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.