Cllr Mieka Smiles is the Deputy Mayor and Executive Member for Culture and Communities on Middlesbrough Council.
As a bright-eyed, brand new councillor I came into the role with a million new ideas.
Looking after the culture portfolio, I wanted bigger and better events across the town, eye-catching and Instagrammable public art, and to help grow some of our key museums and galleries. All had the power to draw more people into town, get them spending in town-centre businesses and increase pride of place.
My belief is that investing in culture is fundamental to the regeneration of our town – but statutory commitments clearly come first: children’s services, adult social care, roads and refuse collection to give just a few examples.
So – as follows the playbook of many a naïve newbie – I quickly realised that having hopes, dreams and aspirations were one thing… but having the money to pay for them quite the other.
One night drifting to sleep (dreaming of mammoth potholes and inappropriate parking) an idea popped into my head. Every week millions of people across the UK take a flutter on the National Lottery, with millions being invested into communities across the UK as a result. Could we have a local version?
I was certain that if it was legally doable and properly promoted then we could persuade our residents to gamble for good and raise funds for cultural projects in Middlesbrough.
I quite quickly established that local authorities across the country had beaten me to it. A number of our peers were already running their own lotteries for all kinds of reasons; be it for a single issue such as fixing a crumbling historic building or investing in an array of community causes.
Our head of culture was on it and contacted a lottery provider called Gatherwell, well versed in setting up these kinds of lotteries for local authorities.
After a number of meetings we determined that their model was what we were after.
Tickets for our Middlesbrough Lottery would cost £1. Out of that £1, 50p would go to Middlesbrough groups, charities, and organisations who’d signed up with us. They would help grow the lottery by using their networks to sell tickets.
10p out of the pound would come to us, to spend on cultural activities. Punters could also choose to direct the entire 60p to us if they wished.
People seemed to be on board and think it was a good idea.
There were the usual moaners. The Labour Group was characteristically gloomy about the idea saying it was a “sad indictment of this Government’s record that councils have to resort to delivering gambling as a solution to our funding crisis.”
On the first point – I think it’s only right that we look for innovative ways to fund cultural ‘extras’ rather than relying on taxpayer’s money.
We had also very carefully considered safety measures to guard against problem gambling. Tickets are only available online via direct debit and those taking part can’t buy tickets for the same day’s draw. This fights against that impulsivity that’s invoked when you buy a scratch card.
Community lotteries are also classed as low risk by the Gambling Commission. They are considered a form of ‘incentivised giving’ and our marketing very much focuses on what this kind of fundraising can do for the town.
We’re now a year into our Middlesbrough Lottery.
Each week those who play have the chance to win £25k. Just the other week someone bagged £2k by supporting one of our 59 good causes.
We’re now on track to raise a projected £37,000 in year one and we’ve handed out £5,000 in cash prizes so far.
River rescue, domestic violence support, junior sports teams, and groups combating loneliness are just a few of the types of groups that have money deposited into their account every week.
And it’s very satisfying to see payments coming into the council coffers for a change.
Why not encourage your council to give it a go in your town?
Or, better still, take a punt on ours.
Take part in the Middlesbrough Lottery’s here.