Lib Dem Lords’ maiden speeches: Alan Beith on the National Lottery

EuroMillions ticketsThis week, we are catching up with our new Lib Dem peers’ maiden speeches. Today, it’s Alan Beith on the National Lottery.

The noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, was very kind and generous in his references to me and to the circumstances of my election, 42 years ago. It was with a majority of only 57 votes. I never imagined that I would manage such a long political survival, still less that I would find myself in this haven of political survival, the House of Lords. But I believe in the need for a Second Chamber and it will be an honour to serve in it, just as it was an honour to represent in the other House the beautiful Berwick-upon-Tweed constituency, covering 1,000 square miles of Northumberland.

I am very grateful for the warm and friendly welcome I have received in this House from noble Lords and the very helpful staff. I am delighted to renew so many friendships with those on all sides of this Chamber whom I have worked with, taken evidence from or contended with in years gone by. As I seek to follow the slightly different ways of doing things at this end of the building, I have been allocated a widely respected mentor and guide who knows exactly how to keep me in order: the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, has been doing that ever since I married her.

I hope to be able to contribute to some of your Lordships’ deliberations on matters which engaged me as a committee chair and committee member in the other House—the justice system, for example, and the oversight of intelligence agencies, as well as issues of concern to the north-east of England. As someone who has always stressed within my own party the importance of political philosophy as a benchmark for policy and action, I may take the occasional opportunity to say why the fundamental principles of liberalism remain vital to our country’s future—but that is for another day.

Turning to today’s debate, I welcome the recognition that the Motion gives to the massive benefits National Lottery funding has brought to so many aspects of life. Others have dealt with sports funding, arts funding and the Big Lottery Fund. I want to refer, as the right reverend Prelate did, to the Heritage Lottery Fund. In doing so, I draw attention to my registered interests in voluntary roles as president of the North of England Civic Trust and president, previously chairman, of the Historic Chapels Trust. Both these bodies have used Heritage Lottery grants to restore and reopen buildings which would otherwise have been lost to the community.

The Historic Chapels Trust has rescued 20 disused places of worship of denominations other than the Church of England, which has its own Churches Conservation Trust. From a tiny Methodist chapel in the Cornish village of Penrose to a magnificent Gothic Unitarian church in Todmorden and a Catholic chapel inside a medieval pele tower at Biddlestone in Northumberland, the trust has restored buildings to communities that feared they would be for ever lost.

I have had few more rewarding moments in my voluntary work than the day we reopened the partially restored, massive Bethesda Methodist Chapel in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. It had been boarded up and unsafe for 20 years, and in one afternoon, 1,000 people came through the doors, many of them clutching photographs of family weddings and christenings which had taken place in the building. This was possible because of HLF support, alongside local community effort. Similarly, in the heart of a deprived area of Sunderland, the North of England Civic Trust restored and opened up the Exchange Buildings, in which a diverse range of activities were able to take place. It was saved from demolition with a £2.7 million HLF grant.

HLF funding does not merely bring buildings back to life. It helps to regenerate areas. It helps to create employment and promote vital skills: the North of England Civic Trust’s heritage engineering programme, funded by HLF, created 38 bursaries, most of whose participants now have jobs in engineering. I find HLF a decentralised and friendly organisation, willing to maintain contact through the often challenging stages of a project and ready to commit at an early stage—a point that the right reverend Prelate mentioned—rather than wait in the wings. That means that projects can sometimes get off the ground because of that HLF commitment.

I have two suggestions for HLF. One is that it look again at its regional distribution of funds. Because budgets are on a per head basis, the north-east budget is one of the smallest, but the region has a disproportionately high number of historic buildings and buildings on the at-risk list. Secondly, all the grant-giving bodies and the DCMS itself need to recognise the financial sustainability problem for bodies like the Historic Chapels Trust, most of whose buildings are in its care because they are so special that it would be unacceptable to convert or alter them. Some of them, therefore, have very limited potential to create an income stream.

But alongside these suggestions I want to make it clear that funding through HLF has sustained and enhanced the character of many of our towns and villages. It has opened people’s eyes to the value of the built heritage and has made locations available for community activities. It has reached the parts that taxpayer funding would not have reached. It is not there to replace public funding but to achieve things which would never have survived the budget battles of Whitehall in a time of austerity. The Heritage Lottery Fund and the other lottery funds deserve these 21st birthday greetings.

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One Comment

  • Clive Peaple 17th Jan '16 - 9:25am

    A characteristically statesmanlike speech signalling great potential to serve the country – again.

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