Residents Rainbow tree
One of the “wishing trees” was in Old Dover Road in Blackheath

853 exclusive: A Greenwich Council project to put messages from residents on trees cost the borough a total of £95,000 – more than £200 per message – after it included a laser show which was branded an “epic fail”.

The Residents’ Rainbow, which was launched in September, was a response to the coronavirus crisis. It asked residents to send in short messages that would be displayed on trees in eight locations around the borough.

A total of 446 messages were received, with many of them picked to appear in Abbey Wood, Blackheath, Charlton, Eltham, Greenwich, Plumstead, Thamesmead and Woolwich. Each location had its own colour, but then the messages were swapped between locations, creating the “rainbow”.

The “wishing trees” were well-received, according to responses on the council’s social media accounts. But the costs increased when the council added a laser light show which it promised would be “seen by residents far and wide”.

Held at Severndroog Castle on Shooters Hill on September 26, the different coloured lasers were supposed to point to each “wishing tree”. But instead of being “visible across the borough”, the display – on a cloudy evening – went largely unnoticed, with even Severndroog’s neighbours complaining they could see very little, and others who could see it left unaware of what was going on.

Residents Rainbow light show
The show as seen from the Memorial Hospital on Shooters Hill, captured in a council publicity photo

One Twitter user said he was “waiting eagerly on Oxleas Meadows along with many other people waiting for the spectacular laser display that never arrived”.

On Facebook, one resident wrote: “Right now there’s just a single green laser pointing in the sky and that’s about it.”

Another said: “Has someone forgotten to charge the batteries or turn on the light show? Only lights on Shooters Hill is the traffic caused by everyone pulling over to watch a non existent light show!”

“Epic fail!”, read another comment.

Residents' Rainbow poster
The light show would be seen across the borough, the council said

“It appears that residents had to go to Severndroog House to see the full show. “Very cool to be able to enjoy these right on our lovely hill,” one said on Instagram.

One of our presenters was at Severndroog castle for the final of the residents rainbow this evening.

— Maritime Radio (@maritimeLDN) September 26, 2020

Responding to a freedom of information request from 853, the council said the entire Residents’ Rainbow festival cost £95,000 – or £213 per message received.

Greenwich was unable to say how many were actually used, but 853 has obtained all the messages it received. About 50 referenced the NHS in some way, while other key workers were thanked along with volunteers and local businesses, while there were personal messages and messages of hope.

One thanked council leader Danny Thorpe, another thanked the prime minister; while a handful declined to enter into the spirit of the event, with one reading: “What a waste of money. Try using it to fix potholes in the road.”

Three messages were turned into neon signs which were displayed in shop windows in some of the locations.

The council said the cost of the programme, produced by Clapton-based Strong & Co, included “included eight rainbow wish trees (decorations and lighting), eight art installations, three neon message signs, a local engagement programme which saw businesses and organisations from across the borough participate in numerous different ways (eg knitting rainbow hats for bollards, window displays, children’s colour themed activities) and a spectacular laser show”.

Residents' Rainbow
The messages were left up until mid-October

News of the cost of the Residents’ Rainbow festival come as councils reckon with the cost of the Covid-19 pandemic coming on top of a decade of government austerity. During the summer it was feared Greenwich would have to issue an emergency budget; last month the council’s cabinet member for finance, Chris Kirby, said the pandemic had “lit a bonfire under the structural challenges we face”. Neighbouring Lewisham and Bexley are considering steep cuts to their services; yesterday Croydon effectively declared bankruptcy, although this was not down to Covid-19.

Nigel Fletcher, the leader of the Conservative opposition, told 853: “Whilst of course we applaud the positive message behind this project, it is important that we get value for money, especially in these times. I would like to see more focus by the council on using this sort of spending to support community arts groups and the wider local cultural sector, which has been particularly badly hit by the current restrictions.”

Residents' Rainbow
One message, seen at Charlton House, appeared to thank the prime minister

Adel Khaireh, the cabinet member for culture and communities, said: “At an extremely difficult time for residents and businesses, the council was pleased to offer support via the Resident’s Rainbow initiative. The initiative was widely recognised on social media with a reach of nearly half a million people on Facebook and Twitter. Added to this was the community engagement that saw individuals, groups and businesses adding their own celebrations to the event.

“The programme was part of the ‘Royal Greenwich It’s Time’ festival which focussed on stimulating the local economy and recognising the efforts of residents and community organisations in getting everyone through the unprecedented first lockdown.

“We believe that supporting local business and promoting the wellbeing of our residents is one of the many responsibilities of the council. It is not just a worthwhile use of public funds, but a necessity in these testing times.”

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