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Fury as Black Country Christmas lights switch-on ends in chaos

By Jamie Brassington | Rowley Regis | News | Published: | Last Updated:

Families were “crushed” during overcrowding at a Christmas lights switch-on, it has been claimed.

The poster for Blackheath Christmas Lights Switch On

Thousands of people, including those with young children, attended the Blackheath switch on event on Saturday evening.

But organisers were left facing criticism over management of the event by hundreds of people who took to Facebook over the weekend.

Event organiser Walk Works CIC, which has managed the event for three years, said the switch-on was scaled back this year.

Sandwell Council cut the budget for festive events across the borough this year including the costs of Christmas trees.

The authority has apologised that the event "fell well short" of expectations.

Blackheath ward councillor Kerrie Carmichael said the event was "very crowded" with the event made "60 per cent smaller".

The event attracted a similar crowd from 2018, which is around 6,000 people.

Members of the public slammed Sandwell Council on Facebook, branding the event "car crash" and an "utter disgrace".

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Councillor Maria Crompton, cabinet member for safety communities, said a debrief will be taking place in light of complaints.

Some of the comments left on the Sandwell Council Facebook page regarding the Blackheath Christmas Lights Switch-on

Writing on the council's Facebook page, Samantha Crumpton said: "I actually thought me and my baby was going to die at one point!

"We were getting crushed and pushed and I looked around with no way out of the crowd.

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"It was horrible and stressful and couldn’t even see the lights turn on! Terrible organisation. I go every year!"

Julie Ann Finch said: "My kids got stuck by the stage getting crushed. We couldn't move.

"I had to hold my seven-year-old in the air. How dare you put our safety at risk! Never again you - should be ashamed of yourselves!"

'Disgrace'

Kel Thackery said: "Utter disgrace of a event. Talk about putting families in danger.

"Not closing roads off, sticking it all in one tiny part of the street. Too many people crammed in a small space. You're actually breaking health and safety."

Stacey Caffrey added: "Absolute car crash! Only half of the town closed off! Everybody squashed trying to see the stage!

"The road wasn’t even closed off far enough to see the Christmas tree lights turn on! Next year close the whole town off as you have previously!"

Money to organise the switch-on is taken out of an allowance called the Local Area Budget (LAB).

This budget is also used by community organisations for events throughout the year.

But there has been a cap placed on Christmas spending this year.

In Blackheath and Cradley Heath, which shares the spending on Christmas events, the amount available has been reduced from £8,000 to £5,000.

Councillor Carmichael said: "What happened was the budget was cut for the Christmas lights event.

"Each town has an allowance to spend, but the allowance has been capped.

'Very crowded'

"Around 6,000 people attended the lights switch-on, but about 40 or 35 per cent of the high street was used from last year.

"I was told people were having to lift pushchairs over other people, although I didn't see that myself.

"It was very crowded and people couldn't get to the stage."

The Christmas tree budget in Sandwell was also reduced earlier this year from £16,000 to £10,000.

Halesowen and Rowley Regis parliamentary candidate Ian Cooper, a former Sandwell Council officer who previously used to organise the event, said: "They have asked organisers to do the job with much fewer resources.

"The decision to cut the funding was made by someone with no connection to Rowley Regis.

"I'm told the police were consulted throughout the event. They said the event was safe and they would have shut down the event straight if it wasn't."

Councillor Maria Crompton said the decision to cut the budget was made so more resources could be allocated to community organisations during the rest of the year.

Walk Works CIC is understood to have been paid £2,000 to organise the event.

The poster for Blackheath Christmas Lights Switch On

Councillor Crompton said: "The lights switch-on was very popular. We will have to have a debrief about this.

"The money that pays for the Christmas lights event comes out of the LAB fund. This money goes to helping charities and organisations.

"In past years, a huge chunk has been taken out of that budget for Christmas events, which should be given to organisations.

"We put a cap on Christmas events which allowed for more LAB organisations to get more money throughout the year."

She added: "Walk Works saw that the space had gotten smaller, there was fewer road closures, and knew what space we had.

"They, therefore, should have tailored the event to fit that space. Obviously it did get overcrowded.

"I am not saying anyone is to blame. We have got to have a debrief over what happened."

In a statement, Walk Works, said: "This is our third year of organising Blackheath Christmas Lights Switch-on.

"We had a conversation with Maria [Crompton] during peak attendance time, but no overcrowding issues were raised by her then.

"We consulted and checked with police, security and first aiders numerous times during the event and they were happy with the how things were.

"Prior to the event Walk Works attended a Sandwell Safety Advisory Group meeting where all risk assessments and insurances were approved.

"The smaller footprint for the event was due to Sandwell Council cabinet decision to cut the Christmas budget.

"We accommodated this by omitting the Christmas market stalls, Sandwell Youth Bus and street entertainment, there was a smaller funfair than usual."

A Sandwell Council spokesman said: "We’ve received lots of complaints about Saturday’s Blackheath Christmas lights switch-on event.

"We have arranged an urgent meeting with the organisers to discuss the concerns people have raised around safety and other matters.

"We want these events to be a huge success for everybody to get into the Christmas spirit and we’re sorry to hear that this event fell well short of expectation.”

Jamie Brassington

By Jamie Brassington
Senior Multi-Media Journalist - @JamieB_Star

Senior reporter at the Express & Star. Contact me at jamie.brassington@expressandstar.co.uk.

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