Joanna Lumley’s extraordinary effort to convince Boris Johnson of the merits of her Garden Bridge plan has been revealed in correspondence between the pair
Just six days after Johnson won his second term as London mayor in May 2012, the actor and campaigner penned a hand-written note to him, offering him a ‘thousand congratulations’ and adding ‘our cheers and shouts reached the rafters, soared above the Shard…wonderful news for London.’
The letter (see was released following a Freedom of Information request made by the AJ.
Lumley - who first conceived the idea of the bridge in the late 1990s – wrote that she and designer Thomas Heatherwick wished to meet Johnson to discuss their plan ‘in the near future’.
She described the bridge as a ‘green pedestrian bridge, with cycle tracks alongside, with container-grown trees: and beauty and practicality in equal measure.’
The bridge, which now boasts planning permission from both Westminster and Lambeth councils, no longer includes provision for cyclists and Lumley told a Lambeth planning meeting last November that she alone was responsible for that decision because it would stop the crossing being a ‘peaceful place to walk’.
The letter to the mayor claimed that the bridge would bring ‘great loveliness’ to the Thames and added, ‘please say yes’.
She signed off the letter by thanking Johnson for ‘the tulips and the Forth Plinth photographs’.
In his reply the following month, Johnson said he would ‘very much like to hear’ about the plan but suggested Lumley initially meet his chief of staff Edward Lister and deputy mayor for transport Isabel Dedring because of his busy Olympic schedule.
Johnson first leant his formal backing to the Garden Bridge in August 2013 when he announced that the Greater London Authority and Transport for London would ‘help enable’ the scheme.
Critics said the letter underlined the extent to which the Garden Bridge project - which has secured £60m of taxpayer funding but was originally intended to be almost entirely privately-funded - had sidestepped public procurement rules and was driven by those ‘able to personally lobby the mayor’.
Leader of the Liberal Democrat group in the London Assembly, Caroline Pidgeon, said the letter raised ‘significant questions’ over why cycle access had not been retained and how ‘the changing views of one individual can lead to such an important revision in the architectural design of a major project’.
She added: ‘If public money is to go into the Garden Bridge then at the very least it should meet the needs of the widest range of Londoners and not just the views of those who are able to personally lobby the Mayor.’
Darren Johnson, the leader of the Green Party in the Assembly said: ‘This shows how a Mayoral enthusiasm for an idea and the people who are promoting it, can quickly turn into a £60m public investment.
‘As with other projects the Mayor has been involved with, Boris Johnson has assumed that there will be little investment from the public purse and has then ending up sinking millions into getting his pet project off the ground. Public procurement rules are meant to protect transparency and lead to a robust case for a project, but I have real doubts about the outcomes with this process. Useful transport elements of the original idea, such as a cycle track alongside the bridge have been abandoned and we have been left with a tourist attraction with no guaranteed public access.’
A spokesman for the Mayor said the bridge would be a ‘fantastic new landmark for London’ and said it was a shame that Assembly members continued to criticise it.
He added: ‘All infrastructure projects are subject to change in the design process and it is absurd to suggest that the Mayor was persuaded to support this iconic scheme solely on the basis of it having a proposed cycle track.
‘As well as offering Londoners a stunning new way of enjoying the river, the Garden Bridge will be a major draw for visitors to our city, helping to support economic growth on both sides of the Thames.’
A spokesman for The Garden Bridge Trust said: ‘The design has evolved and been informed by detailed assessments of transport and pedestrian use. Including segregated cycle lanes would mean less space for people and planted areas.
‘There are alternative existing and proposed cycling routes over the river nearby, which will provide direct and fast access for cyclists.’
Martin Knight, a bridge architect and former chairman of the RIBA competitions task group:
‘Grand projets require a visionary patron and an inspired designer and there is no doubt the Garden Bridge is a project of positively Presidential ambition.
‘But the equally ambitious French projects of Giscard d’Estaing and Mitterand were the results of public architectural competitions, where the lavish spending of public money was carried out in public view and subject to public scrutiny and debate.
‘When the Garden Bridge was committed £60m of the British taxpayer’s money – more than double the cost of the nearby Millennium Bridge – the change from an initially private fantasy to a major project backed with TfL’s and the Treasury’s money should have triggered some form of public debate and architectural competition that was open and transparent, instead of being hurriedly legitimised by a planning process that did not anticipate its audacity.
‘The fact the commitment to the bridge offering a public space is heavily caveated - including the exclusion of cyclists in apparent contradiction of the Mayor of London’s policy - reinforces the poor value this project will offer the (national) tax paying public who are paying for one third of it.’