Greenwich councillors have warned their own deputy leader that they may seek their own legal advice on seeing the finances behind the £45 million Woolwich creative district after they were barred from seeing full figures.
The town hall revealed in October that the arts complex in Berkeley Homes’ Royal Arsenal development – which includes the flagship Woolwich Works venue – had cost £14 million more than the publicised budget of £31.6 million.
The creative district is set up to be self-financing, and is run by a trust with former Greenwich Council leader Denise Hyland on the board. Former deputy leader Peter Brooks was also on the board, but has recently stepped down.
But the buildings are owned by the council, which bought leases from Berkeley Homes and then paid for their conversion into venues that can be used by Woolwich Works and the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk.
Councillors on the regeneration, transport and scrutiny panel have not been told how much Berkeley Homes was paid for the buildings, while they also say they have not been given enough information about the trust’s financial model.
The public was barred from seeing key performance indicators for the trust at a meeting on Thursday attended by deputy leader Denise Scott-McDonald and senior officers in charge of the project. A report produced before the meeting admitted that the council could have been more frank about the costs of the scheme.
Fellow committee member John Fahy said that not allowing councillors to see the finances of the project set a “dangerous precedent”.
“This is not the case on other authorities or other scrutiny panels,” he said.
“There may be an opportunity for us at some point to seek our own independent advice on the grounds that we believe we’re not being allowed by the scrutiny panel because of the impositions being placed on us.”
Committee chair Gary Parker added: “It’s a fair point.”
“We’re not about hiding anything, and we’re happy for you to seek independent advice,” Scott-McDonald replied.
“We’re happy to talk, whether in public or privately.”
“I’m still not entirely clear how much we have spent on this project,” Greenwich West councilor Aidan Smith said at Thursday’s meeting, querying the purchase of the leases from Berkeley Homes.
Daniel Stanesby, the council’s assistant director of capital projects, confirmed that the £45 million did not include the use of council taxpayers’ money to buy the leases, and that the sums could not be discussed in public.
“I think we would have to seek advice from legal on that,” he said, adding that he could not confirm whether he could send them to councillors on a confidential basis.
“We seem to have a lot of secrecy around the finances of this,” committee chair Gary Parker said. “I find it bizarre. Not only on the council spending, but from Woolwich Works as well.
“This is the third time this has come back here, and we still don’t seem to be moving much further forward.”
Parker said he supported the project “wholeheartedly” but could not understand why details of the trust’s financial model were being withheld from councillors.
“They view it as a commercially sensitive document,” Stuart Godfrey, a senior council officer said. James Heaton, the head of Woolwich Works, had attended the panel twice, he added.
“It’s the lack of information,” Parker responded. “Everybody is supportive, so what’s the issue?”
“I’ve always supported the project, but I didn’t realise it would cost this much,” said former deputy leader David Gardner, who was on the cabinet that approved the original scheme.
Council leader Danny Thorpe has previously lashed out at scrutiny of the project’s finances, branding rumours of an overspend as “fake news” before the overspend was confirmed. Residents were told in press releases in social media posts that the scheme would cost £31 million, not the final cost of £45.6 million.
Despite the controversy over its finances, Woolwich Works has been well-received since it opened in September, and was named best new culture spot by Time Out last week. An adult Christmas cabaret show, The Grotteaux, opens on Thursday.
Updated at 5.25pm to clarify that Peter Brooks is no longer a Woolwich Creative District trustee.
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