Wealthy donors who gave money towards the Garden Bridge are planning to sue the charity behind it after complaining that their money was ‘pissed down the drain’ when the project collapsed
Construction never began on the £200 million project, designed by Thomas Heatherwick and backed by former London mayor Boris Johnson. The scheme was scrapped last year after the Garden Bridge Trust failed to raise sufficient funds to build it.
While the taxpayer is expected to lose £43 million, private donors are owed almost £7 million by the trust and the AJ has now established that several are now claiming the trust broke promises to return their money in the event the bridge was not built.
Although the trust itself is insisting that it expects to return all funds which are returnable under charity law, Freeths - a national law firm with offices in Mayfair - is already acting on behalf of one anonymous donor who gave £250,000 for a bench on the bridge named after them and has not been reimbursed. Freeths is hoping to bring a group action on behalf of them and other donors against the trust, which is currently attempting to wind itself up.
Christopher Clayton, a solicitor at the firm, told the AJ: ‘Freeths is investigating claims against the Garden Bridge Trust on behalf of clients who donated considerable sums of money on the basis that it would be returned in the event the project failed.
‘The firm has undertaken a considerable amount of work and, although court proceedings have not yet been issued, details of one claim have been put to the trust, which has so far denied responsibility.
‘We understand that there are a number of both private and corporate donors who generously donated significant sums of money on the same basis.
£7 million was donated on a ‘restricted’ basis – namely it would be returned if the purpose of the donation couldn’t be fulfilled
‘According to the trust’s most recently filed accounts, it is believed that a total of £7 million was donated on a “restricted” basis, namely that it would be returned in the event the purpose of the donation could not be fulfilled.
‘We are keen to speak to any individuals who might have been affected in the same way and who may wish to join forces with us to form a group action against the trust.’
Garden Bridge donor, Michael Gross
One donor, Michael Gross, founder and owner of Sydney & London Properties, gave £50,000 towards the Garden Bridge and told the AJ of his anger at the trust’s stewardship of a scheme he believed to be in the public interest.
‘The money was pissed down the drain by a bunch of incompetents and I feel conned,’ he said. ‘They [the trust] told me at one stage that if it didn’t happen, I would get my money back.
‘I give a lot of money to charity and I thought this was a public good – something good for London.
‘The trustees are the people who are primarily responsible … they have taken a lot of money off a lot of people and have made a complete mess of it. It’s very irresponsible and the trustees should be banned from handling other people’s money.’
Gross also heavily criticised the former mayor Boris Johnson and added his voice to those calling for comprehensive new inquiries into the Garden Bridge to take place.
‘Boris has got a big mouth but he doesn’t deliver,’ he said. ‘There should be a Parliamentary inquiry and a criminal inquiry as well – the amount of money lost demands it.
‘Who got this £43 million? I want to know who got paid – a full accounting for £43 million worth of spending.’
Gross said he gave the donation at the request of Kara Ross, wife of US property developer Steve Ross, the billionaire founder of property developer Related. The company is developing the Hudson Yards scheme in New York, which includes Heatherwick Studio’s Vessel viewing platform. It has also formed a development partnership in this country with Argent.
‘She got me into Thomas Heatherwick,’ Gross said.
Heatherwick later collaborated with Gross’s Sydney & London Properties on a bid led by the Argent Related partnership to masterplan the area around Euston Station – though this lost out to a rival bid headed by LendLease.
The Garden Bridge Trust is currently seeking £5.1 million from Transport for London from a £9 million provision underwriting its cancellation cost provided by the Department for Transport (DfT), the final chunk of public money earmarked for it.
In its recently published set of accounts for the year to the end of March, the trust said that ‘the final amount to be drawn from the underwriting represents the excess of wind-up liabilities over the cash resources held by the trust’.
The trust’s chair, Mervyn Davies, also thanked funders and supporters ‘for their ongoing support and patience’.
However, London mayor Sadiq Khan has sought legal advice over whether TfL can avoid paying the £5.1 million following the publication of a QC’s highly critical legal opinion about the trust’s actions.
As the AJ revealed earlier this year, Jason Coppel, an expert in public and procurement law, said it was ‘likely’ that the trustees had breached their legal duties to act with reasonable skill and care, in particular in relation to the signing of a construction contract with Bouygues in 2016.
Coppel’s opinion prompted numerous calls for a Parliamentary inquiry from figures including shadow community secretary Andrew Gwynne.
For their part, the trustees – who had hoped to wind up the trust several months ago – are believed to strongly contest Coppel’s opinion.
A spokesperson for the Garden Bridge Trust said: ‘The trust has taken great care to ensure that the funds it has received have been correctly applied in accordance with the legal advice it has received. In all cases where the advice confirms funds as returnable under Charity Law, it is the intention and expectation of the trustees that they will be, and funders have been advised accordingly.
The process of repayment is certainly taking longer than anticipated
‘The process of repayment is certainly taking longer than anticipated, for reasons that are beyond the control of trustees, but we continue to work towards resolution with Transport for London; and in the meantime, thank our funders for their support and continuing patience.’
Michael Ball of Thames Central Open Spaces – which campaigned against the bridge – told local news website SE1: ‘Private millionaires and crony corporations – who had egged the project on with promises of donations – want back even the little money they put in … Sorry, you don’t get a refund on donations. If they weren’t in fact donations, the trust may have other questions to answer.
‘But the real question is – how the hell did the trust manage to spend so many millions and have nothing meaningful to show for it?
‘How much did the originator of this wheeze, Heatherwick, actually make from it all? Many, many millions. And still they want more? No.’
The Charity Commission declined to comment.