Blackheath fireworks: Lewisham turns to Uber after Greenwich Council blows £17,000 on Mickey Mouse stunt

Eltham cinema launch

Eltham MP Clive Efford, Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland, “Daniel Craig”, ceremonial mayor Olu Babatola, deputy leader Danny Thorpe and friends. Photo: Eltham Labour Party

Greenwich Council refused a request to increase its funding for Blackheath fireworks after spending £17,000 on a Mickey Mouse stunt to promote a new cinema in Eltham, it has emerged.

Lewisham Council is now turning to controversial minicab service Uber to help fund the £87,000 display after Greenwich rebuffed a plea to up its funding from just £10,000.

The event, which regularly attracts 100,000 spectators, used to be jointly funded between the two boroughs, who share responsibility for the heath.

Greenwich withdrew its £37,000 share of the funding in 2010, claiming it could not afford to pay for the display because of government cuts. This left Lewisham to shoulder the costs alone, appealing for sponsorship and public donations while trimming the length of the display.

Since then, Greenwich has partly relented, offering £10,000 towards the cost of last year’s £96,000 display. Lewisham managed to raise £48,000 in sponsorship and public donations, but was still saddled with a £38,000 shortfall.

Greenwich is paying the same for this year’s display, but after spending £17,000 on a press launch for a new cinema in Eltham featuring Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear characters. In May, it also blew £20,000 on an invite-only event to celebrate the borough’s new ceremonial mayor.

With public displays acknowledged as a key tool in keeping fireworks injuries down, Lewisham has been determined to keep the display going. This is despite the council coming under severe pressure from central government cuts and other changes to local authority funding.

The display also funnels huge numbers of people to pubs and restaurants in Greenwich, Blackheath and Lewisham, as well as boosting trade in other areas within walking distance such as Lee Green, Deptford and Charlton – districts which straddle both boroughs.

Seven weeks to confirm funding

Blackheath fireworks attracts 100,000 people each year, boosting businesses across a wide area

Blackheath fireworks attracts 100,000 people each year, boosting businesses across a wide area

Emails released under the Freedom of Information Act and passed to this website reveal that Lewisham unsuccessfully asked Greenwich to increase its share of the funding.

On 5 August, Lewisham head of culture and community development Liz Dart wrote to Greenwich assistant chief executive Katrina Delaney, pointing out: “We are under pressure to try and bring our subsidy down so if there was any way you could consider an increase to the £10,000 that would be greatly appreciated.”

Some of the correspondence has been redacted, so it is unclear whether Delaney addressed the request directly.

But it took over seven weeks and a follow-up email from Kellie Blake, Lewisham’s community engagement manager, for Delaney to confirm on 26 September that Greenwich would repeat its £10,000 donation.

So despite the event taking place on an open space shared between the two boroughs – and the possibility that the fireworks may actually be launched from within Greenwich, as has happened in the past – Greenwich is just classed as a sponsor of the event.

To help make ends meet this year, Lewisham has accepted backing from Uber, which is offering £5 for every free ride taken by new customers who sign up with a code.

Uber has been criticised for paying just £22,000 in UK corporation tax, while the GMB union has taken it to court claiming it treats drivers unlawfully. The firm is also the subject of frequent protests from traditional black taxi drivers. Only today, concerns about Uber have been linked to an inquiry by MPs into the “gig economy”.

This year’s display is expected to cost £87,700. Other sources of funding include housing association L&Q (£7,000), parks management company Glendale (£5,000), with a further £3,000 hoped to come from other donors such as Uber and estate agency Hamptons.

Lewisham is hoping to raise £11,000 in public donations and make £15,700 in sales at bars and food stands, leaving it with a £36,000 subsidy.

A Mickey Mouse affair in Eltham

The Eltham cinema stunt was little-covered, but appears in Labour Party publicity in the constituency

The Eltham cinema stunt was little-covered, but appears in Labour Party publicity in the constituency

Earlier this month, Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland claimed finances were “down the bone”. But on 3 August, it found £17,000 for a stunt which featured Hollywood star lookalikes parading up and down Eltham High Street to promote its scheme to build a new cinema there.

The event on 3 August, which featured on little-watched local TV channel London Live, also appears in Eltham Labour publicity promoting MP Clive Efford.

Costs included £2,400 on 10 Disney and Marvel characters such as Minnie and Mickey Mouse and Spider-Man, and £6,580 on 14 lookalikes, which included likenesses of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Will Smith and Daniel Craig.

The figures were obtained by Conservative councillor Spencer Drury, who wrote about them in a letter to the Mercury newspaper, asking why cinema operator Vue could not have funded the stunt, or the event could not have been held when the venue opens in autumn 2018.

Spencer Drury's letter (Greenwich & Lewisham Mercury, 12 September 2016)

The Mercury – which now carries Greenwich Council’s public notices following Greenwich Time’s closure – chose not to run Drury’s revelation as a story. Instead, it was buried on the letters page with a reply from council leader Denise Hyland.

Denise Hyland's response (Greenwich & Lewisham Mercury, 12 September 2016)

She said: “Sometimes, even in times of austerity, it is important to design events for the community that bring people together to have fun and celebrate their local area with friends and neighbours.”

Like a fireworks display, perhaps.

Residents were invited to post selfies from the event on social media to win prizes. Only five people appear to have taken part on Twitter, with the same number appearing to participate on Instagram.

£20,000 on mayor’s party

Ermine over fireworks: This private event - lauded in now-shut council weekly Greenwich Time - cost taxpayers £20,000

Ermine over fireworks: This private event – lauded in now-shut council weekly Greenwich Time – cost taxpayers £20,000

Despite claiming to be too poor to fund Blackheath fireworks, Greenwich has also continued to spend £20,000 each year on a private event at the Royal Naval College to celebrate the inauguration of the borough’s ceremonial mayor.

This year’s invitees included Berkeley Homes chief John Anderson and Neil Smith, head of planning at Greenwich Peninsula developer Knight Dragon, according to documents released to this website under the Freedom of Information Act.

There had been some rumours that this year’s mayor, Olu Babatola, would ditch the event. But instead 400 guests saw a 40-strong choir perform while enjoying 90 bottles of wine as well as a menu including salmon goujons, tomato & goat’s cheese tart and crumbled spicy hake.

Most boroughs – including Lewisham – make do with much smaller events at their own town halls, with the public able to watch.

Written answer from Greenwich full council meeting, 27 October

If Babatola did not cancel the event, then it’s unlikely his successor will – next year’s mayor is Peter Brooks, Chris Roberts’ former deputy, who cancelled the fireworks funding in 2010, claiming it would save “a job and a bit”.

Getting a fireworks display on the cheap

Lewisham's Labour group has made saving Blackheath fireworks a priority, unlike their Greenwich colleagues

Greenwich’s parsimonious attitude to Blackheath fireworks has been a long-running embarrassment for many of the borough’s residents, who can see with their own eyes the benefits it brings to local businesses in both boroughs.

It remains one of the few remaining free displays in London, and funnels huge numbers of people to pubs and restaurants in Greenwich, Blackheath and Lewisham, as well as boosting trade in other areas within walking distance such as Lee, Deptford and Charlton.

It’s not even as if Greenwich needs to increase its own funding directly – the council is proud of its close links with developers, and could surely tap up the likes of Berkeley Homes or Knight Dragon for a donation or sponsorship to help ease Lewisham’s burden.

But Greenwich’s lack of interest shows us the council leadership is still more concerned with promoting itself through stunts like the Eltham lookalike parade, or retreating into a world of self-congratulation in the Old Royal Naval College.

Unlike their colleagues across the border, Lewisham Labour has made protecting the display a key policy, and both councillors and staff there go to great efforts to keep it going.

But with elected mayor Sir Steve Bullock stepping down at the 2018 election, his successor – who will take charge of an increasingly cash-strapped council – may take a different view.

If Greenwich councillors – and the Labour members who pick them – want to see the Blackheath fireworks continue, they may need to change their attitude – and fast.

To donate to Blackheath fireworks, visit http://www.lewisham.gov.uk/fireworks.

7 comments

  1. Jon

    Another reason we need to end the safe seat mentality of Greenwich, and end the sanctimony of councillors (who want a ‘really good time’ on our taxes).

    I will vote for anyone willing to take a serious stand against the terrible cronyism in Woolwich town hall.

  2. Yusuf Özkızıl (@ozkizilphotog)

    Well, Lewisham is a safe Labour council too, and with a much higher proportion of Labour councillors (53/54) than Greenwich (43/51). From what I’ve read here and on fromthemurkydepths, Lewisham seem more engaged with making improvements, securing investment and judging which public services to prioritise than what I’ve seen from Greenwich. I’m fairly new to the area, and completely mystified by Greenwich’s lacklustre (if you can even call it that) approach to renovating the long neglected SE parts of the borough. If things don’t improve, they could be in for a surprise at the next council elections.

  3. Darryl

    The key difference between Lewisham and Greenwich is that Lewisham Labour have been severely under threat in recent years – between 2006 and 2010, it was a hung council, operating solely on the mayor’s casting vote. This meant that Lewisham Labour had to work with others, and had to up its game. The grass certainly isn’t greener over there, but there’s certainly less of a bunker mentality.

    Greenwich has never faced such a threat, for a variety of reasons, and so it remains the kind of paternal administration that’s largely gone out of fashion elsewhere. But most people vote for the national brand, not the local branch office, and without any action from Labour’s own local members to fix this, they tend to get away with it.

  4. Nick Craddy

    Hi, This is the first time I’ve seen the 853blog. I like what I see. Greenwich Labour has always been “do as I say- not do as I do”. How they have got away with this for so many years is a mystery, the Electorate are not that stupid, however I have seen many examples of how they conduct their own publicity in a manner the old Soviet Union could only bow down in admiration at. When it gets down to brass tacks Greenwich Labour will hosepipe money at anything for Woolwich, and everyone else can go whistle. As we are all aware Labours’ answer to everything they approve of is to throw money at it, with no regard for where that money comes from, and starve everything else into submission. I strongly object to Denise Hylands “free” publicity in the Mercury, and the possible observation that the editorial slant of the Mercury has been tainted by RBG’s money to use the paper for Council notices, and still the ghost of Greenwich Time lives on in Greenwich Info, like a bad kebab that returns in the night. Maybe Greenwich Labour have figured out that unless they keep on and on ramming how wonderful they think they are down the throat of the Electorate, they will lose. There is still a dreadful smell of rat surrounding RBG’s use of public money to promote the Labour Party.

  5. Pineapple Poll

    Not the first time this has come up over the years is it? Mickey Mouse is about the sum of it.

  6. The Hebridean

    Realise I have come to this a bit late, but as the fireworks are a hardy perennial then why not? Greenwich has always found the money for glossy vanity projects (think ahead to the Mayor Making which will roll round soon), but slams down the shutters on something that would give pleasure to a lot of people. Perhaps it should add a word to the borough motto and make that we govern by SELF serving.

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