The Blackheath fireworks display – which was due to take place tonight – may not return until at least 2023 because of budget cuts at Lewisham Council.
The council says it needs to make cuts of at least £40 million by April 2024, with £24m in cutbacks needed next year. The Covid-19 pandemic has left Lewisham with a £20 million black hole in its finances for this year alone.
Cuts of £15 million for 2021/22 have been proposed at this stage, with more to be put forward in January. One of the potential cuts is to council events, through which Lewisham hopes to save £100,000 over three years.
The proposal includes “pausing the annual Blackheath fireworks display until at least 2023” and looking at how to cut costs “in the delivery of the civic events programme through working in partnership with other organisations to attract match funding where possible”. This year’s event has been cancelled because of the pandemic.
In 2023, after Lewisham’s year as London Borough of Culture, a further review of the remaining events is planned to “drive additional cuts if needed”.
A report to councillors on Lewisham’s sustainable development select committee states: “[The] annual Blackheath Fireworks display that attracts 60,000 to 100,000 people will cease. This is one of London’s last free annual displays providing a safe way for families to mark Guy Fawkes night. There would be no council supported alternative to this event.”
Lewisham People’s Day, which takes place at Mountsfield Park in Catford and is south-east London’s oldest free festival, would still be retained “in some form”, according to the document.
Cutting the fireworks display would save £35,000 a year, it says. The long-running display began as a joint effort between Lewisham and Greenwich councils, but a decade of austerity has left it leading a precarious existence. The event boosts businesses in restaurants and pubs in a wide area across both boroughs, while the display itself is put together by the Greenwich-based company Emergency Exit Arts.
Greenwich Council withdrew its half-share of the funding in 2010, forcing Lewisham to seek public donations and sponsorship to make up the missing money. Greenwich partially relented in 2015, contributing £10,000, and paid £16,300 to last year’s display; but Lewisham was still left with a £15,554 shortfall on a £121,000 overall cost.
Last year, 853 revealed how Greenwich tried to broker a sponsorship deal with London City Airport, which Lewisham refused because of the effect of the airport’s planned expansion on its residents.
Lewisham’s elected mayor Damien Egan told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that the cuts are still only draft proposals.
“We’ve had ten years of government cuts in the borough – in 2010 we had a budget of around £400 million, today it’s around £240 million,” he said. Lewisham has always managed its budget well, it’s something the council has always done and will continue to do.
“It was very difficult before the pandemic, but what’s happening now, the scale of the cuts being imposed on the council is huge.”
Other proposals include increasing funeral charges, cutting the grants programme for the voluntary and community sector by a third, and scrapping discretionary free travel for vulnerable people.
Lewisham is proposing to stop managing finances for vulnerable people who do not have the ability to do it themselves, and cutting funding for short breaks for special needs children – though it says the cuts are “modest and should not have a negative impact on families”.
Savings are proposed through better management of contracts, improved debt collection, and by increasing the number of cameras to catch people committing traffic offences. By reducing the number of social workers from agencies Lewisham hopes to save £430,000 over three years.
The council is reviewing how it can make more money from its properties, is planning to speed up regeneration plans for Catford town centre, and hoping to make £500,000 from building between 250 and 300 homes for market rent by 2023/24.
Ward assemblies could also go
Lewisham’s ward assemblies – also cancelled this year because of the pandemic – could also be scrapped to save £223,000 over three years. The assemblies involve residents meeting four times each year to discuss local issues with their councillors. They are currently the main way Lewisham consults and engages with its communities.
The council is reviewing how it could organise an “alternative forum to facilitate community engagement” such as virtual meetings.
Egan said: “I’m really proud of the assemblies programme – we have 18 ward assemblies, up to 100 people come to talk to us about local issues and hear about what the council is doing.
“We need to think about the best way to run local assemblies in the future and the idea of everybody coming to a hall on a cold evening. I’m really grateful for everybody that comes, but the people coming to assemblies aren’t necessarily reflective of the community that we serve.”
He said looking to the future of the programme, some of the questions were “how do we make sure that we’ve got more diversity, how do we make sure it’s more inclusive, and also how do we make we’ve got options there so people can just log in”.
“When I did a [online] public meeting about the low traffic neighbourhood, we had hundreds of people come and it just shows there are other ways that we can do things. But it can go one way or another because there are also people who don’t have internet,” he added.
Councillors will discuss the planned cuts on Thursday.
Additional reporting by Darryl Chamberlain
Gráinne Cuffe is the Local Democracy Reporter for Lewisham. The Local Democracy Reporting Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
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