A final (well, maybe) postscript to the farrago that was Greenwich Council pulling out of this year’s Blackheath fireworks display came in a council scrutiny meeting earlier this month. You’ll recall deputy leader Peter Brooks claiming this was down to “strict control over all expenditure”, implying government-imposed cuts were to blame. Indeed, there have been attempts to paint the issue as “libraries versus fireworks”.
But the papers put before the overview and scrutiny panel show this simply wasn’t the case.
Bear in mind the fireworks – which eventually went ahead after Lewisham Council made a public appeal for donations – attracted an estimated 100,000 people to Blackheath two weeks ago. Greenwich saved £37,000 by not funding them. Instead, it spent the following – without any reference to elected councillors:
An extra £50,000 for the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival.
GDIF has been around in some form or other for many years – once it was just a dowdy Greenwich borough-only event best known for its opening fireworks in Cutty Sark Gardens, then sometime in the 1990s it expanded north of the river. Now it seems to be firmly focused on Greenwich itself, promoting a “a tour de force showcase of UK and international outdoor arts”. You can see some of it above.
The extra cash was to see the event expand from four days to 10 days – bolstering Greenwich’s contribution to £181,000. Or, as Peter Brooks might have put it in the council chamber, five jobs. It would see the event placed in “the top five UK festivals… Edinburgh, Manchester International, Brighton and Glastonbury” – it’s not exactly clear how highbrow performance art compares with a ticketed weekend in a muddy field, but the justification was good enough for the cash to be handed over.
£15,000 for the Greenwich Comedy Festival
Considering the stonking cost of the tickets and the poor organisation the night I went, I was surprised to see taxpayers’ money handed over for the comedy festival. If money’s tight, should council cash be funding comedians to make us laugh? On the Brooks scale, it’s half a job.
£15,000 for the Greenwich World Cultural Festival.
I hadn’t heard of this until I saw the committee papers. Despite the name, the GWCF, “a free programme of dance, theatre, circus and music” took place at Eltham Palace on the afternoon of 4 July. The money was to support the involvement of Greenwich Dance Agency and Greenwich Theatre.
What have these all got in common?
All the cash from above came from “Cultural Olympiad funding held within the arts and culture section”. A couple of years ago a couple of the borough’s smaller arts projects had funding completely pulled and others saw cuts to fund these big-ticket projects under the guise of creating an Olympics buzz.
is this a wise way of spending public funds? That’s down to you. But it’s clear that there is a pot of cash available for funding cultural events – if the council had wanted to keep the fireworks going, it could simply have designated it part of the Cultural Olympiad. Pyrotechnics have always featured at modern Olympic Games, as students of opening ceremonies will know. But the display’s funding was simply pulled, without reference to councillors and presumably to make a political point.
However, it’s very hard to make that point when you’re spending £30,000 on mayoral booze-ups and £15,000 on a bunch of comedians. Hopefully seeing their decisions pushed into centre stage will make Greenwich Council think a bit more carefully about their decisions – and will make those paid to scrutinise them raise their game as the really painful choices approach.
10:30PM UPDATE: Think all is sweetness and light between Greenwich Labour and Lewisham Labour after the fireworks fiasco? Think again.
“Some boroughs are getting rid of their fireworks displays as an easy way to save money. We aren’t doing that.”
Saucer of milk to Catford Town Hall?
That was how Saturday’s Blackheath fireworks display ended – good, wasn’t it? It felt a bit more low-key than last year’s display, but that wasn’t entirely a bad thing – no rubbish music, for a start. But it seemed like an almost perfect evening for it – mist and smoke hanging low over the heath, the streams of people walking from miles around, and that strange Close Encounters feeling of tens of thousands of people gathering on the heath. That crowd must have topped 100,000 this year, surely? It certainly seemed that way.
(3.10PM UPDATE – Lewisham Council has confirmed that numbers did indeed beat the 100,000 mark.)
So, was that the last display? After all, Greenwich Council pulled its £37,000 share of the funding, putting Lewisham in a spot – and the public knew it. It ended up as a sorry PR balls-up for Greenwich, pretty remarkable for a council whose actions are barely scrutinised by local press or politicians.
The huge crowd showed there’s still a big appetite for an event that’s held in a lot of affection. But there’s certainly no enthusiasm for the display from Greenwich Council’s leadership – before answering questions on it at the last council meeting, deputy leader Peter Brooks grumbled that it was “very difficult to get to Blackheath from my ward” – Thamesmead Moorings (472 to Woolwich, 53 to Blackheath, Peter) – before claiming it would be “inappropriate” to cough up the council’s usual £37,000 contribution.
Of course, nobody in the chamber bothered to ask him why it was appropriate for the council to splash out nearly £30,000 on a private party for the mayor and council leader in May.
There are those who’ll paint this as a choice between essential services or frivolities – but why is a mayoral booze-up so essential compared with the much-loved fireworks, which bring a huge business boost to pubs and restaurants in both boroughs?
Essentially, Lewisham taxpayers will have to cough up because of Greenwich’s decision – and there’s no reason why Lewisham should tolerate that state of affairs. I’ve heard a murmur out of Greenwich that it may try to help raise some cash for the fireworks next year.
But has Lewisham got the appetite to go through the whole thing again, or will it simply take its box of sparklers and hold a display somewhere more central instead? After all, councillors in Forest Hill or Brockley could complain they find Blackheath hard to get to as well…
Still, to squote an old election slogan, if Greenwich Council has its way, we’ll never see this sort of traffic problem again…
Greenwich Council’s deputy leader Peter Brooks came out fighting when quizzed about Blackheath fireworks last night – claiming he was only given two days by Lewisham Council to make a decision on funding the event, and that the £37,000 saved by cutting cash from the display would save “a job and a bit”.
Cllr Brooks was criticised by Conservative councillor Alex Wilson, whose Blackheath Westcombe ward shares the display with Lewisham borough, for not informing local representatives of the council’s decision to pull out.
Lewisham organises the event, and had given Greenwich two days during August to agree to back the display, Cllr Brooks said.
“I was given two days in a recess to come up with a decision,” he told a full council meeting at Woolwich Town Hall. He apologised for not informing councillors, adding: “I did speak to some of the Labour group, but I couldn’t get through to everybody – even with mobile phones, many people would be away.”
“I could give 65 million reasons why we didn’t pay,” he continued, referring to government cuts in the council’s budget. “£37,000 is equivalent to a job and a bit.”
Cllr Wilson said Greenwich’s attitude to the fireworks, which take place on the borough boundary, “feels like a diner who walks away from a restaurant without paying for a meal”.
Above is the written element to Cllr Brooks’ reply. Unfortunately, Alex Wilson didn’t ask why, despite the “current financial climate”, the council felt the need to spend £30,000 on its lavish private do for the mayor in May – which equates to a job. It also does seem odd that Peter Brooks is complaining about only having two days to decide about an event that’s taken place annually for about the past 20 years, for which he roughly knew what the bill would be.
I’d love to know what Lewisham’s version of events is – even from that written response, it doesn’t look like relations are happy between the two boroughs. This doesn’t bode well as we enter a period when councils may have to start sharing services to save them from even worse cutbacks. It’s sad that one of SE London’s best-known events could well be a victim of what seems to be as much of a falling-out between two Labour councils, who you’d expect to be sticking together, as a need to save funds.
To donate to Lewisham’s Blackheath fireworks fund, visit www.lewisham.gov.uk/fireworks.
More on the Blackheath fireworks story.
It’s six weeks since Lewisham Council launched its appeal for SE Londoners to back the Blackheath fireworks display after Greenwich Council pulled its funding. In that time, Lewisham has been industrious in battling to make up the missing £36,000 – rattling tins around Blackheath boozers (bet that Childline woman’s annoyed with the competition) and hawking “VIP fireworks experiences” on eBay.
In that six weeks, what has Greenwich Council done to explain itself to the people it is supposed to represent? Not a lot. There’s certainly been no mention of the cut that’s been made on our behalf in Greenwich Time, its weekly puff sheet – not even in this week’s BAD NEWS special.
The council’s website claims you can “read all the local news” in GT – but in propaganda, what you leave out is just as important as what you put in.
That said, the news did creep onto the council’s website on Monday morning – scroll down, no, right down, there it is! Talk about burying bad news…
“Greenwich Council has reluctantly taken the decision not to fund the fireworks event on Blackheath this year, having been advised to anticipate up to 40 per cent cuts to its grant following the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review.” That didn’t stop it blowing nearly £30,000 on a private party for its new mayor earlier this year, of course.
“The Council is however supporting Lewisham Council’s appeal to local residents to help cover the costs of the event,” it adds, before packing users off to Lewisham’s website, where locals can find lists of Greenwich borough streets that are closed. Consider Greenwich’s hands duly washed of that, then.
Down the road, Lewisham’s eBay auction has reached £770 for the chance to start all the excitement off, be shown “behind the scenes” of the display and be plied with free food and drink. Better than hanging around by the dips with sparklers and a novelty hipflask. Bidding ends on Hallowe’en – and wouldn’t it be great if someone from this side of the boundary could get the prize?
All this said, the London Fire Brigade dispute may succeed in doing Greenwich Council’s work in doing away with the display, anyway…
To donate to the Lewisham appeal, visit www.lewisham.gov.uk/fireworks. For other local blog comment, see The Greenwich Phantom, Crosswhatfields, Kidbrooke Kite and Brockley Central.
Last year’s fireworks cost £104,000, Lewisham says. It and Greenwich stumped up £37,000 each, with outside sponsorship covering the remaining £30,000.
So, by withdrawing support from 2010’s event, Greenwich is looking to save in the region of £37,000. At the time, Greenwich said: “The council is committed to maintaining front line services and has a strong track record of identifying efficiency savings…”
But could Greenwich have found that money elsewhere, without dipping into front line services? Well, it’s confirmed that this May’s mayoral inauguration ceremony, held in the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College, cost almost £29,500, with the sum being met in full from the council’s coffers.
The full sum, for those counting the pennies, was £29,472.75. The figures come from Freedom of Information Act requests sent to the two councils.
Obviously, this gives us a £7,500 shortfall, although we do know Greenwich has just shelled out on two costly PR campaigns for the 2012 Olympics. Lewisham tapped up local businesses – including the Clarendon Hotel – to get some of the extra money for this year’s. Let’s face it, if the will had been there, Greenwich Council could have found that money.
What happens at the mayoral inauguration? Well, as you’d guess from the name, it’s where the new mayor opens up their year’s duties. But it doesn’t have to be held in a lavish ceremony at an external venue – a mayor can simply be confirmed in office at a council meeting. But Greenwich uses its mayoral inauguration to wine and dine the great and the good – and for council leader Chris Roberts to deliver a big speech. Last year’s was so big, it even made the front of Greenwich Time…
Yup, providing the council leader with a chance to say that, for the front of his propaganda rag, cost Greenwich taxpayers nearly £30,000. Wonderful. All councillors are invited, but many don’t bother showing, either objecting to the cost or finding the whole thing a bore-fest.
So, funding a private party so the council leader can impress the great and the good, against contributing to a family event which delights 80,000 people each year?
Tough choices, indeed.
Lewisham has set itself a fundraising target of £35,000 to cover the shortfall left by Greenwich, but either way, it’s now underwriting November 6’s display so its council tax payers will be funding the cost of Greenwich’s withdrawal, whether in making up the money left over or by donating cash themselves. It’s now suggesting residents hold parties for Hallowe’en or make and sell pumpkin soup to raise the cash.
How sad that Lewisham’s residents are being asked to dress up to save Blackheath’s fireworks, all because Greenwich Council preferred to hold its own fancy-dress party instead.
To donate to Lewisham Council’s Blackheath fireworks appeal, visit www.lewisham.gov.uk/fireworks.
(WEDNESDAY UPDATE: Perhaps Greenwich could have found the cash from the £500,000 it blew on sacking 12 HR staffers, before recruiting 11 new ones… although it’s worth pointing out there is another side to that story.)
Funnily enough, one story you won’t be reading in your soaraway Greenwich Time this week is how Greenwich Council has stopped funding Blackheath fireworks. Must have been a terrible oversight at the council’s propaganda rag, surely?
Well done to Rob at greenwich.co.uk, who picked up the Blackheath fireworks story last week and found out what was really happening – Lewisham Council’s passing round the begging bowl because Greenwich Council pulled out. The Evening Standard regurgitated the Lewisham press release without bothering to pick up the phone to Greenwich, who told greenwich.co.uk…
The council has reluctantly taken the decision not to fund the event this year, having been advised to anticipate up to 40% cuts to its grant, representing some £70m when the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review is published on 20 October. The Council is committed to maintaining front line services and has a strong track record of identifying efficiency savings, which has enabled us to freeze council tax in six of the last 12 years.
So when Lewisham mayor Steve Bullock asked for fireworks fans from across London to contribute, he actually would rather Greenwich coughed up. It appears relations between the two boroughs aren’t particularly good, and I understand figures in Greenwich aren’t happy with the amount of time Lewisham gave them to decide whether or not to commit to this year’s display.
Sadly, the decision puts the future of Blackheath fireworks at risk. Why should Lewisham spend a wodge of its taxpayers’ money on setting fireworks off right on the edge of its patch, meaning Greenwich residents like me get a free show without even setting foot or spending cash in the blue borough?
It’d be no surprise if Lewisham decided to let them off in Catford next year – after all, Mountsfield Park is rather central and already plays host to its annual People’s Day bash. None of this is any good for the Blackheath Village Christmas lights, which get some of their funding from a Guy Fawkes Night whipround on the heath. Nor is it good for businesses across Blackheath and Greenwich, which benefit from the crowds’ spending power.
But what cash has actually been saved? As we know, Lewisham and Greenwich are taking very different attitudes to the cuts that are due to come. Lewisham is expecting a £60m reduction, compared with £70m in Greenwich. Lewisham is spending money on a campaign to try to engage people in the process about cuts, while Greenwich Labour has already decided that if it’s a decision between fireworks and libraries, the books win every time.
But is it really about protecting essential services? As I understand it, the cut saves Greenwich less than £40,000 for an event that brings 80,000 people into the area. Could this money have come from elsewhere in the council’s budget?
According to former Liberal Democrat councillor Paul Webbewood, commenting on greenwich.co.uk, the council blows around £30,000 each year on an inaugural ceremony for its mayor at the Old Royal Naval College. Councillors from across the parties see this as a waste – Conservative leader Spencer Drury says it is “held in the Painted Hall in Greenwich at great expense so Labour’s leader can tell us all how lucky we are to live under his rule”.
Yesterday’s Panorama investigation into public sector salaries also puts the council’s decision into a different light. It revealed 24 employees of Greenwich Council are on salaries over £100,000 – compared with just 14 at Lewisham. While I’m sure these people do valuable jobs, is Greenwich really a better-run borough for having so many well-paid senior staff?
Among Greenwich’s highest paid employees are chief executive Mary Ney (on £190,000) and her deputy, Chris Perry, on £166,419. Perhaps these people could put their hands in their pockets to help save one of the borough’s best loved events?
Greenwich residents can help their neighbours in other ways. As well as chipping in a quid each for the appeal, our old copies of Greenwich Time would make excellent papier-mâché, which burns brilliantly and is ideal for making a Guy Fawkes. Lewisham Council is welcome to them…
Fireworks fans in Greenwich who want to donate, whatever their means, can visit www.lewisham.gov.uk/fireworks or pay in cash at its town hall in Catford.
A curious press release from Lewisham Council. Yes! Blackheath fireworks are back this year! But…
No public activity can be immune to the effects of cuts in public spending, so the Mayor of Lewisham is asking pyrotechnophiles all over London to join him by digging into their pockets to ensure that the Blackheath fireworks don’t end up as damp squibs this year and to keep the event going.
Last year some 80,000 people flocked to the historic heath to see a stunning display. The whole event costs less than £1.50 a head – about the cost of a packet of sparklers.
Mayor of Lewisham, Sir Steve Bullock, said: “We know that many people come back year after year to enjoy the spectacle of the Blackheath Fireworks display and it continues to attract new devotees all the time. Money is tight at the moment as we all know. But I don’t want to see this event cancelled without giving people the chance to show their support. Just £1 each from every one who attends would ensure that the skies sparkle as usual over the heath this year.”
One word is missing from this though – Greenwich. The two councils have backed the display for many years, with the heath straddling the two boroughs. Both Blackheath and Greenwich businesses benefit from the huge crowds who come to see the fireworks. But what’s happened to Greenwich’s contribution? Has Greenwich pulled out or will we see the council leader brandishing a collection tin on the front of next week’s Greenwich Time? Or is Greenwich simply staying aloof from this business?
Since Lewisham seems to have issued this statement unilaterally, we don’t know yet. But while we wait to hear from Greenwich quite what’s happening, there’s a wider significance to this little episode. Fireworks are big a deal – people who dismiss them neglect their significance. Ask someone in Valencia what life would be like without Fallas, or a Sydney citizen about a New Year without its night-time display.
Guy Fawkes’ Night is a big deal for English culture too – but can be an easy cut for councils. Lambeth has axed two of its three displays, upsetting locals in Herne Hill and Streatham. A couple of years ago, Lewisham Lib Dems claimed the Blackheath display was under threat, claiming “victory” a month later.
Lewisham has been very upfront about its cuts – and interpreted from that side of the boundary, passing the bucket around seems a natural extension of elected mayor Steve Bullock’s attempt to break bad news gently. It’s different in Greenwich, with leader Chris Roberts playing his cards a lot closer to his chest.
It would have been smarter, however, for both councils to have acted together on this and issued something jointly. Especially when merging council press offices is one of the economies that’s been suggested…
Meanwhile, fans of innuendo will love the last paragraph of Lewisham’s statement on the fireworks… what sort of cuts did they have in mind again?