Woolwich Works lost £1.4m in its first year after Covid-19 disruption

Woolwich Works
Woolwich Works opened in September last year but was badly bit by the pandemic

Woolwich Works lost £1.4 million in its first year of operation as it battled against the effects of the pandemic and struggled to bring in audiences, its newly-published accounts reveal.

The Woolwich Creative District Trust, which controls the arts hub in the Royal Arsenal, saw its bank balance halved in the year to March 2022 – which included its first six months as a working venue.

Greenwich Council, which spent £45 million on building Woolwich Works – £14 million over its publicised budget – announced three months later that it was offering the trust “urgent” help, making available £2 million in loans.

The venue has been rearranged so that many performances take place in its cafe bar, making them more visible to passers-by, following criticism that its existence had been poorly promoted.

The venue opened on September 22, 2021, but shortly afterwards it was “effectively forced to close” because of the Omicron variant of Covid-19, which swept through the country in late 2021. Ben Howarth, the trust’s chair, added that the closure “had a detrimental impact on our work to establish an audience … with the enforced cancellation of our Christmas cabaret and a significant knock-on effect to or programmes and events pipeline which did not start to recover until the spring”.

Of the trust’s income of £619,000, some £171,000 came in “community hire fees” and were classed as charitable income, while a further £283,127 came from commercial hires, shows and events.

But the trust spent £970,000 on staffing costs alone, employing 51 people. The accounts indicate that the highest-paid individual was paid between £90,000 and £100,000. James Heaton, the chief executive, left earlier this year. Another member of staff earned between £60,000 and £70,000.

Despite the Omicron disruption, the accounts said that the trust had put on 108 public performances and delivered 35 sessions for schools during that period.

Woolwich Works
The chair of trustees said building up Woolwich Works would be a gradual process

Two Greenwich Labour councillors – Denise Hyland and Dave Sullivan – are on the board of Woolwich Works. But others within their party have raised issues about transparency at an organisation that has received so much public money and is so closely connected to the council. At one point some threatened to seek their own legal advice about seeing the venue’s business plan, which it later emerged was heavily dependent on the Elizabeth Line’s opening.

Last summer councillors called for an outsider to monitor Woolwich Works’ finances, but council leader Anthony Okereke refused. He insisted that the town hall would be “on the pulse” of what was going on at the trust.

The accounts do not cover the most recent financial year, which ended last month. Those accounts, which will give a fuller picture of Woolwich Works’ opening months, are expected early next year.

Howarth told 853: “Woolwich Works had a challenging first year but the Trust is taking positive steps to build the business, with the recent changes we have made to the business plan. Some of the most visible of these are to the Visitors’ Book Café, with a new stage and regular performances across a range of music and comedy. This will be a gradual process, but one that is necessary to secure its long-term future.

“We are grateful for the support from both the Royal Borough of Greenwich and the growing number of people who book tickets for a show, donate to our charitable campaigns or just come in for a coffee at Woolwich Works. This week we’re excited to be announcing the first few acts for the second Woolwich Words & Sounds festival that will take place in September.”

Updated at 11.40am with Woolwich Works comment.

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