OnBlackheath: getting the balance right between music and nuisance

On Blackheath logoSo now we know the line-up: the OnBlackheath music festival being held on the Heath on September 13-14 will be headlined by Massive Attack, Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls, Imelda May, and the Levellers.

Up to 30,000 people are expected to come and enjoy a weekend of music, a Kid’s Stage, a farmer’s market, Street & Fringe Theatre, ‘Walkabout Entertainment’ and a  ‘Food Village’ featuring Gizzi Erskine’s Chefs Club, at the western end of the Heath just south of the A2.

This festival, sponsored by John Lewis and promoted by the legendary Harvey Goldsmith, has had a long and controversial birth: in 2011 the Blackheath Society unsuccessfully challenged the license it had been granted by Lewisham Council in the courts. Originally due to be held in the midst of the Olympics, it has been postponed twice, from 2012 to 2013 and then again to 2014. Greenwich councillors have expressed concern to Lewisham Council (on whose side of the heath OnBlackheath will take place) about potential noise problems and the cumulative impact of OnBlackheath taking place in September, shortly after the Good Hope Festival, which was to be held on the Heath on 2-3 August. Although the Good Hope Festival was granted a license in March, its organisers announced in April that it would be postponed until 2015.Blackheath - new signs 2008

The OnBlackheath Festival had aroused more concern than the Good Hope Festival had. Some local people regret Lewisham’s decision to grant a commercial music festival a license in the first place, although others welcome southeast London’s first major music festival.

There’s a big difference between the commercial OnBlackheath (which is promoted by Harvey Goldsmith and sponsored by the John Lewis Partnership) and the Good Hope festival, which is organised by the Jimmy Mizen Foundation, set up in honour of Jimmy Mizen, a teenager who was tragically murdered in Lee in 2008.

But whether we like it or not OnBlackheath is definitely now going ahead. Following discussions with the organisers the Blackheath Society is now largely happy with the way the event is being planned, and Lewisham has attached a number of new conditions: no more than 15,000 people can attend each day (the organisers orginally wanted 25,000), noise reaching nearby homes can’t be any higher than 70 decibels, everyone must go home by 1030pm, and no alcohol will be served after 930pm. A recent Blackheath Society statement says that the society is now “looking forward to being part of the process taking this event forward, engaging constructively with London Borough of Lewisham on the detailed plans (which we are still awaiting) and addressing local residents’ concerns.” The society adds that they are pleased that there is “a commitment to a full review” after the festival closes.

Labour in Greenwich hopes that this promised review will be thorough, especially if the event is to be repeated in 2015 and beyond, and that the event causes as little disruption as possible, particularly to roads and bus routes across the heath. It’s also important that local businesses benefit as much as possible: an email from the Blackheath Business Forum recently reached my inbox, rightly arguing that tens of thousands visitors to the Heath can’t be bad for shops and cafes in Blackheath Village and the Royal Standard.

While there has never been a music festival before, gatherings of tens of thousands of people are nothing new on Blackheath. As the Blackheath Society’s excellent new history book Walking the Heath and their recent photo archive project have both explained, Blackheath has often been a place for political assemblies from the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 to the Cornish Rebellion of 1497, Gladstone’s speeches of the 1870s, and the Climate Camp in the summer of 2009. Blackheath has been a venue for military displays from the time of Agincourt and  Henry VIII right up until World War Two; a tradition continued today by cavalry regiments from Woolwich.

Every April since 1981 about 30,000 runners have mustered on the Heath and in Greenwich Park for the start of  the London Marathon, and up to 100,000 south Londoners come to the Heath each November for the Blackheath Fireworks. Lewisham Council organised a very successful Live Site between Royal Parade and All Saint’s Church  in 2012 which attracted thousands of people to watch Olympic events on a big screen or listen to music in a Spiegel tent nearby (Walking the Heath carries some hilarious place names: I never knew that this part of the Heath used to be called Washerwoman’s Bottom).Lewisham Big Screen 2012 - 2

Walking the Heath (which is available from the Blackheath Society at £5 for members, £7.50 for non-members)  also reminds us that circuses and funfairs on the heath used to be a lot larger, and more frequent, until they were curtailed and better managed from the 1990s onwards.  Some large-scale events are sadly no more: the annual Blackheath Fayre died out in the noughties.

Blackheath has withstood – if not always welcomed – all these events, and hosting them is in its nature. Labour councillors in Greenwich and Lewisham will continue to work together to try and strike the right balance between allowing the Heath to be used for  a variety of events, and local residents’ right to peace and quiet. Communication between residents on both sides of the Heath, and their two councils, is vital. Ever since the 19th century the Greenwich/Lewisham borough boundary has split Blackheath Village, and the Heath, in two (indeed, Walking the Heath says it used to go through the middle of one of the houses at the Paragon before it was made slightly more rational). Labour councillors helped introduce a cross-borough Blackheath Events Policy to regulate the use of the heath a few years ago, and Greenwich and Lewisham councils worked with local community groups to win a coveted Green Flag for the Heath every year from 2010 onwards. Labour councillors and candidates are now discussing how the Christmas Lights in Blackheath Village, and the Blackheath Fireworks, can be more sustainably funded so their long-term future is secured. And we want to hear what you think of the OnBlackheath event, both in advance and once it has taken place.

Now that it is definitely going ahead it is time to give OnBlackheath’s organisers a chance to keep their promise that there won’t be excessive noise or traffic chaos. I hope Blackheath can take OnBlackheath in its stride, and that the event is a success.

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3 Responses to OnBlackheath: getting the balance right between music and nuisance

  1. Pingback: After 16 years as a Labour councillor in Blackheath and Westcombe Park, Alex Grant says thank you and goodbye | Blackheath Westcombe Labour

  2. Jacqueline McKillion says:

    As a resident of Blackheath I am interested to see how the festival is handled. I think there should be a catchment area of free tickets for local residents as a show of good will, or at the very least a discounted ticket price offered. Whilst being close to the festival may seem like an advantage to some it will definitely be a disadvantage when trying to get about daily business, with roads being closed and whole areas being fenced off, not to mention the noise. Are there any plans to offer free/discounted tickets to residents? I can find nothing online suggesting this.

    • Alex Grant says:

      Thanks for your comment. Labour certainly wants to see a full review of the event soon after it takes place, I don’t think there is a discount for local residents, but this is a matter for Lewisham Council as the event takes part on their part of the heath.

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