Greenwich Council leader Anthony Okereke has insisted that the town hall will be “on the pulse” of the troubled Woolwich Works creative hub as councillors pressed for an outsider to be brought in to monitor its finances.
A panel of three councillors, sitting in a specially-called meeting, last night called for a feasibility study to be made for an independent expert to examine Woolwich Works’ progress after Okereke decided to make £2 million in loans available to the trust that runs it.
Clare Burke-McDonald and Elizabeth Ige, from Labour, and the Conservative opposition leader Matt Hartley also said the Woolwich Creative District Trust should pay back the cost of appointing an outsider – estimated to be about £26,000 – to the council.
The trust runs the Woolwich Works venue as well as the buildings housing the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk. Woolwich Works is also home to a number of other arts organisations and has recording and rehearsal studios. The council paid £45m to set the creative district up – £14m over its publicised budget – but the trust had been meant to pay its own way from day one.
Okereke now has to decide whether to accept the councillors’ recommendation or to press on with the loans to bail out the trust, which is struggling under poor ticket sales after launching last September, during the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Poor promotion and niche programming have also been criticised.
A possible compromise mentioned by councillors could see the feasibility of getting an outside expert assessed, but that option held in reserve for later.
But councillors were wary of allowing their officers to effectively mark their own homework after the initial costs went over budget. “If we don’t spend now [on outside expertise], we risk the return in future,” Burke-McDonald, who chaired the panel, said.
Okereke said he was relaxed about his decision being challenged, but said the council’s plans were ambitious and “say that this is a council that will be on the pulse of Woolwich Works. If the pulse speeds up, we’ll feel it. If the pulse flatlines, we’ll feel it.” He added that he had confidence in the council’s finance team to manage the loans.
Greenwich Peninsula councillor Nick Williams called in the loan decision along with East Greenwich colleague Majid Rahman. He said that given the history of the trust as a council project, he feared there would be an “unconscious bias” among its officers when it came to dealing with Woolwich Works.
But Damon Cook, the council’s head of finance, said that he had a specific legal duty to ensure that local taxpayers got value for money and that his department could call on its own expertise with no previous links with the council. “We have somebody who is objective when it comes to Greenwich, full stop,” he said, adding that details would be shared so cabinet members would be able to monitor Woolwich Works’ progress.
Hartley said that the council needed someone with experience in the arts sector to monitor the loan, but Stuart Godfrey, the council’s assistant director for central and corporate services – who is in charge of its relationship with the trust – said there was “a lot of experience on the board of Woolwich Works – its chair [Ben Howarth] was the director of transformation at the Tate”.
Godfrey said that the business case was based around Crossrail being open at the time the venue staged its first shows. The business case has never been made public, with councillors threatening to seek legal advice last year because they were unable to see it.
Challenged by Ige on whether council officers would struggle to challenge Woolwich Works on its finances, Cook said that his team reviewed business plans frequently, “whether it’s a voluntary organisation looking for funding or a multi-million pound organisation bidding for a contract. At the end of the day these are professionally qualified individuals who will do the right thing.”
Godfrey also insisted his own team – which includes the council’s communications department – had the arts specialists who could deal with Woolwich Works.
“There are hundreds of issues of Greenwich Info to attest to the skills of Stuart and his team,” Hartley joked.
All three councillors on the panel agreed that there should be a study into getting an outsider to monitor Woolwich Works’ finances, and that the trust should pay their costs back.
“It was pitched to me as our answer to the South Bank,” said Hartley. “I’m not convinced that we’re equipping ourselves to protect the taxpayers’ interest.”
Burke-McDonald raised the South Bank and the Tate, saying: “We’re trying to do something brave – look at the value and return that has come out of those institutions.”
A first loan of £550,000 is to be paid this month, with a further £880,000 available to be drawn down by 2024. A further £175,000 is also available for further works to the building to help it reach its commercial potential.
Woolwich Works has said it will take steps to improve its publicity and signage, with little on the outside of the building to indicate what goes on inside.
The venue is currently hosting Rumpypumpy, a beach bar in its courtyard. It was deserted when 853 visited at 2.30pm last Friday, in blazing hot weather, while following last night’s meeting just three people were seen approaching the bar. The only publicity for the bar was an A-board outside.
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