Winning lottery funding is no longer the glittering prize it once was for architects. Recent cuts in capital project spending have halted many projects and left practices seriously out of pocket.
Stefan Behnisch, the German lead architect on Bristol's ill-fated, £58m lottery-funded Harbourside rejuvenation, has one simple request. He wants his money. His practice, Behnisch, Behnisch and Partner, is owed between £700 000 and £800 000 – almost 40% of its annual fee income – for its work on the avant-garde performing arts centre. This was the largest sum owed to any of the consultants working on the scheme when the Arts Council pulled the plug last July.

Disillusioned, Behnisch has already turned down the chance to work on another lottery project. "It's very simple," he says, "the lottery is an unreliable client."

This is a common sentiment, particularly now that bids for capital projects must compete for a reduced share of the lottery pie. Last year, the government shifted the emphasis from capital to revenue projects and set up a sixth "good cause" – the New Opportunities Fund – which is allocated 13.5% of net lottery income. This will rise to 33.5% when the Millennium Commission ceases to exist.

Applications up, allocation down

Figures from the main funding bodies show that money allocated to capital projects has been more than halved from £1.4bn in 1997 to £582m in 1998, yet applications are still on the increase.

Architects have other complaints: slow decision-making and misleading signals given by lottery funding bodies, and the heavy price they are now paying for taking on risky work in a more positive funding climate. Since funding was slashed last year, many schemes have had to be scaled down. Foot-in-the-door young practices who threw themselves into competition entries and feasibility studies at the expense of more mundane work are now struggling. In short, the optimism has gone out of the lottery.

The plight of Behnisch and the Bristol consultants is a cautionary tale. The team was appointed to work on Behnisch, Behnisch and Partner's competition-winning design for a performing arts centre. They understood that the client, the Harbourside Centre, would pay for design work up to and including detailed design. However, after working on stage D work for almost a year, the Arts Council suddenly announced the scheme would not, after all, get lottery funding.

It became clear too late that the client could not make any more payments, as it was a shell company with no assets that was created only to administer lottery funds for the scheme. Seven months on, the consultants have no idea when they will get paid for the stage D work. Behnisch, Buro Happold, Max Fordham Associates, Gleeds, Arup Project Management, and disabled access and acoustic consultants are negotiating with the Arts Council for their fees. Group legal action is a possibility.

Services engineer Max Fordham is angry: "The lottery is a government body, and what it did on Bristol was encourage a shell company, which was viable only if it had Arts Council support, to commit to a big project and fees."

The engineer has an outstanding bill for £170 000, which has caused staffing problems at the firm. "It's equivalent to a 10% salary bonus," explains Fordham, who has been unable to pay young graduates enough to keep them in the business. Two have left since the Harbourside débâcle. "I don't think they would have left if we'd been able to pay them the bonus," he says.

Buro Happold's Bristol experience has been equally off-putting. A Buro Happold team was working on detailed structural and virtual geometrical models of the scheme when the bad news came. The firm had been paid up to stage C, but, says chairman Michael Dixon, it still has "an outstanding bill for well over a six-figure sum". Dixon says the experience made him look again at lottery-funded jobs: "We've gone back to other projects and checked so this can't happen again."

A different kind of lottery

The Arts Council's about-turn on Bristol's funding was not the first time consultants working on feasibility studies or detailed designs have been taken by surprise. Lottery funding success is notoriously difficult to predict. Many schemes escaped the government guillotine last year only to be scaled down as a result of diminishing funds.

Sunand Prasad of Penoyre and Prasad says the practice's Wolverhampton Civic Hall scheme fell victim to capital spending cutbacks. After working on the detailed design for two concert halls, the scheme's £10.2m bid was rejected by the Arts Council last summer. The client is now looking for private funding, albeit at a reduced level.

Sheffield City Hall is another scheme on which Prasad had to reset his sights. "It was a magnificent scheme that needed a five-figure rather than a four-figure sum," he says of the bid that was postponed after the changes to funding rules last year. "The size of grants now doesn't make the lottery the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity it was," he says.

The size of grants now doesn’t make the lottery the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity it was

Sunand Prasad of architect Penoyre and Prasad

Feilden Clegg Design partner Andy Couling is in similar mood, despite the firm being one of the early lottery winners, scoring a big award for the Earth Centre in Sheffield. "The climate is very different now than when the lottery was first launched," he says. "Cash is a lot tighter and success rates are down. The £10m projects aren't there any more – awards tend to be £2m-3m."

A call for early decisions

Couling thinks funding authorities should give bidders an earlier indication of success or failure, as architects appointed to work on scheme design and feasibility studies can spend years helping clients put bids together. Rab Bennetts of Bennetts Associates is working on stage D design for Hampstead Theatre in north London. The practice has been involved with the project, which has been complicated by a public inquiry, for nearly five years.

Bennetts' worry is not that the practice will not get paid for its Hampstead work. It negotiated an up-front fee for its feasibility study and scheme design from the £900 000 funding awarded by the Arts Council. His fear is that, because of the cash squeeze, the bid may have missed the boat. It is now being considered in a very different funding climate than it would have been two years ago.

"It's desperately unjust," he says, explaining that the client will not hear whether the remaining £8m-10m has been awarded until June. "With hindsight, it would have been better to slam in a bid within the first six months of the lottery. We're suffering now because of the extravagance of projects awarded money in the early stages," he claims. "The pot of money is diminishing before our eyes."

Bennetts says architects must develop a realistic view of how likely a project is to win funding before getting involved. Despite the well documented problems of working on lottery-funded projects, architects are still keen to take on work at risk simply because a project fires their imagination.

Like many young practices, Birmingham-based Bryant Priest Newman has yet to make money out of its lottery ventures. It entered the 1997 competition for the Midland Arts Centre with Ralph Erskine on its team but came second to Branson Coates. "We got £3000 for the bid but it barely covered the printing costs," says partner Mark Bryant.

"A lot of lottery projects tend to be more interesting, which is why we take them on. But even on Oswestry Arts Centre, where we've done the scheme design report and helped with the feasibility study, we haven't been paid a bean."

Safeguarding the future

Bennetts thinks young architects in particular should ask themselves if they can afford to take on time-consuming lottery work.

"A young, unknown practice with no backing has to be sure it will get paid," he warns.

So, is the future bleak for innovative, lottery-funded architecture? Alasdair Buchan, editor of watchdog magazine Lottery Monitor, thinks not. "We're at one end of a pendulum right now," he says. "There's been a massive swing from capital- to revenue-funded projects, but it will settle. Everyone thinks the lottery is going to stop in the next 10 minutes, but it's here to stay. And, in the next 10 to 15 years, someone's going to say these buildings we built need refurbishing and the pendulum will swing back again."

Small consolation for Behnisch, who is still waiting for his money.