Greenwich Council is poised to give more money to Woolwich Works – despite initially pledging that the £45 million arts centre would not need any future funding.
Last year it was revealed that setting up Woolwich Works had cost £14 million more than the council had told residents it would cost.
Now the town hall has indicated that it will shell out more money to support the Woolwich Creative District Trust, the charity that runs the site, after a difficult first year.
An entry on the council’s website published on Thursday evening states that a report is coming in August that “will set out support required for the trust to establish itself and to help sustain it in the early stages of operation, as the sector recovers from the pandemic”.
Despite being flagged up five weeks in advance, the notice to Anthony Okereke, the council leader, is flagged “special urgency”, which means councillors cannot challenge its findings by calling it in for a special scrutiny meeting.
A council spokesperson told 853 that proposals to help Woolwich Works would be revealed at Wednesday’s full council meeting.
In council meetings last year, the leader at the time, Danny Thorpe lashed out at questions about Woolwich Works’ finances, claiming rumours of an overspend were “fake news”, a phrase made famous by Donald Trump. However, those rumours were broadly correct.
The Woolwich Creative District project, which includes the flagship Woolwich Works venue and a home for the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, was approved in 2017 with a budget of £31.6 million, with a contingency of £11.1 million. In publicity, the council sold the project to residents as costing £31 million.
But the final bill for the project came in at £45.6 million after construction and power supply issues, which required new substations to be built. While the project was delayed due to the pandemic, government grants covered this cost. This sum does not cover the cost of acquiring leases to the buildings.
Thorpe refused to answer questions about why the project was sold to residents as costing £31 million, while the council later admitted it could have been clearer about the possible costs of the venture.
As well as Punchdrunk, four other artistic companies are based at Woolwich Works, while there is also a recording studio, rehearsal studio and education suite.
Late last year a panel of councillors threatened to obtain their own legal advice after being denied access to information about the trust’s financial model. They were allowed to see some data on a confidential basis.
The trust’s first chair, Dr Valerie Vaughan Dick, stood down in February, although recruitment materials for her successor, who has not yet been confirmed, stated that she had come to the end of her term.
There have been some worries within the council about the programming at Woolwich Works, the cost of shows as well as the lack of publicity for them.
Nothing on the outside of the venue indicates what is on, with a sign outside still noting that the venue “opens September 23, 2021” – nine months after the first customers entered the building. There is also nothing to advertise the cafe inside.
Woolwich’s new Elizabeth Line station does not contain signage directing visitors to the venue, with a map inside still showing the Greenwich Heritage Centre, which it replaced.
One attendee at a homecoming show for the grime artist Afrikan Boy, who was brought up in Woolwich, told 853 that they were surprised how few people were in the venue during the show in March. However, another concertgoer who went to see the National Youth Jazz Orchestra – which is based at the venue – in the same month said that it attracted a big crowd.
Next month the venue will launch a three-week festival of music, comedy and spoken word, Woolwich Words and Sounds.
The leader of the council’s Conservative opposition, Matt Hartley, said he had submitted a question about the performance of Woolwich Works to Wednesday’s full council meeting.
He told 853 yesterday: “This looks ominous. Everyone wants Woolwich Works to succeed, but if the Council is indeed planning some kind of bailout, then local taxpayers deserve to know what they are potentially getting in to.
“We need openness from the council on what form of support for the trust is being considered, for how long it would be in place, and what plan is being developed to ensure both commercial and social value expectations are met.”
A council spokesperson told 853: “In spite of Woolwich Works opening during the unprecedented times of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the short amount of time it has been open, it has already won plaudits including Time Out’s Best New Culture Spot Award 2021. It has also created employment opportunities, and presented free performances to schools in the borough, amongst many other successes.
“The council is continuing to support the trust in order to help sustain it in the early stages of operation in order to help it go from strength to strength.
“A report will be published at full council next week, in which you will find more information on the collaboration between the Council and Woolwich Works. ”
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