Greenwich councillors have voiced concerns that Woolwich’s £31 million creative district may have gone way over budget – with one saying that the final bill could be as much as £50 million.
Woolwich Works is due to open in the Royal Arsenal in September after being delayed for over a year by the coronavirus crisis, with its opening line-up of music, theatre and other events announced earlier this month and tickets now on sale.
The venue, which will be based in the old Greenwich Heritage Centre, will be joined next spring by the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, which has a five-year lease on buildings centred around the former Firepower museum.
Councillors approved the project in 2017, in the wake of Firepower’s closure, and gave it a budget of £31.6m, with a further £11m held as a contingency – much of which has gone on refurbishing historic buildings in the Arsenal to make them fit for use. Both Labour and Conservative councillors have repeatedly voiced concerns about the cost of the project at a time when cuts are being made elsewhere.
Last night’s regeneration scrutiny committee heard one of the councillors who approved the scheme – former Labour deputy leader David Gardner – question how much the project was really costing after hearing of problems encountered during construction, including the discovery of an “ancient tunnel” beneath one of the buildings Punchdrunk will occupy.
Gardner, who is no longer on the cabinet and now sits on the scrutiny panel, asked Daniel Stanesby, the council’s assistant director of capital projects, if he could clarify the final cost of the project.
“When we supported it, it was £32m, I’ve heard a lit of new figures, so I’d like Daniel to confirm how much of the council’s money has been spent so far and how much will have been spent by the end,” he said.
“You hear rumours of £50 million, £48 million – £42 million, I’ve heard – so it’d be nice to get something definitive on what the actual cost of this is.”
Stanesby said it was “too early” to answer questions about the final finances. “We’re in discussions with the contractors about wrapping up all of the costs and doing the final cost analysis – the construction works are nearing completion and we’ve still got the fit-out to do, so I don’t have a final figure as I sit here today.”
Abbey Wood councillor Ann Marie Cousins added that it would be good just to see figures for the work in progress. Committee chair Gary Parker suggested that Stanesby return to the panel in September to give more details.
Gardner said that Stanesby had “skirted around” the questions about the venue’s budget.
Last month James Heaton, the chief executive of Woolwich Works, said that the venue would not require ongoing funding from the council, and that the money spent on refurbishing the buildings would be a worthy investment.
“The money has gone into the asset – the buildings,” he said. “You haven’t given me £30 million to do a bit of music and theatre, you’ve given it for buildings that you own predominantly and you still own as a council.
“My personal view is that it generates a very good return if what the council wants is a vibrant arts centre that does what it has asked it do without requiring ongoing revenue funding.”
Stanesby said that Historic England was considering taking the Royal Arsenal buildings off its “at risk” register following the work.
Another former deputy leader, Woolwich Riverside councillor John Fahy, questioned Stanesby on Punchdrunk’s commitment to Woolwich. The final lease has not been signed, more than three years after the tie-up was first mooted.
Stanesby said that Punchdrunk would be moving out of its current base in Tottenham and that some staff were already working in the Arsenal. “They are committed to moving into Buildings 17,18, and 19 and we are very close to signing the final lease arrangements,” he said.
As well as Punchdrunk, the Chineke! orchestra, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, the Woolwich-based dance company Protein and the Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair will all be moving into the centre.
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