Greenwich Council could be on the brink of a welcome U-turn over the traditional Blackheath fireworks display, whose long-term future is at risk thanks to Greenwich’s refusal to join Lewisham Council in funding the display.
The display, due to take place this year on 1 November, began in the 1980s as a joint event between the two boroughs. But Greenwich pulled its £37,000 funding in 2010, leaving Lewisham to raise the funds for an event which takes place on the border of the two boroughs.
With Lewisham facing steep budget cuts, the £100,000 display – which attracts 100,000 people to Blackheath and fills pubs and restaurants in both boroughs – is unlikely to survive without funding from both councils.
But on Friday evening, Greenwich Council’s press office tweeted it had “initiated discussions with Lewisham Council about how we might be able to support their (fireworks) event in an agreed partnership”.
It’s worth pointing out that Greenwich didn’t promote the event at all last year.
On Monday, Greenwich repeated this non-statement on its website, although funnily enough it hasn’t made it into its propaganda weekly Greenwich Time.
When it canned funding for the fireworks in 2010, Greenwich’s then-deputy leader Peter Brooks claimed budgetary pressures led to the decision, a claim that’s looked increasingly ridiculous over the years, with Greenwich blowing £500,000 on the Tall Ships Festival earlier this month.
But if Greenwich Council is sincere in wanting to help the event, perhaps it could start by cancelling a private party it’s continued to hold despite pleading poverty – the annual mayor-making ceremony.
Most councils inaugurate their mayors in simple ceremonies at town halls, which anyone can pop along to watch. (Incidentally, this is all alien in Lewisham, whose residents elect a mayor – Sir Steve Bullock – to run the council. In Greenwich, the mayor is elected by councillors to be a ceremonial figurehead.)
Here’s Waltham Forest’s mayor getting a round of applause from his peers in 2013.
This isn’t good enough for Greenwich, which supplements this town hall event with a full-on inauguration ceremony at the Old Royal Naval College, with 400 invited guests. Were you invited? Nah, me neither.
This year’s event, for current mayor Mick Hayes, cost Greenwich taxpayers £13,385. It featured a speech from the mayor (which you can read here, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act), a speech from leader Denise Hyland (again, you can read it here thanks to FOI). Guests also enjoyed a menu which included Morrocan lamb skewers, crumbled spicy hake and, er, “crudities”.
So, who attends these bashes? Let’s have a look at who was invited – again, supplied under the Freedom of Information Act.
Most of the Labour councillors are on the list, together with a few Tories – all in this together, eh? – along with a load of local worthies, faith leaders and property developers, including representatives from Cathedral Group, Galliard Homes, Berkeley Homes and Greenwich Peninsula developer Knight Dragon. Essentially, it’s a big networking bash that, if you’re a Greenwich taxpayer, you’re picking up the tab for.
The event used to cost £30,000, but the cost has dropped in recent years after the Old Royal Naval College waived its fee for hiring out the Painted Hall. But at £33 per head, there’s very little that ordinary taxpayers in Greenwich get out of this indulgent bash, other than a tedious write-up in Greenwich Time, which probably goes straight in the bin. At least the Blackheath fireworks (£1/head) help local businesses and prevent pyrotechnic misadventures.
Greenwich Council knows the mayor-making is a touchy subject. In 2011, it was mooted that incoming mayor Jim Gillman could axe the ceremony – but he never carried through with the idea. And in 2013, when the celebration went ahead despite the murder of Lee Rigby the same day, Greenwich Time twice misleadingly claimed the event took place in Woolwich Town Hall.
But still, it goes on. There’s a broader issue about how Greenwich Council relates to its residents, and the mayor’s bash is certainly emblematic of all that is wrong with the council’s approach. But quite simply, while the mayor-making goes on, claims of poverty and cuts simply won’t wash.
And in these gloomy days of ongoing austerity, if there is a few quid to be spared for entertainments, then it’s best spent on something we can all enjoy, rather than on a slap-up meal for hangers-on and fat cats.
Next year’s mayor is likely to be Norman Adams, who by all accounts is a thoroughly decent chap and almost a part of the council furniture, having been there since 1978. If the Charlton Athletic season ticket-holder really wants to contribute something good in his mayoral year, he could can next year’s ceremony and insist the cash is spent on something worthwhile instead.
So we wait and see just what comes out of these belated talks between Greenwich and Lewisham about the fireworks. But there’s one man who could help give them a mighty push forward. So, please, step forward, Norman – and give us all something to smile about.
You can donate money to the Blackheath fireworks display on the Lewisham Council website.
Weeks after blowing £500,000 on a tall ships festival, it’s emerged Greenwich Council has declined to pay its way for this year’s Blackheath fireworks for a fifth year running – leaving Lewisham Council to fundraise for the event again.
Greenwich withdrew its £37,000 share of funding from the event in 2010 with then-deputy leader Peter Brooks claiming it would be “inappropriate in this financial climate” to fund the event, which takes place right on the border between the two boroughs.
Lewisham has continued to hold the event, which attracts up to 100,000 people and boosts trade to local businesses in Greenwich, Blackheath and Lewisham.
But despite its best efforts at fundraising, last year’s display lost just short of £30,000, leading Lewisham to approach Greenwich for funding.
Despite Greenwich’s deputy leader John Fahy backing restoring funding to the display, it appears the tall ships have taken priority.
With Lewisham losing 33% of its funding over the next three years, the £100,000 display is unlikely to survive without help from Greenwich.
For a relatively small cost, Greenwich leader Denise Hyland could have demonstrated her council really had entered a new era. Sadly, it seems nothing has changed at Woolwich Town Hall.
By an unfortunate coincidence, Hyland is pictured on the front of this week’s Greenwich Time propaganda newspaper with Lewisham Council’s nemesis, hospital-threatening health secretary Jeremy Hunt. Oh dear.
Lewisham Council is asking Greenwich Council to start paying towards the annual Blackheath fireworks display again, after revealing fundraising for this year’s event fell nearly £30,000 short of covering its costs.
Greenwich withdrew its £37,000 share of funding for what was a jointly-run display in 2010, with council deputy leader Peter Brooks claiming it would be “inappropriate in this financial climate” to fund the event, which takes place right on the border between the two boroughs.
But Lewisham has continued to hold the event, which attracts up to 100,000 people and boosts trade to local businesses in Greenwich, Blackheath and Lewisham.
Lewisham has continued to set aside £36,000 each year for the display, which this year cost £108,673, and has relied on public donations and private sponsorship to make up the rest.
But a cut in private sponsorship money this year has meant the shortfall has widened from £7,919 to £29,656 this year, according to an answer from Lewisham’s culture and community services cabinet member Chris Best given at a council meeting last Wednesday.
Responding to Blackheath councillor Kevin Bonavia, she said in a written reply: “Officers continually look for different ways to attract funding for the event. We will continue to request financial and other support from the Royal Borough of Greenwich.”
At the time Greenwich Council’s Peter Brooks was claiming the borough was too hard-up to pay for Blackheath fireworks, Greenwich was paying £30,000 each year on a private party to inaugurate the borough’s ceremonial mayor.
While that cost has come down to £10,000 – thanks to the Royal Naval College no longer charging – this summer the council contributed £20,000 to fireworks displays to support Sail Royal Greenwich, a private company working out of the council’s Mitre Passage offices in North Greenwich.
In 2011, it effectively bailed out Greenwich and Docklands Festival with a £100,000 payout, and spent £110,000 on events to mark becoming a royal borough in 2012.
And while supporters of leader Chris Roberts point to Lewisham’s controversial decision to cut library funding in response to a government funding squeeze, Greenwich has been cutting under-fives’ play centres, outsourcing youth and library services and trying to cut funding from Charlton’s Maryon Wilson animal park.
Relations between the two Labour groups have got worse recently, with Lewisham councillors looking on in alarm at the bullying accusations levelled at Greenwich leader Chris Roberts, with the bad smell drifting across the border.
Greenwich councillors complained to their Lewisham counterparts after Bonavia referred to the accusations in his unsuccessful campaign to be the parliamentary candidate for Greenwich & Woolwich, demanding he be disciplined for disloyalty. They were flatly turned down.
Lewisham council also reaffirmed its reservations about the proposed Silvertown Tunnel – which is backed by Greenwich – at the same meeting.
Deputy mayor Alan Smith said: “The proposed Silvertown Tunnel relies on the same southern approaches as the existing Blackwall Tunnel. These routes, including the A2 area and the South Circular, already suffer from daily congestion. As the only primary alternative to the Dartford crossings, these routes come under extreme pressure when the M25 is not operating smoothly. The council therefore has reservations about the impact of an additional 6,000 vehicles per hour on these routes.”
Other London boroughs, including Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Barking & Dagenham and Redbridge, have also voiced opposition or reservations about mayor Boris Johnson’s plan. In the affected area, only Greenwich and Tory Bexley are wholly for it.
There are two events which make living in this part of London like no other. Both of them involve big crowds and take place on Blackheath. One is the London Marathon, the other is Blackheath fireworks. This year’s event is less than three weeks away – it’s on 2 November at 8pm.
Of course, the continuation of the Blackheath fireworks display is no thanks to Greenwich Council, which yanked its £37,000 funding away from the event three years ago, leaving Lewisham Council in the lurch.
Lewisham could have scrapped the event, which attracts up to 100,000 people, or moved it to another open space. But to its credit, it’s continued.
This poverty didn’t stop the council handing over £20,000 towards the cost of fireworks to help promote a private company, Sail Royal Greenwich, back in August, according to an answer given under the Freedom of Information Act. And last year, it blew £114,000 on fireworks and other public events to mark royal borough status. Three years on, the decision still rankles, and the real reason for pulling out has never been given.
So ever since then, Lewisham Council’s shouldered the responsibility of raising the cash for the event on its own – even if the firing site’s been outside its borders. The event’s always had some kind of sponsorship, but Lewisham has tried to come up with fundraising wheezes that make the community feel part of the event – something its self-styled “royal borough” neighbour singularly fails to do.
This year’s is simple. Pay a fiver, and you’ll get put into a prize draw where you can win the chance to press the plunger to start the display, along with getting a behind-the-scenes look at how it’s all done. You can enter as many times as you like, and it doesn’t matter where you live.
Of course, it’d be GREAT if someone from this side of the border won the prize – so go on, stick a fiver in and remind our neighbours we’re not all hypocritical miseries over here.
Three years ago, Greenwich Council decided to pull out of funding the annual fireworks display on Blackheath, pleading poverty. The £37,000 cost was, according to deputy leader Peter Brooks, equivalent to one
mayoral piss-up at the Naval College full-time job.
“I could give 65 million reasons why we didn’t pay,” Brooks told a council meeting in October 2010, referring to government cuts in the council’s budget. “£37,000 is equivalent to a job and a bit.”
So Lewisham Council was left in the lurch – but has continued to shoulder the entire cost of funding the phenomenally-popular event.
Fast forward to 2013, and Greenwich Council can suddenly afford not just one set of fireworks, but five…
(Video from Greenwich.co.uk)
Pyrotechnics lit up the skies over Greenwich last night and Wednesday night, and will again tonight (at 9.15pm); and there’s be more fireworks over Woolwich tomorrow and Sunday nights (both 9.45pm).
All very nice (and very loud), although I’ve not heard of huge crowds surging to Greenwich to see them, despite council tweets suggesting people “arrive early”.
Heaven knows how many jobs those whizz-bangs were worth. But why? Well, it’s all part of Greenwich Council’s bid to host the 2016 Tall Ships Race, which involved a nice trip to Latvia for the Dear Leader and chums last year, roughly at the same time neighbouring Lewisham was concentrating on the threat to the local NHS.
But the fireworks also represent a substantial piece of tax-funded help for a private company, Sail Royal Greenwich, which is based in the council’s supposed “digital hub” at Mitre Passage, by the Dome. Not only is it getting accommodation from the council, but it’s also getting pyrotechnics funded to help its commercial offer – of trips up and down the Thames in tall ships – look that bit better.
Nice work if you can get it, and all that. All this generosity is aimed at securing the tall ships for 2016, and a hoped-for boost in tourism during that year. And a no-doubt impressive-looking set of photos for Greenwich Time, if they actually manage to get next week’s issue out.
Is this a wise idea or not? Only the borough’s taxpayers can decide. But the moral of Greenwich Council’s new-found love for fireworks seems to be: whenever a Greenwich councillor says there’s no money left for something, take it with a very big pinch of salt.
To donate to 2013’s Blackheath fireworks, due to take place on Saturday 2 November, visit www.lewisham.gov.uk/fireworks.
9.45am update: See also The Greenwich Phantom: “I only hope the kickbacks are worth it.” Ouch.
In case you’d forgotten, the annual Blackheath fireworks display starts tonight at 8pm. More details are on Lewisham Council’s website.
It’s the third year that Greenwich Council has refused to fund the event, which attracts 100,000 people, sits squarely on the border of Lewisham and Greenwich boroughs and had been jointly-backed by the two councils for about 20 years before that.
Last year, the fireworks were actually launched from Greenwich’s side of the heath.
In case you’re thinking this is good old sensible Labour Greenwich putting local services ahead of whizz-bangs, unlike silly old er, Labour Lewisham, then it’s worth remembering Greenwich pulled out to save £37,000. This year, Greenwich has treated its head of PR to a £25,000 pay rise, and has blown at least £114,000 on royal borough celebrations. The whole sorry tale of how Greenwich blew 2010’s fireworks cash on a booze-up for the mayor can be found in the archives.
If everyone who went to the fireworks gave a couple of quid, Lewisham would cover all its costs. So don’t be like Greenwich Council, donate and enjoy tonight.