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A fine heritage

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Carole Souter is the unapologetic director of the Heritage Lottery Fund, who is seeking to beat its drum and widen the public's perception of its work There is a temptation to view all Lottery distributing bodies as do-gooders: philanthropic cash fairies, tethered by overly bureaucratic rules and boasting transparent constitutions for the benefit of National Audit Office inspectors rather than the public.

But there is another, less cynical school of thought, too. These are people with tricky jobs, balancing need, worthiness and quality against a public which views the money it grants as far more its property than the rather more 'invisible' sums raised by general taxation.

Carole Souter, director of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), is clearly aware of both sides of the equation. She does call Lottery cash 'public money' throughout our interview, but believes there is a way to go to convince the whole public - not just Lottery players - that this is not the same institution which gave £15 million to the Churchill Papers in 1995 to a general uproar she maintains was ill-founded. 'That was not a mistake - for the papers of one of the foremost figures of the 20th century to have gone to a US university would have been a disaster, ' she says.

'We are a grant-making organisation - that is what we are here for, we don't have a strategic policy role, ' she adds. 'But I would like to see a greater recognition from the public and we do need to reinforce to people the range of things that are heritage. It's quite a big task.'

Born and raised in Cornwall 46 years ago, Souter studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford before doing an appropriate-sounding Victorian studies course at Birkbeck College in London. She then worked at the Department of Health on policy issues, before a two-and-a-half year stint at English Heritage as director of regional operations, in charge of nine teams across the country. But when she saw the advertisement for her current job, it was 'too good an opportunity to miss'.

She describes herself as a 'serial joiner' of bodies like the National Trust, but for someone who directs about £300 million of grants every year, she has no design training, bar an interest in heritage buildings installed in her from a young age by her family.

Where do architects fit into the picture at the HLF? Souter smiles, before patiently describing how the grant system works. The fund employs a series of 'experts', including architects, who monitor applications, but there is certainly no house style.After all, this organisation has given money to Foster's Duxford Air Museum and the British Museum, as well as Stanton Williams' Whitby Abbey project and Cullinan's Downland Gridshell.

'We are certainly not trying to impose an HLF view, ' she says. 'We will always look for the appropriate quality of experience with each project - if we're looking at a modest building we won't necessarily be looking to see a big name architect. But if we are looking at a major application, a major intervention in the historic fabric or new build, we will be taking careful and good quality advice and input.'

It is all very well being publicly accountable - the HLF frequently justifies awards by citing jobs created or other economic indicators - but, sometimes, adds Souter refreshingly, the fund give grants simply because the scheme is 'beautiful'.

It is untrue, however, that the HLF only gives money for conservation schemes that employ architects listed on the Register of Architects Accredited in Building Conservation. The HLF concedes that that rule does apply with the Repair Grants for Joint Places of Worship 2002-2005 regime it runs with English Heritage, but Souter feels knowledge of history is no bar to creativity.

The Lottery is approaching its 10th birthday and the first mini-failures are trickling through, such as the National Botanic Garden of Wales and, further back, Branson Coates' Sheffield pop museum, not to mention the Millennium Dome. But Souter feels it has been 'tremendous', with no areas untouched by its magic finger. Getting the cash, though, is no formality.

'We do ask questions. If people come with business plans which don't stack up we say fisorry, it's not going to survivefl.We're really proud of the fact that we haven't had a major project which has failed.'

Souter's ongoing task at the HLF is to put 'flags' in the spaces on her UK map where it has not yet supported projects. Her staff are under orders to try to solicit applications from 'cold-spots' by holding 'surgeries', often in rural locations where the locals rarely have a tradition of applying for grants, where heritage is 'for other people'.

Recently, the HLF held a 'citizen's jury' (the language is typical of the institution), where it quizzed the public on this theme.

'There was an incredibly strong sense of place, and pride in belonging to a place, ' Souter says. 'And there was tremendous excitement about their ideas of heritage and enthusiasm to be involved.'

People did not realise that the HLF supports not only museums, galleries and artworks but also things like oral histories - Souter gives 'dialects, historic motorcycles and miners' banners' as real examples of grants which risk the accusation of being 'PC gone mad'. Funding fairs are held to get this message of 'heritage' across.

The HLF works on a rolling seven-year programme, which is up in 2009, when it may mutate into a different good cause, perhaps with a new operator to replace Camelot. Souter hopes that, by then, there will be greater confidence in talking about heritage, and believes that TV programmes like the BBC's Restoration help to achieve this. The series pulled in a peak audience of 3.4 million viewers and raised £3.4 million (£3 million of it from the HLF), and even the 'losers' benefited through exposure.

Ultimately, the HLF appears to be in good, steady, reliable hands, with a director who keeps in touch with the public she serves. She even plays the numbers game herself, every week. Has she won? 'Oh no, ' she says. 'Well, maybe just the odd £10.'

Good job. Perhaps 'Lottery chief scoops Lottery millions' may not quite be the kind of headline the HLF wants to see next.

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