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Chancellor urged mayor to fund Garden Bridge

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Newly released correspondence has revealed Boris Johnson’s doubts over £30 million grant and underwriting maintenance costs

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, had serious misgivings about the cost to taxpayer of constructing and maintaining the £175 million Garden Bridge but was persuaded to stand behind it by ‘austerity’ chancellor George Osborne.

The Thomas Heatherwick-designed bridge is now to be funded by £60 million from the public purse – £30 million from Transport for London (TfL) and £30 million from the Treasury – while Johnson has agreed to underwrite the £3.5 million annual maintenance cost.

However, letters between Johnson and Osborne, obtained by the AJ under Freedom of Information (FOI), reveal that the mayor initially recommended ‘underwriting’ rather than contributing to the construction cost, and said he wanted to see the public sector contribution ‘recovered over time’ through post-completion fundraising by the charitable trust developing the scheme.

Johnson also told the chancellor he had no intention of underwriting the ongoing maintenance costs.

But Osborne – who described the project as ‘iconic’ – encouraged Johnson to make TfL’s £30 million contribution a grant rather than a loan, and said the mayor should underwrite maintenance costs if private support could not be found, describing it as a ‘small funding requirement’.

In a letter dated the 7 August 2013, four months before the £60 million public contribution was announced, Johnson wrote: ‘A government underwriting of around the £100 million figure we discussed would be an invaluable contribution to what I think is a very exciting scheme.’

But when he wrote again on the 28 January 2014, Johnson’s position had changed and he said he was ‘happy in principle’ to match the government’s £30 million contribution.

However he added: ‘As we discussed previously, I would like to see the fundraising activities of the Garden Bridge Trust continue beyond completion of the Garden Bridge to ensure that the public-sector contributions are recovered over time … the maintenance of the Garden Bridge will be a core function of the trust and I should clarify that I am not intending to underwrite maintenance costs.’

In a note at the end of the letter, the mayor suggested the City of London Corporation’s charity might help, adding in his own handwriting: ‘Can’t we get the City Bridge Trust to do the maintenance?’

Five days later, Osborne replied, agreeing that the City Bridge Trust and other potential funding sources should be approached but added: ‘It is vital that the bridge is properly maintained and so if the necessary level of private support cannot be found I would encourage you to stand behind this small funding requirement.’

He added: ‘I was surprised by your proposal that TfL should offer to loan the Garden Bridge Trust £30 million rather than to provide this as a grant. I imagine that providing this support as a loan rather than grant will make the job of fundraising even more difficult, which presents an unnecessary risk to the success of the project. I will therefore be paying the government’s contribution as a grant and believe you should do the same.’

The last four words of this sentence were underlined by hand.

Architect and former chairman of the RIBA procurement reform group Walter Menteth, who has previously raised concerns about the procurement of the Garden Bridge, said: ‘These letters reveal the austerity chancellor who is willing to fund an icon. He wants to fund a cocktail party bridge over social need. These two members of the Bullingdon Club are determining major public expenditure without any accountability or input from anyone else.

‘George Osborne seems to regard the Garden Bridge “icon” in the same way as he regards functional infrastructure despite not having any evidence that it meets any of the same functional criteria.’

Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: ‘These remarkable letters show just how absurd it is that the government is pushing ahead with this costly vanity project despite the over-arching goal of bringing spending down.

‘It is deeply concerning that the chancellor has also suggested that cost over-runs and maintenance costs will be picked up by taxpayers if ongoing private funding cannot be found – which, at this point, seems the most likely scenario. This flies directly in the face of the mayor’s public assertions that the TfL contribution would be capped and that additional ongoing costs would be picked up by the trust.

‘Taxpayers deserve to know how much this bridge – which barely functions as a bridge – will cost them in the long run, and the reasons that the chancellor is so keen on the project in a period of austerity.’

Caroline Pidgeon, Liberal Democrat leader in the London Assembly and a leading Garden Bridge sceptic, said: ‘This latest discovery reveals just how much Boris Johnson has had his arm twisted by George Osborne. The mayor of London was absolutely right to oppose not only TfL picking up the maintenance costs for the Garden Bridge, but also objecting to grant funding for its construction. Why the mayor backed down on these issues is just one of the many questions he must now answer over the Garden Bridge.’

Last month, outgoing TfL boss Peter Hendy confirmed, in a letter to Pidgeon, that he had ordered a review of the procurement of the Garden Bridge designer. This followed an FOI investigation carried out by the AJ, which has sparked accusations that the process was ‘pre-judged’ as a result of lobbying of the mayor by Garden Bridge backer Joanna Lumley.

Comment from Garden Bridge Trust

‘The Garden Bridge Trust is a charity responsible for raising £175 million for capital cost of the project and £2.8 million per year for maintenance and operations costs of the Bridge, which will be open 365 days a year, and free to all. We have shared our business plan with the Mayor, both parties are confident that the Trust can raise the funds needed for the maintenance and operations of the Bridge. It is on these conditions the Mayor has granted the guarantee, which has been shared with the City of Westminster and Lambeth Council.

‘The Trust have already raised £67 million in funding from the private sector, charitable trusts, and individuals in barely 18 months, which is an extraordinary achievement. It shows just how much support there is for this unique new green space and river crossing. We are on course for commencing construction in early 2016 with a view to opening the Bridge to the public in summer of 2018.’

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Readers' comments (5)

  • This story gets weirder - so it's not Frivolous Boris vainly pursuing his ego, it's Austerity George revealing that he's got a soft spot for spending other people's money, and large amounts of it at that, with the TfL paperwork in 2013 stating that it would amount to over £150m in state subsidy if they underwrite the maintenance, on top of the £60m they were at the time proposing - a mere "small funding requirement" in the eyes of the man cutting the ankles off the poor and disabled and vulnerable

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  • Diane Abbott MP has today put down an Early Day Motion condemning the Mayor and the Garden Bridge - it probably needs to be amended to focus on the Chancellor instead! GET YOUR MP TO SIGN IT!!
    "That this House is concerned that the Mayor of London has commissioned a Garden Bridge over the River Thames without prior public consultation and that between £60 million and £150 million of taxpayers' money will be spent on the project which will lead to the South Bank river walkway being narrowed, many trees and much green space ironically being sacrificed for a project which is labelled as green; notes with concern that the public space, currently grass and trees, would instead be used by private developers for retail, queuing and a platform for corporate entertainment and that views in both directions up and down the River Thames will be irreversibly lost; feels that while some parts of London, particularly in East London, need a new pedestrian river crossing, the proposed area is well catered for with a number of bridges nearby; further notes that with queues of up to 2,500 people, the bridge will not be a functional piece of transport infrastructure; therefore questions whether the project is within Transport for London's (TfL) remit and if TfL funds should be used on its construction and maintenance; and urges the Government to make representations to TfL and the Mayor of London asking them to reconsider the project and consult the public and key stakeholders before proceeding with it."

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  • The more we learn the foggier it gets. Why is the Chancellor so keen to use public money to bring into being an artefact that exists purely for its own sake and lacks any architectural or social merit? Normally a hard-headed man, has he been mesmerised by his childhood memories of fairytale castles? Or is something else going on? Whatever the thinking - and I'm intrigued to know what it really is - could this profligate use of public funds be a matter for the Public Accounts committee?

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  • For a Chancellor of the Exchequer to describe this bit of ill advised froth as 'iconic' suggests to me that he's been casting around for supposedly populist causes - and has perhaps succumbed, unwisely, to some rather questionable siren voices.
    The 'Northern Powerhouse' is one thing, but the 'Garden Bridge' is something else - and in egging on his Bullingdon pal Boris to participate in this jape he's surely stuck his neck out a good deal further than is prudent.

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  • There is certainly more to this than has been published so far. FoI is showing how significant decisions are made without public consultation on a 'mates' basis. This is more of a 'divide' than a 'bridge'

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