On a late autumn day very like this one 20 years ago the Big Lottery Fund (BLF), or the National Lottery Charities Board (NLCB) as it was then called, was about to make its first round of grants. The Board was advised by seven Regional Advisory Panels (RAPs). I chaired the London RAP. We had a staff of two. They had spent the weekend before our Panel meeting camped in my kitchen with one lumpy laptop and a small mountain of carrier bags full of application forms. It was, it would be fair to say, a rather less sophisticated operation than today's BLF.
The press were lottery mad at the time and the smallest story made the news. Speculation, and subsequent confirmation, that we intended to fund local community groups, including those that worked with single parents, refugees, even gay people (!) flabbergasted the Fleet Street establishment who thought every penny should go to Cancer Research. David Mellor, the responsible minister, shared in the apoplexy of the moment and even Prime Minister John Major chipped in from time to time. To his great credit, the chair of the national Board Sir David Sieff, a former Conservative Party chairman and no left wing patsy, stood firm in his brave and resolute support for the recommendations of the Regional Panels and gradually the independent judgement of the NLCB was asserted, established and ultimately vindicated. There is no community in the UK that has not benefitted many times over from David's determination, continued by his predecessors, to make decisions independently and to meet the needs of the whole community without fear or favour. Indeed it is also fair to say, no community that hasn't benefitted from the foresight of a Conservative government that wrestled with the temptation to interfere. And didn't.
Now the Big Lottery Fund is threaded deep into the weave of our national life, underpinning tiny community groups and major national charities with grants ranging from £300 to over half a million. Speak to volunteers and staff at the village community centre or the urban youth club, the national advice line or the residential home, and hear how the Fund is tacking disadvantage, creating opportunities, improving lives day in day out. It distributes more each year than Comic Relief and Children in Need, added together, raise in three years and is, far and away, the biggest independent funder of a voluntary and community sector that is admired across the world.
Gone are the lumpy laptops and the Tesco bags. Now BLF is a highly experienced, smart grantmaker leading much of the thinking in the sector and widely respected. Getting a grant isn't an easy process. It is fair, thorough and utterly professional and as local authority budgets dwindle and pressure mounts on independent philanthropists the Fund has never been more important.
This is why the rumours in recent days that the Chancellors Spending Review next week will take 48 percent from BLF fills me with despair. It is likely that such a cut would leave the Fund unable to pay for anything beyond its existing commitments for the foreseeable future. This wouldn't be a blow to the administration of a quango in SW1 - it would strike at the beating heart of our communities in every post code throughout the country.
Is there truth to the rumour? My soundings suggest that there is, although of course no one who knows is in a position to talk and no one who talks, at least to me, is in a position to know. Certainly 48%is oddly precise for a baseless fiction and surely a bigger percentage than the gloomy fantasists might ever have imagined possible. Possibly the exaggerated figure emanates from the Chancellor's own circle. It's a familiar stunt - float the idea of 48% and then, hey presto, a 20% cut, a previously unimaginable figure, suddenly seems like a blessed relief.
If it were to happen it would probably be presented as a diversion of money not a cut: redirecting lottery funds into replacing a mainstream government programme. Be in no doubt, such a diversion would be a cut with a false beard and this would be a dangerous ruse. It is not an exaggeration but a fact to say that every constituency of every party colour benefits from the Big Lottery Fund. One senior Tory told me yesterday that he will be "watching like a hawk for any manoeuvres to reshape what BLF funds." "It can't" he said "be used to substitute government funding".
George Osborne isn't the first politician to covert the lottery millions. Rumours have circulated regularly, some well evidenced, but in the end no more than rumours. The Chancellor must understand, as have his predecessors, the unique and irreplaceable valuable of a substantial fund that meets need and unleashes potential in communities throughout the UK. The Big Lottery Fund is at the heart of our common wealth. It is not your money, Mr Osborne.