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Exclusive: TfL hit by Garden Bridge conflict of interest claims

Garden bridge revised

Transport for London’s planning boss sought to persuade central government to release £3.5 million for the controversial scheme after accepting a job at the project’s engineer, Arup

Transport for London was today embroiled in claims of a conflict of interest over the Garden Bridge, following the release of emails to the AJ under the Freedom of Information Act (see below).

A year ago, Transport for London’s then managing director of planning Richard de Cani accepted a top job at the global engineering firm, handing in his notice on 1 January this year and starting work in May.

De Cani – now head of planning for the UKMEA region at Arup – had been closely involved with the bridge’s controversial procurement from its 2012 inception, including the selection of Joanna Lumley’s team of Arup and Heatherwick Studio. 

The £185 million Garden Bridge will be partly funded by £60 million of public money, half coming from TfL and half from the Department for Transport (DfT). Under the terms of the funding agreement with the Garden Bridge Trust, both public bodies each released £3.5 million of this money to the Trust in February. The release of the funding to the Trust was dependent on it signing a construction contract and, crucially, meeting several conditions including demonstrating that it had the money to build the bridge and maintain it.

The correspondence, which begins on 29 January, shows that despite his forthcoming move to Arup, De Cani was permitted to play a key role in the drawing down of this multimillion-pound sum during his notice period. This included trying to persuade the DfT to release its £3.5 million tranche by arguing that certain key conditions had been met.

It is not known whether Arup was a direct beneficiary of this money, but the release of the £7 million by the two government bodies was a critical step towards realising the Garden Bridge. TfL officials are bound by a code of conduct which adheres to the Nolan Principles of Public Life. These principles state that public officials must avoid conflicts of interest or the perception of a conflict of interest.

Labour London Assembly Member Tom Copley said the correspondence raised ‘serious questions’ and pledged to write immediately to TfL commissioner Mike Brown.

Mike brown tfl

Mike brown tfl

Source: Transport for London

Mike Brown

‘Is it appropriate that someone who had accepted a job with Arup – a company with a vested interest in the success of the Garden Bridge – was so heavily involved in these financial negotiations?’ Copley said.

‘We’re not talking small fry, we’re talking millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money handed over when there were still crucial concerns about the Trust’s ability to meet the conditions of its contract.

‘This project has been cloaked in a thick smokescreen from the very start. This is only going to reduce public confidence that their money has been put to proper use.’

Consultant Dan Anderson of tourist attraction consultant Fourth Street, a prominent critic of the Garden Bridge’s business plan, called the latest revelations ‘crazy’.

He said: ‘From the moment it was known that Richard de Cani was joining Arup, he shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near the project. Instead, he was right at the heart of it and using his position to potentially accelerate some big, reckless decisions on public spending that could ultimately benefit his future employer.

‘This is now about trust in public officials that control some very large, very important budgets. You had someone at the DfT trying to exercise a measure of caution and he was hustled and harried… by a senior TfL official who was, at the time, a de facto employee of a company in the Garden Bridge supply chain.

‘The mayor should terminate this project if only to send the message that playing parlour games with public money is not acceptable.’

Anderson added that he struggled to understand how the necessary conditions had been met for releasing the £7 million.

‘There is no escaping the fact that, back in February, the Trust did not own the land, did not have an implementable planning consent, and did not have enough money to complete the project. And they were still a long, long way from demonstrating that they could secure the money to operate and maintain the completed bridge. To sign a construction contract under those circumstances was wildly irresponsible.’

A TfL spokesperson said: ‘Richard de Cani, as managing director of planning at TfL, led our involvement in the Garden Bridge and was required to continue doing so during his notice period. Any suggestion of improper involvement in relation to the Garden Bridge is completely unfounded.

‘The bridge’s construction contract is a matter between the Garden Bridge Trust and Bouygues TP Cimolai.

‘Our funding agreement with the Trust requires us to make grant payments once certain milestones have been reached, one of which was the signing of the construction contract. We have kept the DfT informed of these payments because of their financial contribution to the project.’

A spokesperson for the DfT said: ‘There is no conflict of interest here. The funding agreement between TfL and the Garden Bridge Trust, drawn up in 2015, made clear that once the construction contract was signed further funding would be released to the Trust.’

De Cani declined to comment while a spokesperson for Arup said: ‘Richard indicated to the (TfL) Commissioner his decision to leave in December and his official resignation letter was dated 1 January.’

A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) released in October found that the DfT’s initial decision to provide £30 million of grant funding to the Trust was provided despite the DfT’s conclusion in July 2014 that there was ‘a significant risk that the Bridge could represent poor value for money’ and following an earlier commitment made by then chancellor George Osborne.

London mayor Sadiq Khan has now appointed Labour grandee Dame Margaret Hodge to examine the bridge’s value for money and its procurement.

What do the emails say?

  • In nine emails dating from 29 January to 5 February 2016 between De Cani and the deputy director of DfT’s London transport division Rupert Furness, the DfT official questioned whether it could release its £3.5 million tranche and queried whether the activities Bouygues was to carry out in the first half of 2016 were ‘construction’ or ‘pre-construction’ activities.
  • In an email dated 1 February, De Cani argued that the DfT’s existing capped funding of £9.95 million could be exceeded. He wrote: ‘Your contribution cannot exceed this amount until the main construction contract is awarded. We have received written confirmation from the (Garden Bridge Trust) that they are about to appoint the main construction contract – therefore milestone reached. Therefore, we believe we have reached the point that the £9.95 million cap can be exceeded.’
  • The following day, Furness wrote: ‘Richard, I’m planning to put a note up to the permanent secretary to see whether, as accounting officer, he’s prepared to increase DfT’s exposure now that the main construction contract has been let, even though, as discussed, the activities Bouygues will be doing still feel like pre-construction activities. Sorry to be cautious on this, but I think we need to run it past him given the recent (NAO) interest.’

Comment

’Given how murky the whole Garden Bridge project has been, it is now vital for TfL to adopt national government best practice, where there are long-standing and very tight rules relating to people leaving a government department and working in a connected industry.

’Transparency over how former public officials – from TfL staff through to deputy mayors – are then appointed in the private sector is paramount.

’We need to get to the very bottom of every decision relating to the Garden Bridge and learn lessons for the future.’

Caroline Pidgeon, Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member

Related files

Readers' comments (3)

  • Was that TfL's complete response? seems odd given that the other conditions of the payment are publically available and include the trust having enough money to build and maintain the bridge for 5 years without any further money - this is still not the case nearly a year later is it?

    ps - Merry Christmas

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  • It is time the farce of this ugly, lumpen proposal is ended. All credit to the AJ and Will Hurst for exposing the sham of the procurement process and the back door deals to use public money for private interest.

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  • It gets worse, doesn't it? There seems to be more than 'the thick smokescreen' - there's clear contempt for codes of conduct at high level within TfL, a lack of due diligence within the DfT (frightened of upsetting George Osborne?) and some good old 'revolving doors' (to quote Private Eye) in action.
    And let's assume that some of Arup's senior management is just slightly dopey, rather than unprincipled.
    Perhaps time for one or two professional institutions to wake up and consider 'letting go' a few of their members, or is it the old story of turning a blind eye to the telescope?

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