The Department for Transport is refusing to release an internal report on the cancelled Garden Bridge project, claiming this would prejudice the commercial interests of the trust that developed it, now in liquidation
The Garden Bridge scheme, designed by Thomas Heatherwick and championed by Boris Johnson while mayor of London, collapsed in August 2017. It left taxpayers with a bill of £43 million, making it one of the costliest public scandals in British political history.
However, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to see the report – an assessment of the financial position of the Garden Bridge Trust made by the DfT’s internal audit team in July 2016 – was refused and then refused again on appeal earlier this month, sparking fury from MPs and members of the London Assembly.
The report has been suppressed on the grounds it is protecting the interests of the Garden Bridge Trust, which developed the project but which has has been in liquidation since April last year.
The report is understood to have warned that the project had a funding gap of up to £75 million and advised ministers against putting more taxpayers’ money at risk by extending the government’s guarantee of the trust’s cancellation liabilities.
In the same month the report was drawn up, the trust avoided collapse by adding five months to its accounting year.
Nevertheless, just days later, then transport minister Chris Grayling agreed to extend the guarantee indefinitely, capping it at £9 million.
Last year, the guarantee was called upon to cover cancellation costs with more than £5 million ultimately spent.
Labour’s shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald called the DfT’s grounds for refusal ‘spurious’ and said it would ‘undermine trust in politics’.
He said: ‘These revelations are shocking. The then-secretary of state Chris Grayling was warned by his own officials not to put taxpayer’s money at risk by continuing to back the ill-fated Garden Bridge project, but decided to plough ahead anyway.
‘Grayling must explain why he acted against the advice of civil servants to back Boris Johnson’s project even as it became clear it was in trouble. Millions of pounds have been wasted. The public has a right to know.
McDonald added that he hoped FOI watchdog the Information Commissioner’s Office would swiftly overturn the department’s decision.
Lib Dem London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon said: ‘In 15 years of the FOI Act operating I have never seen such weasel excuses for not answering a legitimate request for information from a public body.
‘The arguments put forward for refusing to publish this important report make no sense at all. Covering up and seeking to defend a failed charitable trust makes no sense at all.
‘The DfT should be putting the interests of taxpayers first. Instead, it is seeking to just cover up for past mistakes that it entered into along with Transport for London and the former mayor of London.’
Labour member Tom Copley – until recently chair of the Assembly’s Garden Bridge working group and now deputy mayor for housing – called the department’s refusal ‘absolutely unacceptable’ and questioned what it was trying to hide.
He said: ‘Sadly, it looks like the DfT is placing the protection of the commercial interests of an organisation in liquidation, above a commitment to transparency and the disclosure of information that is of considerable public interest.’
The FOI request was made last November by consultant and Garden Bridge expert Dan Anderson after he identified it as one of the few remaining official documents on the scheme not yet in the public domain.
Anderson’s initial request was turned down in late December, prompting him to make a request for an internal review of this decision in January. This itself was refused by the DfT after a lengthy delay. He has now appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office.
In his January letter to the DfT, Anderson said the ‘extraordinary level of expenditure’ on the unbuilt project was only one of the many reasons why disclosure is in the public interest.
Citing Garden Bridge investigations already carried out by the National Audit Office, the Charity Commission, Margaret Hodge and the Treasury among others, Anderson wrote: ‘Virtually all of these investigations found irregularities in planning, procurement, funding, governance and/or oversight. And they almost all stress the importance of learning from this project so that mistakes are not repeated.’
The DfT has been approached for comment.