutes the heritage of the UK

Liz Forgan looks me straight in the eye just before we shake hands, post-interview: 'Don't make us sound nutty or PC.'

It's patently a deep-seated concern to this amiable and clear-thinking chairman of the Heritage Lottery Fund - one of the current 'good causes' dispensing cash to projects around the UK.

After a career in newspapers, TV and radio, 58-year-old Forgan is grappling with getting the public to eschew their natural prejudices. She is striving to broaden the definition of heritage, away from the preserve of white, wealthy, middle classes into areas like oral history, parks, poetry, wildernesses. And to bring to an end a period when newspaper columnists like Jeremy Clarkson add sneery quotation marks around the word 'heritage', as if the concept is a half-baked, theme park idea of made-up Britain.

Forgan began her career in Tehran. In 1968-69 she was the arts correspondent on the Tehran Journal, having taken time off in Rome to look at the Sistine Chapel, that kind of thing. Her father worked for an oil company there and, not unfairly, requested that, having paid for an expensive education for his daughter, perhaps she should work her way. 'The editor was an Englishman who had escaped from the Daily Express, ' recalls Forgan. 'I asked him: fiCan I have a job? flHe replied: fiCan you spell? fl' Forgan replied that of course she could:

she had a degree, for heaven's sake. So she was asked to spell Verwoerd - the surname of the recently assassinated South African prime minister, Hendrik - and became arts editor, only slightly flabbergasted at this unusual recruitment process. But a testament to Forgan's level-headedness was her response to the position, persuading local artists to help her out.

It was during this spell that her interest in the built environment was ignited, since Forgan's beat included architecture. But it was probably much later, when she became chair of the Churches Conservation Trust and trustee of the Phoenix Trust that she became passionate about buildings and what they represent in social and regenerational terms.

In between, she returned to Britain to work on the Hampstead and Highgate Express - living in a £5 per week attic above Hampstead High Street with three actresses - London's Evening Standard and, for four years, was woman's editor for the Guardian.

Another unlikely recruitment process brought her to Channel 4 to become director of programmes for its launch.

'Sir Jeremy Isaacs offered me the job despite my not knowing anything about television at all. I hated TV, like all writing journalists - it just mucks up the landscape and mangles stories.' Later, John Birt popped up to ask her to move over to radio as managing director of BBC Radio. But Forgan fell out with the Birtian proposal to move radio away from Portland Place. 'I resigned, which is something not very many people do from the BBC.'

That was two years ago when, at 56, she was in the enviable financial position of not desperately needing a job. She resolved to take an offer only if it was 'irresistible'. That's how she arrived at the HLF, which has now pumped £2 billion into sprucing up the UK.

'Through the years, ' says Forgan, 'the HLF has refused to define heritage in terms of a laundry list. I say, fiwhat is the value for people from this? fl and our latest strategic plan makes it clear.'

Forgan tries to convey this approach in an anecdote. The HLF decided to hold a session about heritage with mainly AfroCaribbean and Indian schoolkids from Newham, east London, who were amazed to be asked in the first place. What did they know about heritage? What evidence was there of it in their backyard? 'They were incredulous, saying, fiwe live in Newham, we've got no heritagefl, ' she recalls.

Persevering, HLF staff showed videos of the kind of work they did and footage of a Boticelli it bought for the National Galleries of Scotland. 'They couldn't believe how much we spent. But then we talked about their lives - and after about three hours we had a flipchart showing how half their grandparents came over on the Empire Windrush from the Caribbean. But they never thought about that as heritage.'

Similarly, a Victorian hospital nearby proved to be the birthplace of many in the room. Now empty and derelict, it too became the subject of curiosity for the kids and again the idea of heritage was informed by local knowledge. 'The idea of heritage being something that belongs to middleclass rich whites is a limiting one, ' she says, claiming that the best kind of heritage arrangement could be reciprocal. Historians may sneer, but she doesn't care.

The HLF grants around £300 million a year, reactively, but subject to fluctuations in lottery game playing, currently in slow decline. It'll have to prove its worth before 2009, when the Government may decide that other 'good causes' deserve priority.

So Forgan has tried to introduce a clearer, easier system of applying for grants in what can be a dizzyingly difficult process. First, she's devolved decision-making on some of the smaller grants to the regions of the UK.

She's relaxed the criteria for sub-£50,000 awards - the process is now 'violently simplified'. Schemes of less than £1 million get looked at in their local regions, because, Forgan stresses, they know their local contexts better. There's even cash to help applicants make an application for money.

Forgan admits she is not in a position to judge the architectural merits of those that come forward, but they do take advice from English Heritage, architects and landscape specialists. And she certainly isn't keen on an overriding stylistic debate - what's important is to 'reconnect communities to their roots'. 'I hate the war about modern or traditional - why should I have to choose between Pugin and Piano? Why can't I like it all?'

Forgan's favourite schemes include the Manchester Art Gallery: 'I admire it because it's respectful but not obsequious.' And Tate Britain: 'It's unobtrusive but so elegant. It has real aesthetic character and presence in its own right.' She is pro-Spiral, the Libeskind proposal for the V&A, though she says she cannot claim to judge how the space might be fit for purpose. And she still has a soft spot for churches.

Forgan's mission has been to 'reconnect' the public, through grants to worthy schemes, to their past. She is passionate about heritage meaning something real to local people, and about persuading them that they are part of it, not excluded. If occasionally that means journalists applying sneering quote marks, then so be it: at least the issue is being discussed. And, for the record: she's neither nutty, nor PC.

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