A letter released to the AJ under FOI has revealed that former London mayor Boris Johnson made a desperate bid to solve one of the project’s most intractable problems on his last day in office
The letter (see file attached) dated 4 May 2016, the day before the London mayoral election, was sent to GLA executive director of resources Martin Clarke, instructing him to execute the proposed guarantee of the bridge’s operation and maintenance costs.
This guarantee, which had been a key sticking point in the progress of the subsequently scrapped bridge, would have seen London taxpayers underwriting costs of between £3 million and £3.5 million a year.
Johnson wrote: ‘I have reviewed the Garden Bridge Trust’s draft operations and maintenance business plan and I am satisfied that it represents a satisfactory funding strategy to operate and maintain the Garden Bridge for at least the first five years from its completion.
‘Therefore, I am content for you to exercise the authority delegated under the terms [of the earlier mayoral decisions].’
Despite the letter, Clarke never executed the guarantee and Johnson’s successor Sadiq Khan – who was elected the following day – eventually became sceptical of the trust’s heavily-criticised business plan and went on to cancel the project in April 2017, sounding the death knell for the £200 million Heatherwick Studio-designed project.
A spokesperson for the GLA said: ’The required legal paperwork had not been drawn up in time for the guarantee to be executed, and the previous Mayor’s letter was only one part of finalising the guarantee to the satisfaction of all the parties concerned.’
Amid ongoing inquiries into the loss of an estimated £46.4 million of public money, the London Assembly will question Johnson tomorrow (1 March) about the Garden Bridge – the first former London mayor it has summoned.
Assembly members today seized on the letter, with Lib Dem Caroline Pidgeon, deputy chair of the assembly’s transport committee, calling it ‘extraordinary’.
It begs the question of why he was in such a desperate rush to sign the GLA up to this commitment before he left office
‘During his last hours in office, Boris Johnson was desperately trying to force through his beloved Garden Bridge when officers at City Hall had serious concerns,’ she said.
‘It really shows what lengths he would go to in order to protect his pet project, whatever the cost to the public purse or due process.’
Labour member Tom Copley said: ‘When Boris Johnson left office, the Garden Bridge project was clearly in trouble. The trust hadn’t secured the land on which to build it, didn’t have implementable planning permission, and had not secured the funds to operate the bridge for at least five years.
‘It was extremely irresponsible of Johnson to risk more taxpayer cash in this way, and begs the question of why he was in such a desperate rush to sign the GLA up to this commitment before he left office.
‘It is indicative of his entire approach to this project, which was to railroad it through, ignoring all the warning signs and proper procedures along the way.’
Michael Ball, chair of Thames Central Open Spaces, a local action group which took legal action against the Garden Bridge Trust, called Johnson’s priorities ‘bizarre in the extreme’.
Ball said: ‘There are so many things you would expect the mayor to be thinking about in his last day in office. But this letter shows it was this bauble he was most concerned about.
‘I think he was trying to tie the hands of his successor, trying to present the guarantee as a fait accompli.’
Johnson had initially promised that no public money would be spent on the bridge’s upkeep but then performed a U-turn after Westminster City Council made public underwriting a condition of its planning permission.
While Johnson said in 2015 that it was there ‘to cover wholly unlikely scenarios like the bridge falling into disrepair or major structural collapse’, this was later contradicted by Martin Clarke in his interview with Margaret Hodge, the veteran Labour MP tasked by Khan with examining the scheme’s procurement and value for money.
Clarke told her in autumn 2016 that his expectation was that the guarantee would be called upon.
When Hodge asked him: ‘So your advice to the mayor would be if he signs the guarantee you’ve got to do it on the basis that you might end up picking up the tab?’ Clarke replied ‘yes’ and also confirmed that his advice to Khan was the same as what he gave to Johnson.
The Garden Bridge Trust declined to comment. Boris Johnson has been contacted for comment.