Bring in an outsider to monitor Woolwich Works finances, Labour councillors demand

Woolwich Works sign
Woolwich Works opened last September but has struggled to attract audiences

An outsider should be brought in to monitor the budget of Woolwich Works as a condition of Greenwich Council’s bailout of the troubled creative hub, two Labour councillors have said.

But the council’s own officers are pushing back against the proposal. They say they are suitable to do the job themselves and that getting outside help would cost an extra £26,000.

Council leader Anthony Okereke plans to offer £2 million in 15-year interest-free loans after disappointing ticket sales at the venue, which has been hit by the pandemic and the late opening of Crossrail but has also been criticised for poor programming, promotion and publicity.

Greenwich spent more than £45 million – £14 million more than its publicised budget – in setting up Woolwich Works, as well as refurbishing other listed buildings in the Royal Arsenal so they can be used by the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk. The main Woolwich Works venue also includes recording and rehearsal studios.

Last December, councillors were threatening to take legal advice because the town hall’s own officers were refusing to release details of the Woolwich Creative District Trust’s business plan.

The council now admits that the plan is “no longer realistic” and has told Woolwich Works to pursue more commercial programming to pay off its debts.

Plans to lend the trust money were announced two weeks ago, but were called in for scrutiny by Greenwich Peninsula councillor Nick Williams and East Greenwich councillor Majid Rahman.

They say there is “a need for an external and independent person” to monitor Woolwich Works’ performance, and that this should be investigated.

A panel of three councillors – Labour’s Clare Burke-McDonald and Elizabeth Ige, and the Conservative leader Matt Hartley – will discuss the proposal next Wednesday.

Woolwich Works
The Woolwich creative district project involved renovating five historic buildings

A report for the meeting prepared by Stuart Godfrey, the council’s assistant director for central and corporate services, says the idea would be a waste of money.

Damon Cook, the council’s director of finance, is legally in charge of monitoring Woolwich Works’ performance, in conjunction with Godfrey, who is effectively in charge of the council’s relationship with Woolwich Works.

Godfrey says that Cook’s department has the capacity to manage the job “effectively and objectively”.

“If the council were to bring in an external consultant to undertake the review, this would incur additional costs,” he said.

“They wouldn’t have the in-depth knowledge of Woolwich Works that council officers already have, nor the statutory responsibility. Even following the consultant option, officer time would still be required to brief the consultant, to review their work and potentially produce council reports setting out their findings.

“Guide costs for engaging a consultant to undertake the work would be £400 – £500 per day and it is anticipated that a budget of around £26,000 would need to be identified.”

Okereke does not have to go along with a call-in panel decision – so if the panel were to recommend commissioning outside help to get Woolwich Works back on track, then he would have to decide whether to accept the findings of his councillors or those of his officers.

In January 2019, his predecessor Danny Thorpe overruled councillors on a contract to publish the council’s “dull as ditchwater” freesheet Greenwich Info. This also involved Godfrey, who insisted that councillors were wrong to say that they were not receiving the publication.

Hartley had tried to call in the Woolwich Works decision himself, but was beaten by the two Labour councillors. He had called for the trust to pay interest on the loan – which could earn the council up to £315,000 – and for councillors on the committee to be given confidential access to the business plan.

Despite its financial problems, Woolwich Works has been praised by arts critics. It is currently playing host to Rumpypumpy, a pop-up beach bar inside its central courtyard.

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