Former London mayor Boris Johnson has struggled to explain how £7 million of public money was allocated to the already troubled Garden Bridge in early 2016
During a fiery appearance at the London Assembly yesterday, which followed a summons to the former mayor by the London Assembly’s oversight committee, Johnson refused to accept any blame for the collapsed Heatherwick-designed project and its estimated £46.4 million cost to the taxpayer.
Johnson, who is now Foreign Secretary, also attacked his successor Sadiq Khan as well as the AJ’s long-running investigation into the project.
But it was when assembly member Tom Copley turned to the decision to release £7 million to the Garden Bridge Trust in January 2016, just ahead of the trust’s signing of a construction contract with Bouygues, that Johnson appeared most uncomfortable.
Copley asked him why the funds – from Transport for London (TfL) and the Department for Transport (DfT) – had been released given the trust had not secured at least five years’ worth of funding for operations and maintenance costs – one of the necessary conditions set out in the Deed of Grant between the trust and TfL, which was chaired by the then mayor.
‘All I can do is refer you to [TfL commissioner] Mike Brown’s letter – TfL believed that the conditions of the Deed of Grant had been met,’ Johnson replied.
Copley then asked how this condition could have been met given that Johnson then oversaw the ‘watering down’ of the identical condition attached to the mayor’s proposed guarantee for the bridge’s operations and maintenance costs in April 2016. At that point, the condition was changed from the trust being able to show it had the necessary funds to merely showing it had a ‘satisfactory funding strategy in place’.
‘You asked me something I’m afraid I simply don’t have at this distance in time,’ Johnson replied before attempting to turn the conversation to later decisions made by Khan.
Copley made several more attempts to ask Johnson why the condition was altered, but Johnson said he would have to refer him to his previous answer.
Asked what he would have done differently with the Garden Bridge, Johnson’s only concession was that he had tried to deliver the Heatherwick-designed scheme in too short a timescale and was too quick to believe that Khan would support it.
Calling the Garden Bridge an ‘excellent’ project, he said it was a ‘bitter disappointment’ that it had been scrapped, laying the blame for the estimated £46.4 million bill to the taxpayer entirely at Khan’s feet and describing it as ‘money down the drain’.
Asked about the procurement and the many meetings that took place between his team and Thomas Heatherwick including the infamous trip to San Francisco ahead of TfL’s design contest, Johnson said the competitive process was conducted in a spirit of ‘complete openness’.
Johnson also claimed that reports in the AJ about the behaviour of TfL officers regarding the Garden Bridge project had ‘crossed a line’.
Challenged by the chairman of the oversight committee, Len Duvall, about whether officers should be held accountable, Johnson said he agreed with this.
But he went on: ‘The allegations of corruption, the insinuations have been really quite horrendous and they’ve been connived at in the Architects’ Journal, which has published a stream of abuse about these individuals, motivated – to the best of my knowledge – by a dislike that the Architects’ Journal has – or the journalist concerned has – of Thomas Heatherwick who is not conceived of as being a proper architect and is therefore somehow worthy of abuse.’
The AJ’s investigation into the Garden Bridge began in December 2014 and non-architect designer Heatherwick was awarded the AJ’s AJ100 Contribution to the Profession Award in June 2015.