‘Olympics’ festivals gained, fireworks lost council cash

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?


  1. I went to Voala at the Arsenal during the last festival, and it was excellent, about 1,500 people came into Woolwich to see it, so it was good for the economy. But whether an extended festival would have the same impact is to be seen.

    Don’t forget for the 2011 event the new squares in Woolwich will be finished, so they’ll need to do somethign with them

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