As fears grow that the Heritage Lottery Fund is spreading itself too thinly, we talk to its director about her plans to help with John Prescott’s Communities Plan.

When former prime minister John Major set up the Heritage Lottery Fund, observers hailed it as a great leap forward for British culture. The HLF, with its seemingly endless supply of ringfenced cash, would help to pay for the kind of great public buildings that Continental countries seemed to do with their eyes shut. It also came with a governmental promise that lottery funding would be additional to other state funding.

The HLF is due to celebrate its 10th birthday in November, and it has much to celebrate. It has invested £3bn in heritage and cultural schemes, and has been widely praised for the rigour of its selection process – none of the 15,000 projects that it has funded have turned into white elephants. Now the HLF wants to help with the government’s massive housebuilding programme.

Nevertheless, there are dissenting voices. Major’s HLF was formed specifically as a helping hand for the UK’s heritage industry; it was never intended to shoulder the government’s own responsibilities, which were to remain with English Heritage. But over the past few years, EH has had its funding cut, and some feel that the HLF is now being asked to take on more than it can or should.

The key issue is not so much overambition within the HLF as a more insidious assumption within the Treasury that core government funding can be withheld from mainstream heritage projects because the there is an alternative pot of cash.

John Gummer, the former environment secretary who was a cabinet member in 1994, is unhappy with the switch in emphasis. “The whole concept of the lottery was as an alternative to state funding,” he says. “We wanted to change Britain’s very poor tradition of public investment in the arts, and it was very clear that the money was to be ringfenced, not a replacement for state funds. I’m afraid this government is filching it.”

George Ferguson, president of RIBA, agrees. “All in all, the Heritage Lottery Fund deserves to be celebrated,” he says. “But I have a concern about the funding of heritage. When John Major set the HLF up, he said it was supposed to be extra money. Now I suspect the government sees it as their pot of money for general public funding.”

Ferguson adds that the HLF is becoming less effective just as the demands on it are increasing. He says: “First, there’s less lottery money coming in. Second, it is stepping away from funding big capital projects. Third, its mere existence is having a diminishing effect on other heritage grants, such as EH’s.”

The effect of the public’s disenchantment with the lottery has been seen in the past year, when the HLF was unable to award more than £15m each to two noted projects – Daniel Libeskind’s extension to the Victoria & Albert Museum extension in London and the Brighton West Pier renovation.

Carole Souter, director of the HLF, says both projects lost out because the fund, which has four bidders for every pound that it spends, decided that there were worthier causes. “It was not to do with the nature of the design,” she says of the V&A. “It was because the building itself was such a big element of the project that it didn’t fit our criteria.”

The HLF decided that the V&A application rested on the quality of Libeskind’s design, rather than the project’s contribution to British heritage. But the very fact that it had to spike one of the country’s most high-profile projects suggested to some that the HLF had too much on its plate.

We've been going long enough to contribute more than money to a project - we can say what works and what doesn't work

Carole Souter, director, HLF

Souter says that the HLF’s strict criteria rule out funding new buildings. “You have a certain amount of money to commit and you have those projects that come forward in that batch,” she says. “If you haven’t got enough money to go around – and you never have – you’re weighing up which of the projects best meet the criteria on conserving, enhancing understanding, and improving access and education.”

The only snag is that most projects are now meeting the core requirements. This is where the HLF’s 14 trustees step in. Personally appointed by Tony Blair, each January and July they debate all of the projects valued at more than £5m. This July, it came down to a straight choice between the V&A and an upgrade to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Oxford got the nod.

Brighton’s West Pier has also been a loser. “We had had a commitment on the table for the West Pier for a long time,” says Souter. “But when they came back and asked for final approval, they were asking for a lot more money.”

The trustees took one look at the mouldering, wreck of the pier, one look at the ambitious plans of developer St Modwen, one look at their dwindling pile of money, and bolted back to London.

It would be unfair to blame the setbacks to these two projects on the HLF. However, Souter’s plan for the next 10 years may result in even slimmer resources being available in future.

The HLF wants to help to deliver John Prescott’s Communities Plan by becoming a key part of the planning process in areas such as the Thames Gateway. By consulting residents on the cultural issues that are important to them, it is seeking to produce the heritage component of new community design codes. To this end, Souter has been forging high-level contacts in the ODPM: there have been regular meetings with Andrew Wells, John Prescott’s head of sustainable communities, and ODPM ministers such as Yvette Cooper.

“I would like to build on our work of the past few years by sharing best practice between projects,” Souter says. “We’ve been going long enough to contribute a lot more than money to a project – we can say what works and what doesn’t work. I want us to be partners, not people who just turn up and hand over a big cheque.”

There is clearly advantages to be gained in adding the HLF’s expertise to the Communities Plan. But architect Piers Gough, who sits on the board of English Heritage, thinks the government is pulling a fast one by using lottery funding while reducing state hand-outs. “The HLF should be careful, or it will find its funds being spread more and more thinly,” he says, warning that it could end up as just another regeneration agency. “The question is: do they see themselves as judges of the future or of the past?”