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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 November, 2004, 01:16 GMT
Lottery fever 'took over British life'
By Torin Douglas
BBC media correspondent

Lotto balls
The National Lottery has raised 16 billion for 180,000 good causes
Ten years ago, few foresaw just how life in Britain would be transformed by the National Lottery.

One who did was the business guru Gerry Robinson, later to become chairman of the Arts Council, which has handed out almost 2bn in lottery grants over the past 10 years.

In those days, he was chairman of Granada, one of Camelot's rivals in the race to run the lottery.

"Every week there are going to be several millionaires made," he told me early in 1994, before anyone had seen a lottery terminal or knew how to play.

"Within four weeks of the launch everyone will know someone who's won at least 10, and of course thousands of millions of pounds will be going to sport, the arts, charities, heritage and millennium projects."

Headline grabber

Robinson had seen the impact a state lottery had had in Ireland. But even he was taken aback by the way lottery fever took hold in Britain.

For much of the past 10 years, the lottery has been a huge headline-grabber, a national talking point.

For those of us who have been covering it throughout that time, it has been a source of countless stories and hours of airtime but not quite in the way those who set it up hoped.

Sir Richard Branson
Sir Richard Branson's 'not for profit' venture failed

They thought it would supply an almost unbroken stream of good news - "pennies from Heaven" and "rags to riches" - for the lucky winning players and the worthy causes.

There has been much good news with a remarkable 16bn raised for no fewer than 180,000 good causes, from Tate Modern and Cornwall's Eden Project to Britain's Olympic champions and Wales' Millennium Stadium.

But, until recently, this was overshadowed by the lottery's equally remarkable capacity to generate public rows.

There were clashes over whether the lottery should be "not for profit", how the money for good causes should be divided and how much the government should take in tax.

There were fears that charities would lose money and the poor would spend more than they could afford.

There was huge publicity about the early multi-million pound winners, concern over press intrusion into their private lives and the strain the big wins would put on them and their families.

'Fat cats'

And then there were the rows over how the money was spent.

An overlooked truth soon emerged: the lottery creates more losers than winners. It arouses huge expectations which cannot be fulfilled.

Most grant applications are rejected, despite the billions of pounds already allocated to the good causes.

Billy Connolly
A campaign fronted by comedian Billy Connelly was a wash-out

And some of the "winners" proved deeply unpopular - the Royal Opera House, the Winston Churchill papers, the Millennium Dome and supposedly "undeserving" charities, such as an asylum seekers' support group.

The new Labour government tried to address that problem, relaunching it as the People's Lottery - a name later borrowed by Richard Branson for his own bid.

Ministers created a sixth good cause, the New Opportunities Fund, to funnel money into more popular areas - health, education and the environment.

But they also attacked the "fat cats" of Camelot, creating more unpopularity for the lottery.

In vain did Camelot point out it took less than a penny of profit in the pound. With Branson claiming his bid would be "not for profit", any profit seemed excessive.

Sales falter

There was a high-profile libel case between Richard Branson and Guy Snowden, the chief executive of the American lottery company G-Tech. In the fall-out Snowden and the lottery regulator Peter Davis resigned.

Another court case led to the resignation of another lottery regulator, Dame Helen Shovelton, chairman of the National Lottery Commission, after the second licence battle between Camelot and Branson's People's Lottery.

For five years, despite the bad publicity, the money kept rolling in, but then sales started to falter.

Camelot's business plan had predicted this - it happens all over the world - but when it tried to stem the decline, with a relaunch fronted by Billy Connolly, it failed.

The tap, on which government and so many good causes had started to rely, was beginning to run dry.

But as the National Lottery celebrates its 10th anniversary, things are looking brighter. Sales are on the increase again, helped by new games and new technology.

The lottery rarely makes headlines these days and, when it does, it's less often for the wrong reasons.

And there is greater recognition of the impact it has had in regenerating many parts of Britain - even if millions of us still find it hard to name projects near where we live that have benefited.

After a stormy 10 years, the lottery is now on an even keel.

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