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Preservation Standards: Some Aspects of the Impact of the National Lottery

John Robinson


Previous speakers at this lectern, and at earlier conferences in this series, will already have told you something of the U.K.'s National Historic Ships Committee, established in 1992 to "co-ordinate the preservation of historic ships throughout the United Kingdom, with a view to making the best use of resources of money, manpower and facilities". Five years have elapsed since the Committee bravely, and apprehensively, set out its stall with this implied challenge to the hitherto free-market situation under which each group of adherents to a particular preservation project concocted their own recipe for financial survival. One reason for the establishment of the N.H.S.C. was the palpable success of many of these locally-inspired preservation schemes giving the impression to outsiders that the business of ship-preservation is less of a back- and heart-breaking business than we know it to be.

Happily, this ferment of spontaneous enthusiasm for ship preservation continues. Latterly, it has been tempered by a growing realisation of the enormous, and ultimately unavoidable, costs of keeping an historic ship and of complying with legal requirements for public access and, where appropriate, use at sea. A proportion of the preservation schemes launched with bright-eyed enthusiasm in the 1970s and 1980s have had to admit defeat in the more recessionary climate of the 1990s. Their difficulties are a painful reminder that we in the United Kingdom have more schemes to preserve old ships than we have resources to support them.

The biggest single change, whether measured over the past five or fifty years, has undoubtedly been the arrival of the National Lottery. A proportion of its proceeds is raked off for philanthropic purposes, and administered by five separate stewardship authorities, dealing respectively with Arts, Charities, Heritage, Millennium and Sports projects. Reporting in January 1997, after less than two years in operation, the Heritage Lottery Fund had already made 605 grants totalling more than $U.S. 596 million. This represents only about 10% of the total sums requested during that initial period by applicants from the heritage sector. Of the 605 grants made, the largest group went to museum projects, totalling more than $282 million. The grants offered for industrial and maritime projects have totalled more than $64m.

Desk Officers within the H.L.F. Secretariat are generally required to consult external specialists before framing their recommendations to their Trustees on particular applications. Although nominated for a principal consultative role within this system, the N.H.S.C. resolved at an early date that it should await completion of the three studies it had commissioned from the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies, previously described by Dr. Robert Prescott; the principal requirements for these studies was to enhance objectivity and consistency in making recommendations on grant-aid for ship-preservation, and the Committee was anxious not to be drawn into making one-off recommendations which would pre-empt the findings of the studies then still in progress.

Since Robert Prescott and his team presented their findings at a symposium at the National Maritime Museum in November 1996, the N.H.S.C. has been better-equipped to achieve these high standards of objectivity and consistency that are so important if its recommendations on grant-aid are to stand up to public scrutiny and occasionally to the derision of disappointed applicants. The statistic from the Heritage Lottery Fund that its available funds are in general over-subscribed ten-fold should not suggest to you that referees have been recommending acceptance of only 10% of the schemes referred to them; a substantial proportion of applications have to be weeded out by the H.L.F. Secretariat as ineligible, well before the stage of seeking a specialist external opinion.

Some general observations emerge from this admittedly small tally of twenty-two applications referred to the Heritage Lottery Fund for comment by the N.H.S.C. I hope you will find it useful if I summarise these, without attributing them to particular projects. Most of them will be as familiar as topmarks on buoys, to anyone from whatever country who has been involved for any length of time with trying to restore old ships and interpret them to the public. One of the most persistent visions that hovers, like the aurora borealis, just within visible range of some fund-raisers is the notion that, if they spend enough money on an initial restoration, using the best possible materials and techniques, their vessel can then look forward to an indefinite period free of further maintenance expenditure. This, as we all know, is not the case, and it is sometimes difficult to convince applicants that revenue funds must be set aside to deal periodically with the inevitable decay and deterioration that afflicts any ship, however comprehensive was its last refit.

One expedient, regularly proposed by grant applicants, for generating such a revenue stream is to use a preserved vessel for educational cruises or, more specifically, sail training. Such activities have undoubtedly been the means of saving many large square-riggers and steam- and sailing-coasters, particularly in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. The rigorous requirements of national Marine Safety Agencies, however, mean that it is increasingly difficult for smaller vessels such as sailing pilot cutters to comply with the safety regulations enacted to safeguard the lives of inexperienced trainees at sea. The cockpit of a gaff-rigged Bristol Channel pilot cutter, for instance, was designed with the comfort of two, and occasionally three, occupants in mind. Such vessels, between 35 and 45 ft long on the waterline, were flush-decked, with no guard-rails such as might make transfer of a pilot to or from a merchant ship more hazardous. Trainees not actually under instruction in the cockpit would probably have to remain below decks if such a vessel were to be operated for sail-training in conformity with safety regulations. Various other examples spring to mind of smaller vessels which depended on the agility and familiarity of experienced sailors for their safe operations; to adapt such vessels for taking groups of trainees to sea is likely to require so many alterations to their deck and accommodation layout as to make their working origins virtually indiscernible.

As the Lottery distributors build on their experience of grant-giving and ask ever-more searching questions of their applicants, the latter rely to some extent on paid professional help when completing their applications. The calibre of such help is variable; sadly, some applicants will have wasted substantial sums in paying fees to one or other of the various consultancies set up specifically to help prepare applications for Lottery grants, not all of which are competent.

Such applicants may feel aggrieved when their application eventually has to be declined for some reason, perhaps unconnected with the input provided by the consultant. Those applicants who are disappointed after having submitted a particularly lavish or elaborate application may feel that they have been duped; but it would be a mistake for the Lottery distributors to encourage the notion that a glossy presentation increases the likelihood of success in getting a grant. Specialist referees naturally favour brevity when reviewing a grant-application, and as a means towards more efficient paper-handling, the N.H.S.C. accepted an invitation last year to provide the Heritage Lottery Fund with a list of questions tailored to ship-preservation applications. We hope that a version of this will be included in future H.L.F. documentation sent to applicants.

It would be arrogant and erroneous to create the impression that the Lottery distributors, or their specialist referees, have an unblemished record of perceptions and efficiency in handling grant applications. More than one applicant has been heard to point out that much time and expenditure could have been saved on both sides if the answers supplied in his original application had been properly noted. One applicant for an historic buildings grant was understandably annoyed when a group of H.L.F. assessors arrived in some style to visit his project, asked about the length of his tenure, and departed forthwith on learning that it was only ten years, a fact willingly supplied in his initial application!

Projects to recover vessels that have lain under water for many years can be particularly problematic. In only a small minority of cases are they under an immediate threat of destruction (perhaps from bridge-building, embankment or other civil engineering works) despite what applicants may claim to the contrary. In general, a sunken ship will have achieved its own physical equilibrium in a water-logged state. Returning it to the atmosphere will usually cause shrinkage or corrosion that will be catastrophic, unless the whole structure can be kept in a controlled environment as soon as it emerges from the water. You will all have your own examples of ships, perhaps located by sports divers, and raised with the best intentions of preserving and exhibiting them. Too often, no thought has been given to conservation needs until after they break surface, by which time it is usually too late to provide the optimal conditions for the drying process to be properly managed and controlled. Rivalry between diving clubs may deter grant applicants from submitting details of their proposals before the vessel is lifted, for fear that another group may steal their prize. The prospect of perhaps qualifying for a Lottery grant at a later date, after proper conservation facilities have been designed and assembled, can sometimes persuade such applicants to look ahead, beyond the dramatic moment of lifting an historic wreck to the surface. In such cases, the delay while a Lottery grant application is processed and further enquiries are addressed to the applicant, may help to prevent the premature raising of a sunken hulk and help to ensure that it will stand a better chance of survival when it is eventually lifted as part of a properly-managed conservation project.

During the property boom of the 1980s, developers were regularly involved in partnership schemes for the display of historic ships. As a general observation, I feel safe in saying that the majority of such schemes have not prospered. The vision of an historic ship or fleet as a visual focus adjacent to a residential or commercial development has added lustre to many an otherwise-undistinguished planning application. Some developers will have agreed to provide facilities in future years for the upkeep and overhaul of such ships but will have had to withdraw such undertakings as property values and rentals fell. Bearing in mind the regularity with which property portfolios change hands, and the ease with which undertakings to pay for the upkeep of old ships can be discarded in the course of such transfers, the H.L.F. is unlikely to accept any forecast of periodic subventions from property developers as a significant element in any business plan put together by a grant applicant.

Counselling for unsuccessful grant applicants has not yet established itself as one of the support activities that are springing up around our National Lottery. Anyone faced with despair when a Lottery grant application fails should perhaps take heart by opening the first or second edition of the International Register of Historic Ships. This lists more than 250 historic vessels preserved in the United Kingdom, all before the National Lottery was launched. This tally exceeds the number of active merchant ships now sailing under the British flag. With the number of Lottery-funded ship preservation projects hardly out of single figures, it would be short-sighted for any British grant applicant to assume that denial of a Lottery grant necessarily spells the end of his project. For anyone who needs to be convinced, listen to Andy King's account, in tomorrow's closing sessions of this Conference, of how the little steam tug Mayflower was rescued from dereliction, in a remarkable partnership between the Bristol City Council, local businessmen and volunteers and now steams regularly around Bristol docks, and further afield, as confidently as she did when launched in Bristol in 1861. When it comes to getting an old ship back together, money isn't everything, as I need hardly remind an audience as experienced in such matters as this one.

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