853 exclusive: Greenwich Council has turned down a new request from Lewisham Council to increase its funding for the annual Blackheath fireworks display.
The event used to be jointly-funded, but Greenwich pulled out in 2010, claiming it could no longer afford to pay its £37,000 share of the costs.
Since then, Lewisham has sought public donations and sponsorship as well as income from bars and food stalls to offset the cost of putting on the event, as well as shortening the length of the display.
Greenwich partially-reversed its stance in 2015, and now pays £10,000 each year to be classed as a “sponsor” of the display.
But for the second year running Greenwich has declined a request from Lewisham to help shoulder more of the total £96,000 cost, which takes place on the boundary of the two boroughs.
Correspondence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and passed to 853 also shows that Greenwich charged Lewisham last year for staff time in helping clean up after the display.
This year’s display takes place on Saturday 4 November. Lewisham is again appealing for public donations towards the cost of the event.
‘Any way you could consider an increase’
On 2 August, Lewisham’s events manager Kellie Blake emailed her opposite number at Greenwich to ask: “This autumnal weather we are having has prompted me to think about Blackheath Fireworks and I am hoping that RBG will be happy to support the display again this year.
“We are under increasing pressure to try and bring our subsidy down so if there was any way you could consider an increase to the £10,000 that would be greatly appreciated.”
Blake added: “Greenwich Waste Management team stepped in at the last minute to provide bins and take away the rubbish, at a really reasonable price. It would really help us out if both of those services could be provided as support in kind this year.”
It took seven weeks – and a reminder email – for Greenwich to respond to the request.
On 19 September, an unnamed council officer at Greenwich replied: “Hi Kellie, we are happy to continue with the partnership this year. Unfortunately, we cannot increase our contribution but would be happy to be involved as before.”
Unspent Greenwich cash
There has long been frustration at Lewisham Council, including at its most senior levels, at Greenwich’s attitude to the event, which brings in customers to businesses on both sides of the boundary. While Greenwich has pleaded poverty, it has spent £2 million on this year’s Tall Ships Festival.
Last year, it spent £17,000 on a Hollywood lookalike parade to promote its £20m scheme for a new cinema in Eltham. And five-figure sums are regularly spent on mayoral inauguration ceremonies to which the public aren’t invited.
But these choices notwithstanding, there is money available from Greenwich’s little-publicised ward budget scheme, where councillors have been given £30,000 per ward to spend on community projects of their choosing.
Many of Greenwich’s wards have struggled to spend the money, with a couple of wards not even spending 5% of the cash. Blackheath Westcombe – which covers the north-east side of the heath as well as part of Blackheath Village – has unspent ward budget funds of £16,780. Nearby Peninsula ward has £18,600 left to spend, with £16,400 unspent in Charlton. Greenwich West – which also covers part of the heath – has £2,610 in the kitty.
The ward budgets have been used to fund similar projects – the Plumstead ward budget has been raided by £12,990 to fund Christmas lights, with the Abbey Wood pot contributing nearly £8,900 for festive illuminations there. And five wards – Coldharbour & New Eltham, Eltham South, Eltham West, Glyndon and Shooters Hill – shared the £4,250 costs of developing an LGBT Pride festival, even though the main events did not take part in those wards.
So it would be relatively easy to substantially increase Greenwich’s contribution and help Lewisham out in putting on a display that is enjoyed by many thousands of residents of both boroughs, giving them an alternative to the risk of putting on their own back-garden displays.
But Greenwich has chosen not to.
Public donations helping cover costs
The email exchange also provides a breakdown of how last year’s display was funded. On top of Lewisham’s £37,000 and Greenwich’s £10,000, other sponsors (this year they are housing association L&Q, construction contractor FM Conway, estate agent Hamptons International and Lewisham’s parks contractor Glendale) gave £21,000, while £19,000 came from bars and catering.
Public donations made up another £9,000. Last year, Greenwich’s finance staff helped count the donations for nothing – a generous act they wouldn’t have had to undertake if their political masters were a little less obstinate.
The Blackheath display is one of a handful of free fireworks events remaining in London.
Southwark has begun charging non-residents to the Southwark Park display, while Lambeth’s display in Brockwell Park is now a private event which charges adults up to £15. The charity event in Danson Park, Bexleyheath charges adults £10, as does Beckenham Fireworks in the Park. The Crystal Palace Park display is £8.50 for adults.
Greenwich Council has not responded to a request for comment.
To help support Blackheath fireworks, visit the Lewisham Council website.
Help support 853’s coverage of issues in Greenwich and south-east London: patreon.com/853