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.’