Greenwich council have failed to address concerns over financial issues with Woolwich Works at a full council meeting last night (29 June).
The venue opened less than a year ago but request for additional funds have been made.
Construction cost the authority £45 million and construction ran some way above the public figure of £31 million often quoted in council publicity during construction.
Former Greenwich Council leader Dan Thorpe adopted the language of Donald Trump and called rumours of a cost overrun “fake news” shortly before the cost overrun was revealed. It still went over budget even accounting for a high level of contingency and covid support from government covering delays.
It seems a great shame if they are experiencing issues as the venue is a fantastic space with huge potential for the area, but issues are clearly in evidence around publicity and whether the program is attractive to enough people to shell out and buy tickets.
It’s not been an easy ride for the project. Throughout the gestation period I watched various council meetings on the issue and saw how councillors were not given clear answers to queries on issues that arose.
When some raised concern about cost overruns shortly before opening they were told there was no firm cost figure – and one couldn’t be given despite just weeks to go before opening.
They also raised the issue of the borough’s Heritage Centre and archives being evicted to a Charlton warehouse with very limited access. They were told plans were being drawn up for a new centre. Nothing has yet appeared a year on.
At a full council meeting on 29th June 2022 Greenwich Conservative councillor Matt Hartley asked about the new issue (Question 19 here) on what type of support the venue needs.
The response from Councillor Adel Khaireh, Cabinet Member for Equality, Culture and Communities, offered few details on what support the £45 million venue needs less than a year after it opened in September 2021.
He stated the Trust which now runs the venue is yet to come forward to clarify.
Suspicions were somewhat raised as other points in a written response didn’t address the funding issue. An attempt to deflect and paper over the cracks?
The answer spoke of GLLaB providing jobs – as of course a hospitality venue could find no other way of finding employees than the council using themselves to do it via an internal agency that swallows much funding.
The staffing issue is also interesting as if there’s one thing you often here about the venue it’s very high levels of staff.
At most events and venues people are begging for more bar staff. Woolwich Works sometimes appears to have more staff than punters.
There was also mention of free shows for children – though that isn’t going to keep it running. Crossrail’s delay was also mentioned, and while clearly a factor failing to do much to highlight the venue to people leaving the station isn’t impressive.
There seemed no public acknowledgment of issues that one hears time and again since opening.
Could one problem be a niche program which may work in zone 1 but struggle in outer London and zone 4?
Personally I’m a fan of much of the output from Woolwich Works (and enjoy visiting other London venues such as Café Oto which also has a somewhat non-mainstream output) but was always dubious the programming in Woolwich and a venue of such size (it has a number of event spaces) would work like, say, Cafe Oto unless there’s some more popular – and dare I say mainstream – events to cross-subsidise.
That would allow revenue generation to support the vital role of giving a platform to some excellent and creative output on offer.
After all, the Firepower museum on site failed not too long ago. Woolwich is certainly better connected now but it’s not Zone 1. It’s bold to have the program they do and it feels a bit rough to knock it, but ultimately is it sustainable?
As for events to widen appeal and bring in cash, let’s look at stand-up. The Amersham Arms in New Cross run a weekly stand up for less than a tenner with regular well-known figures. Woolwich Works put on very occasional stand up events – sometimes with less well known names – at a higher price.
There was also mention from the council of the pandemic – though the venue opened post-lockdowns. Many hospitality and gig venues have bounced back.
One key issue that shouldn’t be too hard to solve is dire advertising for the venue both in the immediate area and beyond.
Walk around Woolwich town centre and you see next to nothing. Walk around the new Elizabeth line station as well as the National Rail and DLR station and it’s the same story. Or the Thames Clippers terminal. Even outside the venue it’s minimal.
If you have a venue with little advertising and events that aren’t appealing – and visitor numbers seem to back that up – then it won’t work.
Hopefully with added income comes a reworking. Surely it’ll have to. Don’t throw out the good stuff – but add to that with events that will bring in people both locally and further afield.
If Woolwich Works the whole area benefits hugely, but as things stand it’s not hitting the mark.