London Assembly grills mayor over fundraising trip to San Francisco in February 2013: one month before TfL bridge competition concluded
Mayor of London Boris Johnson flew to San Francisco in an effort to win corporate sponsorship for a Garden Bridge before his administration had given official backing for the scheme, it emerged yesterday.
Appearing at a meeting of the London Assembly’s oversight committee yesterday (Thursday), Johnson admitted that he and other GLA staff had made a 24 hour round trip to the city in February 2013 to seek out sponsorship for the Garden Bridge.
However, Transport for London (TfL) - which Johnson chairs - has consistently denied that it supported plans for a Garden Bridge until the following month when it selected Heatherwick Studio’s proposals above rival non-Garden bridge plans by Marks Barfield and Wilkinson Eyre. The competition asked for high quality designs for a pedestrian bridge across the Thames between Temple and the south bank and made no mention of any garden element.
The oversight committee has spent months investigating whether Heatherwick’s bid was unfairly advantaged through its prior backing by actor and celebrity Joanna Lumley, an allegation first reported by AJ a full year ago which TfL continues to deny.
Johnson also faced questions from the committee after it also emerged that he chose to go ahead with a meeting on the Garden Bridge held on the 23rd of May 2013, the day after soldier Lee Rigby was murdered in Woolwich, when the capital was on high alert.
Questioning Johnson on his US corporate sponsorship bid - which has not secured any funds to date - committee chairman Len Duvall said: ‘In February 2013, you undertook a 24 hour trip to San Francisco – it was some endeavour but you managed to do it.
‘There was some secrecy at the time about why that trip took place. I wanted to clarify that it took place because you were trying to seek out a sponsor for the Garden Bridge. Is that correct?’
The mayor responded: ‘That’s entirely correct’.
Duvall asked who else attended San Francisco meetings on the project and Johnson responded that ‘at least one other member of the GLA’ had been in attendance but said he did not wish to say anything further because of a risk of ‘prejudicing’ a potential sponsorship deal.
The mayor said he would ‘take advice and get back’ to the committee with further information when Duvall questioned whether Heatherwick and Lumley had also attended.
Expenses claims made in January 2013 show that Johnson and deputy mayor for planning Edward Lister both claimed more than £4,000 for return flights to San Francisco while deputy mayor for transport Isabel Dedring also attended, claiming less than £400 for airline tickets.
Committee member and leader of the Lib Dem group Caroline Pidgeon also asked the mayor about his Garden Bridge meeting on 23 May 2013, a fact which was uncovered via a recent FOI request.
Who was at this meeting and what was it about?
‘Why was this not reported to the Assembly?’ Pidgeon asked, adding ‘This was the day after Lee Rigby was killed. You had an awful lot on your plate, a COBR meeting in Whitehall and all that. Why was this so important? Who was at this meeting and what was it about?’
Johnson replied: ‘I’d be very happy to…I’m afraid I don’t have the details of who was at the meeting as I’ve not had notice of that but I’d be very happy to supply any information we’ve got on that. You can take it that, yes, we were seeking sponsorship for the Garden Bridge but I can’t now tell you who was there.’
Caroline Pidgeon, Leader of Lib Dem group, London Assembly
’When the mayor made this lengthy and expensive trip there were no official plans by TfL for a Garden Bridge. The tender document for an initial design of a pedestrian footbridge had not even been published.
’You don’t start lobbying for investment in a specific scheme when it has not been selected unless you are absolutely certain of the outcome. It is mockery to claim that it was an open and fair competition when the Chair of Transport for London was already flying around the world seeking investment for one proposal.
’Boris Johnson’s behaviour before the London Assembly’s Oversight Committee was at times a disgrace. When challenged to provide key details he simply became abusive to members of the committee.”
’He must finally publish full details about every meeting he has held about the garden bridge including in 2013. At present he is refusing to answer a number of questions I put to him back in October.’
Will Jennings, anti Garden Bridge campaigner
’The timing of this San Francisco trip is most interesting. That Boris Johnson, as chair of TfL, went to find sponsors for a project which didn’t exist and wasn’t discussed within the organisation at a senior level until months later raises many questions both of the mayor and TfL.
’A taxpayer funded trip to promote a specific development which hadn’t yet been chosen as the winner of a procurement process (which itself wasn’t even asking for a “garden bridge”) suggests the whole project was a done-deal in the minds of those at the top way before the procurement process had even begun. How many more meetings took place before March 2013 which we haven’t been told about?’