Greenwich Council leader Anthony Okereke has snubbed a cross-party panel of councillors over their proposal to bring an outsider in to monitor the finances of the troubled creative hub Woolwich Works.
Labour’s Clare Burke-McDonald and Elizabeth Ige and the Conservative leader Matt Hartley made the recommendation last week after Okereke announced he was to make available £2 million in loans to help the trust that runs the venue.
The council has already spent over £45 million on the project – busting the publicised £31 million budget for the scheme.
Two Labour councillors, Nick Williams and Majid Rahman, called in the decision for further scrutiny, with Williams arguing that there was a risk of Greenwich’s council officers having an “unconscious bias” towards a project they were heavily invested in.
A scrutiny panel made up of Burke-McDonald, Ige and Hartley agreed, and called for an outsider to monitor the bailout of the Woolwich Creative District Trust.
Okereke sided with his officers – who insisted they had the capability to carry out the role – and opted to ignore the councillors’ recommendation.
Woolwich Works opened last September and has won favour with critics. It has suffered from low ticket sales after opening during the pandemic, but the venue’s programming and promotion has also been criticised. At last week’s meeting councillors were told that the business plan had been predicated around Crossrail already being open.
However, one minor concession was given, hinting at the power already held by the council’s culture and communications team, which handles the town hall’s relationship with Woolwich Works, puts on events such as the recent Together 22 festival in Charlton Park, and deals with the wider media.
A report written by Stuart Godfrey, the assistant director for central and corporate services, said that the team was in talks with Arts Council England about securing a consultant who could produce a new cultural strategy for the borough.
That consultant will now be asked to assist the trust. “They will also be asked to engage the trust to see if they could provide any insight or experience which would help it deliver its business plan,” the report said.
Annual reports will also be brought to the council’s overview and scrutiny panel – a similar process helped uncover the budget overrun at Woolwich Works last year after rumours of problems were dismissed as “fake news”.
At last week’s meeting Okereke said the council would be “on the pulse of Woolwich Works. If the pulse speeds up, we’ll feel it. If the pulse flatlines, we’ll feel it.”
But his decision will leave the culture and communications team to continue dealing with Woolwich Works without regular outside scrutiny.
As well as the budget overrun for Woolwich Works, the same team has also been criticised for the cost of the council’s fortnightly newssheet Greenwich Info.
Two years ago, this website revealed that an arts project to put ribbons containing positive messages on “wishing trees” in the wake of the pandemic had cost £200 per message. The £95,000 Residents’ Rainbow scheme also included a light show from Severndroog Castle which was branded an “epic fail”.
Matt Hartley, the leader of the council’s Conservative opposition, said: “It’s not often that Labour and Conservative councillors agree on issues like this – so it is disappointing to see our shared concerns about this Woolwich Works bailout effectively brushed away by the leader of the council.
“While everyone wants Woolwich Works to succeed, I remain deeply concerned about the risks to the council taxpayer presented by this bailout. Now that the concerns raised through the ‘call-in’ process have effectively been ignored, it’s up to the administration to go the extra mile to show that these risks are being managed effectively.”