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Boris: TfL won't underwrite Garden Bridge upkeep

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Mayor of London Boris Johnson has insisted he has no intention of agreeing to underwrite the expected £3.5million annual maintenance costs of Thomas Heatherwick’s proposed Garden Bridge.

During a City Hall question time session today (December 17), Johnson was asked for an update on progress with the controversial £175million scheme to create a new pedestiran link with trees connecting the South Bank of the River Thames with the Temple Station area, north of the river.

London Assembly Liberal Democrat group leader Caroline Pidgeon called on Johnson to confirm whether he would comply with a Westminster City Council condition attached to its approval for the scheme requiring Transport for London (TfL) to act as guarantor for the bridge’s upkeep costs.

Johnson replied: ‘I can confirm that no such undertaking has been made, nor do I undertake to do so.’

Pidgeon also asked Johnson why scheme proposers the Garden Bridge Trust would be allowed to impose entry restrictions on the bridge, even though it was being part-funded with £60million of public money.

Johnson said he was not aware of any plans to introduce ticketing for the bridge, but said there were solid reasons for proposals to limit group access to the bridge.

‘The objective is to prevent the whole thing being taken over by large groups, who might be out to demonstrate or do damage to the bridge or the flowers or whatever,’ he said.

The mayor, who is expected to formally add his seal of approval to the bridge project on Friday, said that under the current timetable for the bridge, contracts were due to be finalised in autumn 2015 for construction to begin in 2016.

Responding to a heckler who described the Heatherwick’s scheme as a ‘bridge of sighs’, Johnson insisted the project would be as beautiful as the Bridge of Sighs, ‘as much of a tourist attraction’ and would ‘last even longer’.

He did not specify whether he was referring to Venice’s Bridge of Sighs, or its namesakes in Oxford and Cambridge.

Previous story (AJ 15.12.14)

Boris to announce Garden Bridge decision on Friday

Boris Johnson is set to issue his decision on Thomas Heatherwick’s controversial Garden Bridge later this week, but not before he is grilled on the project by London Assembly members.

The London mayor’s verdict on the £175million structure – which already has the approval of both Westminster and Lambeth councils - will be issued on Friday (19 December) after a closed-to-the public session at City Hall, insiders confirmed today.

However Johnson faces a barrage of questions over the ‘planted’ bridge, which has been spearheaded by the actress Joanna Lumley but dubbed a folly by opponents, at a public mayor’s question time session on Wednesday.

Assembly members Caroline Pidgeon, Darren Johnson, and Stephen Knight, have formally tabled questions on the proposals, which will require a combined £60million of public funding from the Greater London Authority and HM Treasury.

Pidgeon, who is Liberal Democrat group leader on the assembly, tabled a simple question asking for an update on the bridge, but the move gives her the right to ask supplementary questions. Last week she pledged to demand answers from the mayor on the appointment of Heatherwick Studio to the job, after an AJ investigation.

‘Just because the Garden Bridge is the brainchild of a celebrity, there can be no justification for cutting corners in the process of selecting architects,’ she said.

‘Despite being a hugely significant project, backed up already by £60 million of taxpayer’s funding, it appears that the selection process may have been flawed.’

Darren Johnson (Green Party) is demanding to know further details of the benefit-cost-ratio calculations related to the bridge, and how they compare with proposals for a bridge for pedestrians and cyclists linking Rotherhithe in south east London with Canary Wharf north of the River Thames.

Following tentative proposals to control group access to the bridge and close the structure to the public for special events, Stephen Knight (Liberal Democrat) is seeking a commitment that Londoners will have access to the bridge ‘in perpetuity’ in return for part funding it.

He also wants to know whether Transport for London will ‘act as guarantor’ for the bridge’s projected £3.5million annual maintenance costs.

Last week it emerged that St Paul’s Cathedral was not consulted on the Garden Bridge proposals, either by Lambeth Council or the City of Westminster.

In a letter pointing out the omission, cathedral surveyor to the fabric Oliver Caroe said that as well as presenting ‘significant harms’ to protected views of Chirstopher Wren’s masterpiece there were particular concerns over the financial sustainability of the bridge.

He said: ‘The detrimental effect on protected views would be greatly increased in the event of the planting failing and/or if the planting were unmaintained and allowed to overgrow. Both prospects appear to be equally real.’

Caroe’s letter can be read in full in the ‘Related Files’ section to the right of this story.

Jay Das, solicitor and planning expert at Wedlake Bell

Public opinion is divided on the aesthetics and even the manner in which the bridge is to be funded. The councils have decided that the public benefit of securing an iconic structure outweighs the harm, namely from loss of views.  Those who are opposed to the new bridge may consider the differing approaches taken by authorities to schemes promoted by well-known architects set difficult precedents.

In the planning evaluation of the scheme, many norms have been reconsidered (i) the general premise that loss of views would in all other circumstances result in a refusal (ii) the concept of a public transport related structure which is partially privately funded and will be closed at times to the public to  generate private income (which income generation will not then be applied towards the considerable annual maintenance costs) such costs to be bourne by the public purse (iii) the notion that a section 106 agreement will be concluded after permission has been issued is novel for such a  major development, as there can be little ‘real’ recourse over its details after grant of permission. One might question why it is legitimate for one planning authority to secure such rights if they are north of the river but not for those south. 

Judicial review is often described  as a ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ but it is the only remedy available once permission is granted. 

It is clear that the scheme has more promoters than adversaries with only the London Mayor yet to give his stamp of approval, which is surely a matter of form [and expected Frdiay 19 December]. In this climate who would consider challenging the decision, where proceedings are costly and the outcome uncertain?

 

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