In her six years at the helm, this 5ft dynamo has won praise for her
championing of Britain’s diverse heritage – although it has been too diverse
for some. Last year, the HLF was branded “absolutely disgraceful” by one
Tory MP for turning down the Royal British Legion while handing out £95,800
to the Peace Pledge Union, which honours conscientious objectors.
With facts at the ready – she strikes you as a woman who is seldom unprepared
– Dame Jenny puts forward a robust defence.
The HLF has given £57 million to 711 First World War projects, she says,
including a £6.5 million grant to the newly reopened Imperial War Museum.
“On that score, I think we have a very good story to tell,” she says firmly.
Dame Jenny, 67, is standing down next month. Her one sadness is the number of
worthy applications the HLF has to turn down. Eight years ago, it funded 70
per cent of applications. Now the figure is 35 per cent. “Sadly we’re having
meetings where we have 10 projects that meet all the criteria and we only
have the money for four. And we’re probably the only game in town now.”
In her swansong public speech, she warned this is “a pivotal moment for the
heritage sector”, which has seen government and other cuts of £2 billion
since 2010. Dame Jenny has dealt with five culture secretaries since taking
over, and is reluctant to criticise them – even the hapless Maria Miller –
but she believes other countries place greater value on their national
heritages than we do.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, she reminds us, was formerly the
Department of National Heritage until Tony Blair changed it in 1997. This
gets her exercised. “I wish the word ‘heritage’ was still in the DCMS’s
title,” she says. “It was dropped under a real mistaken belief that heritage
was defined in a very narrow way. But it isn’t just about stately homes.
“You just go across Europe and see how recognised heritage is. I want a public
recognition that it has a broad definition. Government has a role in
Asked to name the biggest threat currently facing Britain’s heritage, she
says: “The area I’m most concerned about is planning. It’s something people
do need to keep a very wary eye on. It’s really important and I worry.
“Local communities need to be aware that they have rights, and they need to be
able to get involved in developing strategic plans and visions for their
“This is not about listed buildings. Actually, there are huge swathes of towns
and villages where the buildings aren’t listed and they make up a sense of
what the community is. And they don’t want to lose it.
“We do not want to go back to that era where everybody believed the new was
more important than the old. I say that town planning in the Sixties and
Seventies did more damage to the towns and cities of the UK than the
Luftwaffe. Let’s not go back to that.”
A day after our meeting, the Government’s planning minister Brandon Lewis
claims there has been a huge rise in community support for new housing
developments in their area. One wonders what Dame Jenny would say to him
Warm though she is, she does not strike you as a woman to be trifled with.
During her 40-year career at the BBC before joining the HLF, she became the
first woman editor of the Today programme, then launched Five Live during a
decade as head of radio. Greg Dyke called her an “infuriating person” to
deal with, but former colleagues sing her praises as a woman who got things
done and created, in Five Live, a place for entertaining and intelligent
So what does she make of recent changes at the station, where Victoria
Derbyshire and Shelagh Fogarty are departing and their timeslots being taken
over by male presenters, such as Adrian Chiles, who have mastered the art of
When she launched Five Live, she says “people immediately said: ‘Oh, it’s
going to be Radio Bloke,’ and I was determined that it wasn’t going to be
“I was also determined that we were going to have women all across the
network. Jane Garvey was the first voice. I do think people like Shelagh
Fogarty and Victoria Derbyshire are fantastic broadcasters. I would be very
sad to see that lost. It’s very important when you think about how you cast
your voices across a network – particularly one dealing with news and sport
– that you make sure both sets of voices are equally dominant.” She sits
back in her seat. “That’s probably where I should leave it – being
Dame Jenny remains “a BBC person through and through”. It has been said that
she would be director-general of the BBC by now if she had been a man (she
applied, but claims her heart wasn’t in it). She can’t suppress a smile when
I mention this, and is diplomatic once more. “I think they’ve got a very
good director-general, who is a very good friend,” she says of Lord Hall of
Birkenhead. “And I think it’s an almost impossible job.” She doesn’t mind
passing on a few suggestions, though, such as the BBC upping its science
programming. “This country doesn’t do enough science and the BBC has a
With a £4 million pension pot from the corporation – said to be the biggest
ever awarded in the public sector – Dame Jenny could see out her days in
splendid retirement. She recently became a grandmother and looks forward to
babysitting duties. But instead she is moving on to a new post as chair of
the Royal Academy of Music.
“I had a father who did not stop working until his eighties, and I think it
kept him young,” she says. “I’m not saying I’m going to be working like I
did at the BBC, because I’m not. But I do believe in carrying on.”