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Ex Tory minister accuses Garden Bridge Trust of misleading public

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Former Tory transport minister Steven Norris has accused the Garden Bridge Trust of ‘egregious doublespeak’ after it emerged its chair told the government the project might be terminated, while on the same day telling the public it was ‘full steam ahead’

According to correspondence released under Freedom of Information, Garden Bridge Trust chair Mervyn Davies also told transport minister Tariq Ahmad that its contractor had been put on standby.

The letter, written on July 11, was part of the trust’s successful request for the Department for Transport (DfT) to extend its financial guarantee for the £185 milion project.

In the letter – marked ‘commercially sensitive and strictly confidential – Davies discussed significant hurdles for the project such as the challenge of a judicial review plus ‘greater demands’ than anticipated placed on it by third parties.

‘Taking these factors into account and considering the public sector exposure, the trustees took the prudent decision to put our contractor [joint venture Bouygues Travaux Publics and Cimolai SpA] on standby, thereby limiting our expenditure and capping the public sector exposure should the project need to be terminated,’ Davies wrote.

‘As a result, should the project be terminated between now and September 2016, the requirement of the underwriting would be limited to approximately £8 million.’

Davies added that the project now had a revised construction programme and that the intention was to start on site in spring 2017.

But research by the AJ has revealed that on the same day, July 11, the trust was telling the public that the project was ‘full steam ahead’, and this phrase appeared in the headline of a story published that evening by London’s free daily paper the Evening Standard.

Again on the same day, the trust published a separate press release on its website which made no mention of the revised timetable or the standing down of the contractor, and included the words: ‘Construction work has not been halted because it has not yet begun.’

Former Conservative transport minister and London mayoral candidate Steven Norris – who oversaw construction of the Jubilee Line in John Major’s government – led criticism of what he called ‘dreadful revelations’.

‘I’m appalled at the way the Garden Bridge Trust has been acting in recent months,’ he said. ‘These revelations are a perfect example of doublespeak at its most egregious. The trust has consistently maintained that all is well with their project while this is patently not the case. The reality is that there was never a case for taxpayer support for the Garden Bridge. It is based on a fanciful idea which has never been properly open to public scrutiny.

There is not a snowball’s chance in hell of this frivolous idea ever returning a penny to the public purse

‘It serves no useful transport purpose, it will not be open to the public in any normal sense of the word but most importantly it will undoubtedly require capital grant from taxpayers and further financial support in perpetuity. There is not a snowball’s chance in hell of this frivolous idea ever returning a penny to the public purse and I suspect the trustees know it. They should do the decent and honourable thing and wind the trust up as soon as possible.’

Liberal Democrat member of the London Assembly Caroline Pidgeon accused the trust of ‘blatantly attempting to mislead the public’.

She said: ‘It is bad enough that the Garden Bridge Trust has failed to file its accounts on time and continues to shield identifying so many of its private donors, however it is shocking to further discover that the [trust has] been peddling the claim that the Garden Bridge is all on track when the reality is totally the opposite.’

However the trust maintained that ‘no deception’ had taken place.

A spokeswoman said: ‘You are comparing a letter to our delivery partner outlining funding risks where we discuss the worst-case scenarios with a press statement that clearly talks about the operations work the team is doing to move ahead on all the planning activities required to enable construction to commence.

‘In a similar way a board will discuss future risks of a company or project and a management team will promote the operational work being undertaken. We have similar conversations with our delivery partners and stakeholders on a regular basis.’

A spokesman for London mayor Sadiq Khan said: ‘The mayor is on the record as pledging to make the Garden Bridge project more open and transparent.’

The correspondence between Davies and the DfT was released following a request made in the name of Tom Francis.

In a separate development, the AJ has also learnt that the mayor has now to decide on whether to sign off the underwriting of the annual maintenance cost of the bridge, thought to be worth £2-3 million per year and a requirement of the project’s planning permission.

This agreement was put in place by Khan’s predecessor Boris Johnson, but is dependent upon the Garden Bridge Trust demonstrating to the mayor’s satisfaction ‘that it has a satisfactory funding strategy in place to operate and maintain the Garden Bridge for at least the first five years from its completion’ – a condition yet to be satisfied.

Both in May and again in June, the mayor said the trust had a ‘credible business plan’ but his language in a statement released this week appeared more sceptical.

A spokesperson for the mayor said: ‘Sadiq is reviewing all of the guarantee documentation and the Garden Bridge Trust’s business plan. He will not allow any guarantees to be entered into unless he is convinced that this will not lead to further public expenditure down the line.

‘The trust is aware of the mayor’s position and he will make a decision in due course.’

 

Readers' comments (5)

  • Is this crescendo going to culminate soon.. Gripping stuff. It's like watching a bad multimedia movie via the AJ website, se1, LBC, Twitter, Hardcopy in the Evening substandard and the guardian with BBC radio London on in the background and updates on BBC newsnight!

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  • The Garden Bridge Trust definition of 'credible' appears to be rather different to that of those of us who'd like to see open and honest process in the promotion and approval of high impact edifices like the Garden Bridge - despite only a few paltry tens of millions of public money having been thrown at it by our elected leaders.
    The smart politician might now think that both the public and personal interest are best served by standing up to - rather than getting caught up in - the dissembling.

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  • This crescendo should culminate in court, where legitimately it should have been many months back. Due diligence, good governance and public accountability should not be taken for granted, they have to be upheld and be maintained.

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  • The Garden Bridge might have been a ‘Green’ element to prettify the Thames but London was never supposed to expand or densify in the way it has done post war. (because it was already vast, polluted and had become totally unmanageable by the 19thc (The Great Wen) let alone in the 20th/21st c).

    I suggest a lot of people have now changed their minds over the implications of the Garden Bridge since Brexit. Challenging the procurement process might appear like investigating planning transparency and funding on the public’s behalf when in fact the real purpose is to delay or kill off the project. This another version of doublespeak- George Orwell in ‘1984’ . (if Stephen Norris thinks there are mixed messages: there always are.).

    There are undoubtedly bigger and better things to do at this time of radical reassessment post Brexit. Britain’s/England’s role in the world is as part of a global society that uses English for communication yet is part of the UN and the Commonwealth and does not have separate assembly within the UK . What is the REGION of the GLA capital of: Question the boundaries of the GLA when London once had a County Council then a GLC- does it set planning precedents for the UK?) The Council of Europe is the regional body of the United Nations as articulated in Churchill’s 1946 Zurich speech. (on the web)

    If linking a Garden Bridge to ‘the other side’ of The River was perceived as a symbolic means of creating a ‘Third Way’, this will not do it anymore than Lambeth Garden Museum does. (Perhaps the ‘One Nation’ Tory Establishment could be called the Garden Party. Lambeth Palace is after all where The Archbishop of Canterbury lives.)This shows up the pretence that there is any separation of the issues when Architecture is a subject in its own right, not merely a branch of Theology. (which in Ruskin’s day was seen as impartial whilst Medicine and Architecture were applied subjects- The Liberal Arts date back to classical Greece and Rome.)

    If he wants to be seen as impartial as a Labour Mayor, I suggest Sadiq Khan goes back to the demolition of Southwark Towers and takes a look at the planning permission to demolish it in favour of the Shard . Hating the railways and 1960’s architecture is an ongoing ideological / political war the Establishment can hide behind when it is big money from countries like Qatar that have changed the face of London. Wonder what sort of ‘Green’ world the GLA was thinking of when it passed permission to demolish a tower block over a station in favour of a ‘Spire’, when in 1984 Prince Charles wanted London to look like Canaletto with St, Paul’s Cathedral as the central focus.

    Nothing could be murkier than the way in which The Shard was approved under New Labour yet the irony is that the single spire of Strasbourg Cathedral was once the highest in Mediaeval Europe. Strasbourg is where THE COUNCIL OF EUROPE is located. The EUROPEAN COMMISSION awarded the Charlemagne Prize to the Pope this year. No wonder Donald Tusk (European Council- Polish) thought pre our referendum that this is more like the eve of WW1 (when there was still a German Empire with Berlin as the capital). Reunification for Germany post the Cold War is as complicated as devolution is for us.
    London has become a BANKING CAPITAL of the World when White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism is exactly what ‘The Left’ was against. Berlin might have once been the capital but Frankfurt is the banking capital. THE CITY OF LONDON is the City: a state within a state, as are Vatican City (1929) and Washington DC . The City London was supposed to emulate in the post war era was PARIS whose BANKS OF THE SEINE (on the web) are a UNESCO World Heritage site.

    If anyone in the current decision making process had ever read anything other than planning policy guidance post 1988, council minutes and opinion polls to see which party’s policy can gain brownie points when they are being paid to implement proper planning, instead of behaving like property speculators , there might have been a proper debate by now. Architects, planners et al have all studied in order to get JOBS to contribute to society, not to be destroyed and take the blame for political mistakes that mask more fundamental differences that are eternal. Plato thought the City was like a Man. It has been one man’s lifetime since WWII ended.

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  • It was said that the funding would be spend equally. So having spent £40m of PUBLIC money when can we expect a payment back into the public purse of half of that? Scrap this ridiculous monument to avarice as soon as posible.

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