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.