Greenwich Council spent nearly £20,000 on an invite-only function celebrating the inauguration of its new mayor at the Old Royal Naval College last month.
The event came less than three weeks before Labour councillors met to discuss the prospect of future government budget squeezes, which are likely to see services cut further over the next five years.
Councillors and guests attended the event, on 19 May, which marked long-serving councillor Norman Adams replacing Mick Hayes as the borough’s first citizen. Representatives from Berkeley Homes and Ikea were also invited, according to details released under the Freedom of Information Act.
The cost of the event, which came to £19,300, excluding VAT, has shot up following the decision of the Greenwich Foundation, which runs the old naval college, to charge the council for the first time in some years. Last year’s event cost £13,385.
Greenwich negotiated free venue hire with the foundation, as well as began using cheaper PA systems, after this website revealed that 2010’s ceremony had cost nearly £30,000.
Last month’s ceremony was the 10th the council has held at the Old Royal Naval College, bringing the total bill over the years for council taxpayers to £220,000, according to responses to various Freedom of Information Act requests.
Most boroughs do not hold these lavish bashes. The same night Greenwich councillors and their guests were living it up at in the Painted Hall, Camden inaugurated its new mayor at a simple event at its town hall.
Indeed, Adams formally became mayor at the council’s annual general meeting the previous week – with a ceremony similar to this one at Waltham Forest – meaning there was no need for the Naval College event at all.
Southwark uses Southwark Cathedral for its mayor-making, but declares it an official council meeting, meaning the public can come and watch. It also combines the inauguration with a civic awards ceremony.
In Greenwich, the public are shut out, despite paying a £9,000 bill for food and drink (red wine was Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Moncaro 2012; white wine was Galassia Garganega/Pinot Grigio 2013).
Instead, while community representatives are invited, the event has traditionally been used for networking.
The invite list includes representatives from Ikea – whose plans for a store in east Greenwich have caused uproar – and property developers Berkeley Homes and Durkan. It is not known which of the 350 invitees actually attended.
Greenwich Peninsula developer Knight Dragon was also invited, as was the firm behind the Greenwich cruise liner terminal – two major planning schemes which have also angered local people. Indeed, just a few hundred yards from the ceremony, the East Greenwich Residents Association was discussing the effects of these schemes at its regular public meeting – without their Peninsula ward councillors present.
Despite blowing large sums of money on celebrating themselves at a time of cutbacks, Greenwich councillors have been largely oblivious to criticism of the Naval College bash, although some do deliberately stay away.
Indeed, in 2013, the council’s weekly newspaper Greenwich Time lied about its location, claiming for two successive weeks that it was held at Woolwich Town Hall.
The borough’s Tories have generally gone along with the ceremony, while occasionally pushing for it to be made more open to the public.
Labour councillors met at this weekend to discuss the effects of another five years of cuts under the new government. Can they really justify blowing another £20,000 on a private party?
The answer will lie with this year’s deputy mayor Olu Babatola, who will take the main job next year. Already a mould-breaker as the borough’s first African mayor, he could set an equally-welcome precedent by scrapping next year’s ceremony. Will he do it? It’s over to you, Olu.