Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe has hit out at opposition politicians asking if the new Woolwich Works arts centre had gone over budget – branding the rumours “fake news”.
Thorpe came under questioning both at Wednesday’s full council meeting and at a scrutiny meeting from Conservative leader Nigel Fletcher.
Both Labour and Conservative politicians have raised concerns about the cost of the centre, budgeted at £31.6 million with a contingency of £11 million.
But it was the Conservative leader who felt the anger of Thorpe, when the council leader used a phrase made famous by Donald Trump when he did not like his actions being scrutinised.
Woolwich Works, which will open in September, is the flagship venue in the Woolwich Creative District project in the Royal Arsenal. While work is nearly finished, it has been hit by both the pandemic and construction difficulties in its listed buildings. The venue will be joined next spring by the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, which has a five-year lease on buildings centred around the former Firepower museum.
Earlier this month the former council deputy leader David Gardner – who backed the scheme as a cabinet member – used a scrutiny meeting to ask a council officer for updated figures. ““You hear rumours of £50 million, £48 million – £42 million, I’ve heard – so it’d be nice to get something definitive on what the actual cost of this is,” he said. Gardner was told a report would be produced soon, something that was also welcomed by his Labour colleague Ann Marie Cousins.
Fletcher picked up the issue on Wednesday night, saying that his party “supported Woolwich Works in principle” and hoped it was a success, but added: “It is obviously a matter of public concern that it looks like costs may rise. It’s important that those concerns raised at scrutiny are properly responded to.”
Despite the rumours about Woolwich Works’ finances being raised by his Labour colleagues, Thorpe attacked Fletcher’s Tories.
“I do recognise from some of the comments that I’ve seen that there are some members on your side of the chamber who, despite your warm words, are seeking to create fake news about this,” he said.
Suggesting Fletcher read the budget agreed in March 2017, he said: “Obviously we’ve had Brexit and a pandemic since then which have absolutely done things to costs.
“You can’t be clear about the cost of a building and a project which is still in development… so it’s not really fair that we’ve not been clear about the envelope for Woolwich Works because it was published in the cabinet report some years ago.”
After the hint that the project may have eaten into its contingency funding, Fletcher raised Woolwich Works again last night when Thorpe addressed the overview and scrutiny panel on the council’s priorities.
In a discussion about regeneration, Fletcher commented that the council’s policy of investing in schemes such as Woolwich Works and the Eltham High Street cinema, where the private sector may be unwilling to take a risk, was “interesting” and could be replicated in smaller-scale projects.
But Thorpe dismissed the question, saying: “I’m interested that you refer to Woolwich Works as ‘interesting’, which is not the words you were using last night, and it does feel like the opposition need to make up their mind about whether they think Woolwich Works is a good or a bad thing.”
Fletcher responded: “Woolwich Works is exactly the right thing to be doing; we want it to be a success and to keep a close eye on it”.
Labour councillor David Stanley raised the issue too, but Thorpe said: “I’ve nothing further to add,” and also directed him to the original budget for the scheme. “We’ve obviously committed to coming back with fuller details once this project has finished.”
Thorpe also defended the council’s policies on regeneration, singling out the nine-year-old Tesco in Woolwich – lambasted by architecture critics – as a success. Last year a planning inspector branded it “a terrible mistake”, adding that the building was so ugly it needed hiding from view by a new development.
“Regeneration has always been about securing benefits for people who live here, not just exporting people in who have a different demographic,” he said,
“Some people were delighted when Tesco won the Carbuncle Cup, which was basically some sort of middle-class joke about buildings people didn’t like, but at the same time that was 400 jobs to mostly Woolwich residents, so I think mostly we’ve a good story to tell.”
Asked about raising funds for the council, Thorpe suggested that space in the council’s Woolwich Centre – built alongside Tesco a decade ago – could be rented out to businesses if there were fewer council staff in the building if more are working from home. Part of Lewisham Council’s HQ in Catford is let out to artists and designers.
“If there’s less people in the building then you could arguably rent out a floor and create a space for other firms and local businesses to use, so that could be the direction of travel,” he said.
“But the line of work most of us are in – you cannot do all of these roles from home.”
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