Blackheath fireworks under threat because of cutbacks, Lewisham Council says

2016 Blackheath fireworks
Whizz-bang: The Blackheath display has been shortened in length since Greenwich cut its funding (Clogsilk via Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

853 exclusive: Lewisham Council says it is considering the future funding of Blackheath fireworks because of continuing government cutbacks.

The future of the display, which brings up to 100,000 people to the heath every year, has had a question mark over it ever since Greenwich Council cut its half-share of the funding eight years ago.

Lewisham has told 853 that Greenwich has not responded to a request from it to increase its funding for this year’s display, and that it may be forced to cut its own £40,000 funding for the event.

Greenwich is contributing just £16,000 of the £107,000 cost of this year’s display – up from £15,000 last year. The display takes place on the border of the two boroughs.

A Lewisham spokesperson told 853: “Our budget for future years has not yet been agreed but, in the context of reduced government funding, a wide range of cuts are under consideration including funding for Blackheath fireworks.”

Blackheath Fireworks display 2016
The display attracts people from across SE London and beyond

Shortened display

The fireworks show, which has run since the 1980s, was jointly funded by the two boroughs until 2010, when former Greenwich leader Chris Roberts axed its £37,000 contribution, claiming it could no longer afford it.

Since then, Lewisham has continued the display, which boosts trade in businesses on both sides of the border, which runs across the heath and through Blackheath Village.

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 relented under Denise Hyland’s leadership in 2015, spending £10,000 to become a sponsor, increasing this to £15,000 last year after 853 revealed it had originally refused to do so, seven weeks after receiving a request from Lewisham for more funds.

Last year’s display was funded by £40,000 from Lewisham, £15,000 from Greenwich, £23,000 from other sponsors, £22,000 from bars and catering and £9,000 from public donations.

Greenwich also charged Lewisham for help in collecting rubbish after 2017’s event, according to an email between the two councils released under the Freedom of Information Act after a request from Liberal Democrat London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon.

Lewisham Council email
Lewisham says Greenwich did not respond to this request for more funding

Pidgeon said: “In years past the two councils fully shared the costs of this important event. It seems that now Lewisham Council have even given up asking Greenwich Council to share the full costs.

“Lewisham residents should be demanding that their council finally stands up to its neighbouring borough.”

The email between Lewisham and Greenwich, sent on 15 August, also asks if Greenwich could collect donations for the display on its website. No such facility has been offered, instead Greenwich directs users to the Lewisham site.

However, it does say that Greenwich’s finance team helped count cash donations to the display in their own time.

Tall ships in Woolwich, 15 April 2017
Greenwich spent £2m on the Tall Ships regatta last year

Embarrassment and frustration

Greenwich’s attitude to the Blackheath fireworks display has been a long-running source of embarrassment for many residents and a source of frustration in Lewisham.

Even inside Woolwich Town Hall, there are many who know the refusal to pay a relatively small sum of money for the event is a PR own goal – pointing to the £600,000 spent converting a Plumstead toilet into a cafecalled “very politically important” by leader Danny Thorpe – the £2m on last year’s Tall Ships display and the £31m on the Woolwich Creative District scheme, all projects aimed at boosting local trade.

Two years ago, 853 revealed Greenwich had refused a similar request after spending £17,000 on fancy dress outfits for a Hollywood parade in Eltham to promote its under-construction cinema.

And the latest disagreement between the two boroughs over the fireworks display comes the day after Greenwich councillors approved £5,000 pay rises for three of their number – £5,000 for chief whip Angela Cornforth and £5,000 each for two new junior cabinet positions.

Eltham cinema launch
Greenwich found £17,000 for Eltham MP Clive Efford to be joined by Hollywood lookalikes in 2016

Some inside Greenwich Council feel there is a reluctance to spend money in Blackheath, because of the perception that it is an affluent area. However, because road closures mean people walk long distances to reach the display, it boosts trade in restaurants and pubs across a wide area of both boroughs.

Asked if Greenwich had responded to the request for extra funding, a Lewisham spokesperson told 853: “No.”

He continued: “For many years we have made a commitment to ensuring the continuation of the largest free firework display in London and we have been successful in garnering funding support from a range of different sources. The display benefits a very large number of Lewisham residents but we recognise that people travel from many other boroughs.”

‘No other borough is contributing to display’

Greenwich Council told 853: “The Blackheath Fireworks event is organised by Lewisham Council where it takes place.

“The Royal Borough of Greenwich has agreed to make an increased contribution of around £16,000 to the event, in addition to supporting the event in a number of ways. This includes supporting business engagement and the requirements for keeping the A2 open during the annual event. The council will also be supplying 40 bins to support waste clearance at the event, which we will deliver, collect and remove.

“The event is believed to be the largest free fireworks event in London attracting crowds of up to 100,000 from across London. We are not aware of any other borough making a contribution in respect of their residents’ accessing this massive free event.

“We are committed to engaging with Lewisham Council early in 2019 for next year’s event. We were forced to reduce our contribution in 2010 due to local authority cuts by the coalition Government as Ms Pidgeon will no doubt remember. Each borough made their own decision on where to make savings and in recent years the Royal Borough of Greenwich has been pleased to support the event again, but despite the promise that austerity is coming to an end, we still face many challenges and difficult budget decisions.”

Saturday morning update: Greenwich and Lewisham councils released this joint statement to 853 late on Friday afternoon: ““Lewisham Council appreciates the contribution that the Royal Borough of Greenwich has made towards the Blackheath Fireworks this year, which is all that they were asked to pay.

“The future of the fireworks are under threat due to government cuts and both councils are being forced to make significant cutbacks. As the squeeze on councils continues, and with austerity far from over, both Lewisham and Greenwich need to cut tens of millions from budgets over the next two years.

“The event is the largest free fireworks event in London attracting crowds of up to 100,000 from across the city. It’s not about who has paid more in previous years but the harsh reality that councils are being forced to cut local services and events because our funding is being continually slashed by government.

“Lewisham Council is looking at all avenues to provide more funding and welcomes the fact that the Royal Borough of Greenwich is committed to sit down and discuss the future of the event.”

To donate to the Blackheath fireworks display, visit www.lewisham.gov.uk/fireworks.

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