853 exclusive: Lewisham Council refused an offer of sponsorship from London City Airport to fund the annual Blackheath fireworks display – an offer which came via neighbouring Greenwich Council, documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal.
Finances have been tight for the £121,000 display, which attracts tens of thousands of people to Blackheath – on the border of the two Labour boroughs – since Greenwich withdrew its half-share of the funding in 2010. The event had been held jointly by the two boroughs since the late 1980s.
Lewisham has persevered with the event, turning to fundraising and sponsorship to make up the shortfall, while Greenwich restored some of its funding in 2015. A decade of cuts to local council budgets have put the display’s future in question, with Greenwich reluctant to shoulder more of the cost.
This year’s display saw Greenwich confirm its £16,300 contribution just five weeks before the display, with Lewisham officers left worrying that Greenwich would pull out completely once again. 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.
Lewisham rejected the offer of sponsorship from London City Airport after declaring a climate emergency in February. But Greenwich, which declared a climate emergency four months later, says it wants it wants to “review the impact of the fireworks around bonfire night” on pollution grounds.
‘More flights mean more pollution’
“We are turning down the London City Airport sponsorship of Blackheath fireworks because we don’t feel comfortable aligning with a brand in this sector to deliver an event of this nature,” a Lewisham officer told their counterpart in Greenwich in an email sent on 14 October.
Lewisham Council told 853 that it had turned the sponsorship offer down because of the planned expansion of London City Airport, which has been lobbying to allow an extra 40,000 flights per year. The airport’s plans include ending the current 24-hour curfew on weekend flights. “More flights flying over Lewisham will mean more pollution over Lewisham,” the borough’s cabinet member for air quality, Sophie McGeevor, told the airport in August.
While City Airport’s runway in the Royal Docks can be heard in the north and east of Greenwich borough, noise from its flightpath stretches over both areas, through Eltham, Lee, Catford and Forest Hill. London mayor Sadiq Khan recently criticised its expansion plans, saying “unfettered growth is not an option”.
The decision highlights different attitudes between the two councils to the climate crisis. On the same night Lewisham declared its climate emergency, Greenwich’s cabinet member for air quality, Denise Scott-McDonald, declined to do the same, declaring “Different councils have different definitions of what an emergency is.” Greenwich finally declared a climate emergency in June, with Scott-McDonald saying it needed to “do more as a council” to address warnings about the threat to the planet.
Despite its objection to sponsorship, the Lewisham officer added: “However, we would be very interested in working with London City Airport to develop employment and education opportunities for young people and we would be happy to talk about projects along those lines.”
‘We are reviewing our spend’
Lewisham allocated £36,300 to the display this year – roughly the same amount as in 2010 – with £28,500 earned from the funfair, bars and food stalls. A crowdfunding campaign and bucket donations on the night raised £12,721, with sponsorship raising £11,625. Sponsors included the Clarendon Hotel, the estate agent Hamptons International, FW Conway, which provides Lewisham’s street works, and Glendale, the company that manages Lewisham’s parks. Greenwich paid £16,300, leaving Lewisham council taxpayers to make up the £15,554 shortfall.
Greenwich withdrew its entire £36,000 funding after the government’s first austerity cuts in 2010. It partially relented in 2015 to offer £10,000, and the sum increased in 2017 to £15,000. This year’s £16,300 includes the £1,300 cost of its waste services team taking part in the clear-up after the event.
Last year, 853 revealed that two days before the 2018 display, Greenwich had not responded to a request from Lewisham to further increase its funding, which led to a joint statement from both boroughs saying that Greenwich was “committed to sit down and discuss the future of the event”.
However, on 8 July, a Lewisham officer wrote to their counterpart at Woolwich Town Hall, saying that that a Greenwich representative “mentioned that you are considering pulling back on making a financial contribution this year”.
“In an ideal world the sponsorship raised will wipe out the need for any local authority funding but until new money materialises we really need [Greenwich] to continue to underwrite a share of the display. Our politicians are certainly under the impression that financial support will continue, alongside improved joint working.”
The Greenwich officer responded: “I’m not sure why [name redacted] advised that we will not fund. Like all councils we are reviewing all our spend but no decision has been taken on this year.”
Confirmation that Greenwich would be funding came on 1 October, although there was still some doubt among Lewisham officers on 11 October whether this would be forthcoming, with one officer asking if the Greenwich logo should be deleted from promotional material.
“On a personal note, the thought of going ahead without Greenwich makes me really sad,” a Lewisham officer wrote to their opposite number.
‘Waving its chequebook’
Caroline Pidgeon, the Liberal Democrat London Assembly member whose office uncovered the emails, told 853: “It is not by chance that City Airport was waving its chequebook around this year. City Airport is hoping to get approval to increase its current cap of permitted flights by 50 per cent. I suspect that contributing to a firework display and hoping that Greenwich and Lewisham councils would be more sympathetic to their plans was almost certainly on their minds.”
“I attended the Blackheath display last year and I fully appreciate its importance in terms of the huge number of adults and children who appreciate this free event. The event also provides huge benefits for local shops, restaurants and pubs due to the huge number of people coming to Blackheath.
“However, the ultimate issue is that Blackheath is half in Lewisham and half in Greenwich. If these two boroughs started with the basic principle of funding the project equally they could then move on to practical ways to maximise individual donations and attract ethical sponsors.”
A Lewisham Council spokesperson said: “Blackheath fireworks is a much loved community event attended each year by tens of thousands of families from across Lewisham and Greenwich. This year’s event cost £121,000 to stage and was widely praised as another fantastic success.
“Lewisham Council declared a climate emergency in February 2019. Tackling this emergency is one of the most important issues of our time. The council opposes the planned expansion to London City Airport and we previously wrote a detailed joint letter to the chief executive of the airport explaining why. In these circumstances, we felt we could not accept the offer of sponsorship while the airport is seeking to expand.
“We will, however, continue to work with major employers including London City Airport to ensure that our young people are able to explore and reach the very best employment and education opportunities that our city can offer.
‘Economic benefits’ of airport
Meanwhile, a Greenwich Council spokesperson said: “In recent years, the event has been under threat as Government cutbacks have seen £125m cut from the Royal Borough of Greenwich’s budget alone and put front line services at risk.
“The Royal Borough of Greenwich agreed to work with Lewisham Council on this year’s display back in July. We agreed to try to attract new sponsorship for the event to protect taxpayers in both boroughs from footing the bill. We reached out to a number of leading companies in the capital, having agreed a range of potential donors that should be avoided prior to this.
“When we put forward the firm offer of sponsorship from City Airport, it was declined by Lewisham Council. Once the opportunity of sponsorship had ended, Greenwich agreed to provide the full level of funding requested from Lewisham.
“While the council has declared a climate emergency, it also recognises the contribution the airport makes to the business and tourist economies of the borough. We believe working with them is a more effective way of achieving sustainability goals, while maintaining the economic benefits our residents enjoy. The council will also review the impact of the fireworks around bonfire night as they are known to create a spike in air pollution.”
London City Airport said in a statement to 853: “We have a long established track record of sponsoring events and projects across east and south east London and had hoped to support this year’s fireworks display. The airport is committed to working in partnership with boroughs and community groups on initiatives that will benefit residents.”
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