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6 November 2023

The silent death of the free fireworks display

In the era of the zero-sum neighbourhood, councils can’t pay for fun if they’re fixing your road.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Fireworks night has always been so vivid in my childhood memories. Perhaps that’s because it stamps itself – sonically, visually – onto a frightened-exhilarated young brain. But it was also the ritual of it.

Hot chocolate and sparklers at home, a limp roman candle or two, and perhaps a rogue Catherine wheel that would fly in the face of the London Fire Brigade off the trellis around the garden. Then it would be duffle coat on, and off to the big fireworks display. You’d go every year even (or especially) as a teenager because all your friends were there, it was free, and you’d upgraded your duffle coat to a super cool faux-fur-lined parka.

But the big free public fireworks displays and bonfire nights we remember are dwindling to zeroes on a council budget spreadsheet. For years around the country – particularly since the pandemic – they’ve been cancelled, ticketed and scaled back. Or else, private cricket clubs and others have stepped in to meet demand and make some cash.

In Ealing, a suburb of west London near where I grew up, it cost adults £12 and the same amount for children aged five to 14 this year to buy tickets on the door of the main fireworks event. In the east London borough I’ve since moved to, Tower Hamlets, the big free display was cancelled for the fourth year in a row. The nearest one is now more than an hour away by public transport, and ticketed: £17 for adults, £11.50 for children aged 11-15, and £4.50 for under-tens. A lot of families in Tower Hamlets, which has the UK’s worst child poverty rate, will have found fireworks out of reach this year. They used to be able to pop down the road to Victoria Park.

[See also: Councils are the victims not the cause of their poor finances]

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There are also no plans for the usual council displays to return to other major parks in the capital, including Clissold Park in Hackney, Southwark Park, Crystal Palace Park in Bromley, and Blackheath in Lewisham.

It’s not just London. Nottingham, Manchester, Norwich, Glasgow, Liverpool and Swansea have dropped their official free displays, citing tight budgets. Other major displays, including in Brighton and Hove and many in Scotland, have been pulled because of stormy conditions. But even a pause in scheduling due to weather could threaten a break in tradition for future years, as officials notice how much they can save. Many haven’t reinstated their displays after cancelling them during the pandemic, after all.

Having had their real-terms funding slashed by 40 per cent since 2010, councils have been finding ways to cut costs. This process is intensifying as inflation eats into existing budgets. “Councils face a £4bn funding gap over the next two years and difficult decisions over what they can and can’t fund,” said a spokesperson for the Local Government Association. “They do understand the importance of shared experiences in bringing a community together, which is why many are seeking community and private sponsorships to enable these events to go ahead.”

Forty-five per cent of councillors say their local authority has had to cancel or close culture, events and tourism provision since 2010, according to an exclusive poll of councillors in England by the New Statesman’s Spotlight policy team*.

Chart by Ben Walker

Is there really a choice? Bonfires and fireworks are bad for the environment anyway, and wouldn’t we prefer our councils to spend their sparse funds on potholes, bin collections and children in care? This is the hard-headed argument you’ll hear from town halls. Many even have disclaimers detailing their budget black holes on their websites, where the fireworks event details used to be.

But the point goes beyond the black and white of spreadsheets. To me, the loss of the free fireworks display is a great big technicoloured symbol of something shifting. The quiet disappearance of pleasures we once took for granted; the seep of leisure from a communal pursuit to a private endeavour; the zero-sum neighbourhood (you can’t have a fun activity if you want your road fixed); the idea of community – a proven good for health, local economy and cohesion – as a trivial nice-to-have.

Even if fireworks themselves become a retro pollutant, there should still be a ritual each year where everyone in a borough can turn up to something, for free, for fun. A light show, a dance festival, or a ceremonial burning of council spreadsheets.

*The full councillor survey results will be published in a special policy supplement with the New Statesman issue of 24 November.

[See also: The housing battle of Hastings]

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