The Mayor of London has been accused of misleading taxpayers after it was revealed public money could be used to underwrite the £3.5million annual maintenance costs of Thomas Heatherwick’s proposed Garden Bridge.
More from: Farrell: ‘Garden Bridge is an indulgence’
The pledge, made in a letter from the Greater London Authority’s Development Enterprise and Environment department, goes against Boris Johnson’s previous promise in December when he publicly denied that taxpayers’ money would be used for the upkeep of the controversial £175million link.
At the City Hall question time last year he also insisted that Transport for London (TfL) would not act as guarantor for the costs (see AJ 17.12.14) and the mayor repeated that the ‘maintenance cost will not be borne by the public sector’ on the radio earlier this week.
One of the conditions of Westminster City Council’s planning approval for the planted bridge, which will connect the South Bank with the Temple Station, was a guarantee for its maintenance from the Garden Bridge Trust (see AJ 02.12.14).
Questions had already raised about whether the bridge’s backers, which include actor Joanna Lumley, could afford to pay the annual costs and last week anti-Garden Bridge campaigners began crowdfunding to raise funds for a legal challenge against the planning approval for the contentious crossing.
Now in a letter uncovered by Labour London Assembly member John Biggs it has been revealed that Johnson’s office has ‘in principle’ promised to ‘to provide such a guarantee’ (read the full letter here).
Biggs said: ‘Johnson has been caught red handed misleading Londoners, promising that maintenance costs won’t be borne by the public sector whilst at the same time drawing up plans to do exactly that. This fiasco shows how little Boris Johnson’s word is worth.
“In East London, where we desperately need new river crossings, the Mayor expects people to pay a toll. For the Garden Bridge, a scheme which is little more than a tourist attraction, he is willing for taxpayers to underwrite millions of pounds each year in costs.
He added: ‘Boris’ focus has always been on glitzy vanity projects rather than what London actually needs. Underwriting millions for the Garden Bridge shows just how much taxpayer money he is willing to risk to keep Joanna Lumley happy.’
A spokesman for the Garden Bridge Trust said: ‘[We] fully intend and expect to raise the money required for both the construction of the Garden Bridge and the ongoing maintenance and operations.
‘More than £120million has been pledged so far and we have a clear business plan in place to raise the estimated £3.5million per annum needed to cover the on-going costs.
The provision of a guarantee is a technical requirement
‘The provision of a guarantee is a technical requirement required to discharge one of a number of conditions set by Westminster City Council and others separately by the London Borough of Lambeth.
‘We are confident we can meet these in order to start construction work on the bridge next year.’
Carlo Laurenzi, chief executive of the trust, told the paper: ‘The location and design of this bridge seems to reflect personal vanities rather than any meaningful attempt to connect Londoners to the capital’s rich natural and horticultural heritage.’
Response from Boris Johnson
Statement from the Mayor’s official spokesman said: ‘On Tuesday during his regular LBC phone-in programme the Mayor was asked if he would use public money to cover the maintenance costs of the Garden Bridge. He said he would not. Since then the London Labour Party has accused the Mayor of misleading Londoners, sighting the existence of plans for a Mayoral guarantee as proof.
‘Labour appear to have misunderstood the terms of the guarantee. They are wrong to assert the Mayor is misleading Londoners. For the avoidance of doubt the Mayor stands by his previous comments that no public money will be forthcoming for the maintenance costs of the Garden Bridge.
‘The Mayor fully supports the Garden Bridge Trust’s approach and is confident that their business plan for funding the maintenance costs is robust.
‘In fact one of the requirements of the guarantee itself is that the Trust will have to demonstrate that a credible business plan is already in place for maintenance and operations.
The guarantee is there to cover wholly unlikely scenarios
‘That business plan has to include a stipulation that funding to cover maintenance costs for the first five years has been secured by the Trust. If these terms were not met then the Mayor is absolutely clear that the Trust would be in breach of the guarantee, that the balance of capital funding would not be paid and that construction of the bridge could not go ahead.
‘Beyond the first five years the Trust would be required to submit a five-yearly business plan to City Hall for Mayoral approval to demonstrate how future costs are to be covered.
‘The reason for a having a guarantee from the Mayor is to meet a planning requirement imposed by Westminster City Council. As with any other major infrastructure project in any big city the guarantee is there to cover wholly unlikely scenarios like the bridge falling into disrepair or major structural collapse.’
Boris to underwrite Garden Bridge upkeep costs in shock u-turn