Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe refused to say last night why the town hall had claimed the Woolwich creative district would cost £31 million – when it ended up costing £45.6 million.
Nigel Fletcher, the Conservative opposition leader, raised the issue three weeks after it was revealed that the project in the Royal Arsenal had gone £14 million over its publicised budget.
The scheme, which includes the flagship Woolwich Works arts venue and a home for the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, was approved in 2017 with a budget of £31.6 million and a contingency of £11.1 million.
But council publicity – including a Facebook post featuring Labour leader Thorpe and at least two press releases – sold the venue to residents as costing £31 million.
Delays caused by the pandemic and the discovery of structural issues with buildings that had barely been maintained since the Ministry of Defence left the site in 1994 contributed to the cost overrun.
At last night’s full council meeting, Fletcher, a councillor for Eltham South, asked Linda Perks, the cabinet member for finance, why the council had used the lower figure when publicising the scheme.
“It might have been more transparent to use the higher figure,” he said.
“We’re talking some years ago,” Perks said of publicity issued as recently as July 2019.
The full figure was “absolutely in the public domain from the start … the contingency budget was quite clear that it included things like architectural fees and the designers’ fees”, Perks responded.
“I think we were quite consistent from the start about the projected cost.”
Thorpe – whose role as leader includes overseeing the council’s PR operation – interjected to complain that Fletcher had “implied that we’re not being transparent” and that “I have to defend myself”.
“Councillor Fletcher isn’t prepared to say to everyone in this chamber and online what he was saying to everyone on the opening night of Woolwich Works about what a fantastic project it was.
“It would be really useful if you did not try to insinuate that people are being misled and if you were prepared to be more public in what you said on the opening night.”
Fletcher has praised the creative district scheme in past meetings, saying in July that the project was “exactly the right thing to be doing”.
During last night’s meeting, Thorpe said on social media that his remarks were “a fact check on a councillor trying to suggest that people have been misled”. When asked why the council’s publicity machine told residents the scheme was costing £31 million, Thorpe did not respond.
The leader’s tetchiness may well reflect anxiety in his own party at the cost of the project. In July, he branded questions about an overspend as “fake news” – even though the issue was also being raised by Labour councillors.
The final £45m bill does not include the cost of the council buying the buildings, transactions which took place three years before the project was commissioned.
Research carried out by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in 2018 found that Greenwich paid Berkeley Homes £9 million for Building 19, which will be taken over by Punchdrunk next year.
A separate trust has been established to run the creative district, with Woolwich Works expected to operate without council funding. Punchdrunk will pay a portion of its turnover as rent.
Woolwich Works has been well-received since it opened at the end of September. This weekend it plays host to a show by Cape Verdean singer-songwriter Carmen Souza and a cabaret night, Spookalicious!, hosted by drag queen Diane Chorley.
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