853 exclusive: Greenwich Council is going ahead with plans to hold a “mayor-making” ceremony at the Old Royal Naval College’s Painted Hall against the wishes of its incoming mayor, and despite cutting £48m from its budget for this year.
Last year’s event at the prestigious Greenwich venue cost £30,000 to stage, angering residents protesting against cuts to council services. Most other councils hold the ceremony at their town halls instead of hiring outside venues.
Funding for youth and children’s services has been targeted, while a host of voluntary groups have lost their funding altogether and staff warned of possible redundancy. Greenwich has stopped funding the Blackheath fireworks display, while allotment and parking charges have rocketed.
Children at a Charlton primary school cited the cost of the mayor-making party in posters they made to try to save the animal centre in Maryon Wilson Park, which faces losing £34,000 in funding.
Even incoming mayor Jim Gillman has objected to the ceremony taking place, with his wife Janet – a Charlton councillor – telling a local residents’ meeting that the ceremony “has a touch of ‘let them eat cake’ in these times.” London Labour MEP Mary Honeyball praised Cllr Gillman for objecting to the event, using Twitter to say he was “leading by example”.
But despite Cllr Gillman’s objections, invitations have been sent out by current mayor Barbara Barwick for a ceremony on 25 May. Council leader Chris Roberts – who is due to give a speech at the event – is believed to have made the decision alone to go ahead with the ceremony.
“Looking around Greenwich there is much to be proud of. The physical regeneration of our community continues apace, while there are many developments in our economic, social and community life,” the invite reads.
Conservative opposition leader Spencer Drury said the ceremony is “purely an opportunity for the Labour leadership to sell its view of what is happening in Greenwich”.
“I view the whole ceremony as an expensive vanity project and it should be returned to the Town Hall where it would be cheaper to run and in my opinion, would represent the life of the borough just as well as the Painted Hall.”
Last year, council deputy leader Peter Brooks referred to the council’s overall budget cut when he said there were “65 million reasons” not to spend £37,000 on the Blackheath fireworks ceremony it jointly held with Lewisham Council. He said there was “strict control over all expenditure”, and the cost was “equivalent to a job and a bit”.
Greenwich Council has not yet responded to a request for comment on this story.
3:45PM UPDATE: Still no response from Greenwich Council. But former Liberal Democrat councillor Paul Webbewood has said: “While the amount of money involved is fairly small in the overall scale of things, it amazes me that the council is persisting with this luxury, invitation-only event when so much else is being cut. It really is a case of the Labour council acting in the interests of the few and not the many.”
Mr Webbewood asked a question at the last Greenwich Council meeting about the possibility of a ceremony, to which deputy leader Peter Brooks replied:
“The inauguration of the mayor is an important event in the civic life of the borough, enabling the council and its new mayor to meet the increasing number of key stakeholders in our community.
Many of these are critical to the social cohesion and economic success of Greenwich, including leaders of all our faith communities, volunteers and local associations as well as businesses investing millions of pounds in our borough to create jobs and economic prosperity.
The council is very mindful of the need to secure value for money and will always endeavour to do this. However this is the only occasion in the calendar year when all stakeholders are brought together – for the very reasons of cost that Mr Webbewood articulates.
That this is done on the occasion which marks the inauguration of the First Citizen of Greenwich – a determinedly non-political event – seems the most prudent occasion on which to do it.”
An increasing number of key stakeholders, eh? Can’t move for them. Conservative deputy leader Nigel Fletcher, who also comments below, has said his group “proposed a small Town Hall Inauguration, then a public celebration, sponsored to be cost-neutral”. More reaction as it comes in.
6:35PM UPDATE: Still no response from Greenwich Council. However, Tim Anderson, chair of the Friends of Maryon and Maryon Wilson Parks, said:
“It is very hard to understand why the council should opt to go ahead with an expensive mayoral ceremony when other council services such as the Maryon Wilson Animal Park in Charlton face closure in April 2012.
The Animal Park is greatly appreciated by thousands of people, especially children and families. The campaign petition to save the Animal Care Centre in Maryon Wilson Park, has reached over 4,500 signatures and is likely to reach 10,000 signatures by the end of this year.
Prioritising expenditure on its own ceremonies that could be made available for front line and community services must send out the wrong message to people who are facing losing their jobs or to organisations who face Council cuts.”
WEDNESDAY 11:45AM UPDATE: Still no response from Greenwich Council. But Paul Callanan, of anti-cuts group Greenwich Save Our Services, condemned the council’s plans.
“It’s absolutely disgraceful that while working class people face the biggest attacks on jobs and services seen in generations and are being told to tighten our belts, the council chooses to spend our money on a party. This shows just how far out of touch with reality this council is.”
WEDNESDAY 6:15PM UPDATE: Still no response from Greenwich Council. But the Green Party’s Arthur Hayles, who stood as a parliamentary candidate in Eltham last year, said:
“Even if there were no programme of cuts to Greenwich Council services, the use of an expensive venue for a council ceremony should be avoided in favour of using every penny for the welfare of the people of Greenwich.”