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Exclusive: TFL told of Boris preference for Heatherwick before Garden Bridge contest


Fresh claims that London mayor ‘misled’ Greater London Assembly (GLA) surface after AJ obtains new evidence under Freedom of Information

Transport for London was instructed that its chairman, mayor Boris Johnson, wanted the organisation to support Thomas Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge proposal eight weeks before it held the bridge design contest the designer went on to win, it has emerged.

Johnson has repeatedly denied favouring Heatherwick and Joanna Lumley’s design for the £175 million project – which is supported by £60 million of public money - despite holding at least six meetings with them prior to the February 2013 contest.

However, a December 2012 TfL briefing note released following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request made by the AJ makes clear the mayor’s support for their scheme in its opening paragraph. This and accompanying material released under the FOI response has sparked renewed calls for the National Audit Office to investigate.

The 12-page note, with the subject heading ’Garden Bridge’, is marked ‘draft and confidential’ and was circulated to TfL’s most senior management. It states: ‘The designer Thomas Heatherwick, supported by the actress Joanna Lumley, has proposed a new footbridge in central London connecting Temple with the South Bank.

‘The bridge would be highly sculptural with columns in the River Thames supporting the structure.

‘The Mayor is extremely supportive of the need for additional footbridges across the Thames and is keen for TfL to support this proposal.’ No other alternative proposals are mentioned in the note.

‘The Mayor is keen for TfL to support this proposal’

The document on Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge proposal, which contains detailed analysis of the proposal, was fed into by various TfL departments and primarily authored by Richard De Cani, TfL’s then director of strategy and policy, who went on to score the Heatherwick bid against rivals Marks Barfield and Wilkinson Eyre, acting alone. He also played a key role in judging the later engineering contest which Arup – also part of the existing Lumley/Heatherwick team – won.


Garden Bridge:  A timeline of key events

Last month Johnson once again told the London Assembly he did not favour Heatherwick’s design over those of the other two architect practices.

Grilled by Labour Assembly member Tom Copley on why TfL did not tender for a ‘garden’ bridge but simply a pedestrian bridge despite apparently already backing the Garden Bridge, Johnson said: ‘The answer is because we were very open to ideas and if something better had been proposed by, I don’t know, Marks Barfield who did the London Eye, or whoever else was in the frame, that would have been fantastic.’

Johnson then replied ‘yes’ when asked by Copley if he was ‘completely neutral’ on whether the bridge was a garden bridge or not.

Responding to the latest FOI revelations, Copley said: ‘It looks increasingly likely that Boris Johnson misled the London Assembly. It seems clear that Heatherwick was favoured by the mayor. No objective person could say that this process was open, fair and transparent.

‘If Boris Johnson is willing to carry on in this way as mayor of London with such a callous disregard for fairness and proper process, it raises serious questions about his suitability for the office he most covets: that of prime minister of this country.

‘TfL must also face up to the huge faults in the procurement process to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.’

The latest information released by TfL under the FOI covers a large volume of Garden Bridge correspondence between De Cani and other senior figures. It reveals further contact between the organisation, and Heatherwick and Lumley prior to the contest and multiple references to TfL’s apparent desire to find a speedy way to work with them and their team (see box below).

This included three meetings between the Heatherwick team and then TfL commissioner Peter Hendy, and a TfL-organised visit to the Emirates Air Line cable car for Lumley and Heatherwick the month before the design competition was launched.

Boris Johnson and Joanna Lumley

Boris Johnson and Joanna Lumley

Boris Johnson and Joanna Lumley

Architect and procurement specialist Walter Menteth - an expert witness in the recent London Assembly inquiry into the Garden Bridge process - said the latest information suggested a total of 14 firms had been misled, given this is the total number of losing bidders in the two TfL competitions for the bridge project that Heatherwick Studio and Arup won.

Menteth said: ‘This evidence suggests that there was pre-procurement project planning, and this may have entailed a pre-meditated intention to ensure the outcome met the mayor’s personal preference, come what may… and that to do so the legal requirements of the regulatory processes, including those advised by TfL’s own legal department, would be disdained.

‘It raises significant questions as to whether this £60 million heist of the public can be backed, and whether all possible public money should now be recovered.’

Professor of business law at the University of Hull, Christopher Bovis, who has advised the Commons transport committee on European procurement and has also followed the Garden Bridge saga, said he was ashamed by the new information.

‘This smacks of collusion and I’m ashamed it could happen in this country,’ he said. ‘It looks like they’ve fixed the match before the football game gets going. The smallest Italian municipality would do a better job and this has happened in London.’

Lib Dem candidate for mayor, Caroline Pidgeon, who played a key role in the London Assembly’s inquiry, said it was now apparent that public money had been spent on the mayor’s ‘personal vanity project’.

’This whole saga now really stinks’

‘This whole saga now really stinks,’ she said. ‘It appears that right from the very start of the process Boris Johnson has been breathing down the necks of TfL officers to get the bridge built at any price.’

‘The next mayor should immediately cancel any contracts TfL have entered into with the Garden Bridge Trust, instigate an urgent review of the whole procurement process and, if necessary, ask the National Audit Office to investigate the improper awarding of this contract.

‘Public money is not there to be spent on personal vanity projects. These revelations should sink the whole Garden Bridge project once and for all.’

Sadiq Khan, Labour’s candidate for mayor of London, who has also promised a new inquiry if elected, said: ‘I support the Garden Bridge but this is another worrying revelation about the bidding process. It is vital that we have full transparency on this project, given the public funds already committed.’

Tory mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith declined to comment.

TfL’s December briefing note also says it is a ‘requirement’ for the proposed pedestrian bridge to have dedicated cycle paths – something that was dropped from later designs.

A spokesperson for the Mayor of London denied that there was any flaw in the procurement process: ‘The mayor is widely on the record as being in support of the construction of vital new river crossings over the Thames. And his decision to ask Transport for London to invite several world-class designers to pitch for the design of a pedestrian footbridge on the South Bank showed no favour to Heatherwick Studio, it simply showed his desire to ensure the very best possible concept was found.

‘The procurement process was open, it was fair and it was transparent. A thorough audit of that process has been carried out and work is due to begin on the bridge this year. It will be a spectacular addition to the capital and is widely supported by Londoners and businesses on both sides of the river.’

’The debate about procurement does not involve the Garden Bridge Trust which was not set up at the time’

A Garden Bridge Trust spokesperson added: ’The debate about procurement is a separate issue and does not involve the Garden Bridge Trust which was not set up at the time. The trust continues to make strong progress.

’The construction contract was awarded recently, £145 million has been raised and we have nearly discharged all our planning conditions before starting construction this summer. The project continues to enjoy huge public support and has the support of the two leading Mayoral candidates, Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith. We are working hard to make the bridge a special place in the heart of the city to be enjoyed by Londoners and visitors for years to come.’

Thomas Heatherwick declined to comment.

TfL’s trail of damning documents

  • In an email dated 9 January 2013 – the day after TfL’s legal department set out its advice on the procurement of the bridge - TfL’s then head of corporate affairs Caroline Murdoch wrote to De Cani and his boss, TfL managing director of planning Michele Dix to discuss Lumley and Heatherwick’s forthcoming visit to TfL’s Emirates Air Line cable car.

    She wrote: ‘Isabel [Dedring] is going to let them know that there will be a proposed way forward that might be shared with them early next week. I will give you a verbal update on the rest of the discussion (unless Peter [Hendy] would prefer to?)’
  • In an email sent a week later, 16 January 2013, TfL’s then managing director of planning Michele Dix suggested amends to the updated ‘Garden Bridge next steps’ briefing note to strategy and policy director Richard De Cani, a member of her team.

    She wrote: ‘Richard can we insert a section on alternative approaches as we discussed yesterday. Given all the work TH [Thomas Heatherwick]/Arup has done to date – is it going to be quicker for them to take the lead – and we help them?

    ‘Ie it is promoted as a private sector bridge – with a benefactor to pay for it, ie I assume this was how the Millennium Bridge was taken forward? If there was a benefactor found up front they effectively to start much sooner without all the policy complications we have. We could offer expert advice on a no payment basis.’

  • De Cani’s final draft of the briefing note includes the option of Heatherwick leading the promotion of the project which it says ‘could potentially be delivered in less time (potentially between 6 and 10 months quicker) as there would be no requirement to comply with public procurement rules’.

    However, it also identifies problems with this approach, including TfL having less control over the scheme and the need for Heatherwick Studio to have funding in place immediately. Discussing the option of TfL taking a lead in promoting the project (the option which the organisation subsequently took) it predicted risks with this including a ‘low risk of challenge to the procurement process’. In a separate section marked ‘risks’ it also stated: ‘It would be very important not to make premature announcements around particular designs or proposals ahead of the procurement process being completed.’

    TfL’s director of strategy and policy Richard De Cani at oversight committee - 17 September

    TfL’s director of strategy and policy Richard De Cani at oversight committee - 17 September

    TfL’s director of strategy and policy Richard De Cani at oversight committee - 17 September

Further comments

Michael Ball, anti-Garden Bridge campaigner 

‘Boris has shrugged off clear evidence that the procurement process was ’not fair and not transparent’ - in the words of TfL’s own auditor - with the argument that he didn’t care who won the competition, Marks Barfield or whoever. But the AJ’s latest FOI revelations suggest that his officers, from Hendy down, cared very much because they knew what Boris wanted.’

Will Jennings, campaigner and founder of satirical contest A Folly for London

’One revelation to come from this is the fact that in January 2013 Thomas Heatherwick met with Edward Lister, deputy mayor, to discuss “Garden Bridge planning proposal”. This is before any procurement “competition” had been “won”, let alone public funding details, consultation or public awareness.

Also fascinating is that the leader of Lambeth Council, Lib Peck, met with Joanna Lumley and Heatherwick in the same month. Who arranged this meeting up and why? It’s important because Cllr. Peck is currently embroiled in numerous Lambeth controversies – the possible lease change to allow the Garden Bridge Trust to build a commercial unit on a loved public park, the closure of libraries and demolition of Cressingham Gardens among them.’


Readers' comments (5)

  • If you are appalled by this whole sorry affair, now is the time to help if you haven't already.

    We need to send the message to Sadiq, Zac, Lambeth and all politicians that this is not how we want things to happen and not how we want to develop our cities or treat citizens.


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  • time to report this to the met police, action fraud or the SFO?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • For Will Jennings:

    The same message needs to be sent to Richard Rogers and Ken Shuttleworth, architects of distinction who were very unwise to associate themselves with Boris Johnson's scam and risk bringing their profession into disrepute.

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  • To be quite honest, do we need this bridge anyway? Many of us would prefer to money going to protect our green spaces, already at risk from creeping over-commercialisation. Battersea Park is one, with its 3-4 weeks disruption and full and partial closure of construction work for the FE races. Should add that it was Boris's idea, too.

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  • One solution would be for Mayor Boris to do a reverse somersault as his 'swan song' and extricate TfL from this humiliating mess, and then Joanna's charity, with Thomas and Arup in tow, could take their bridge and stick it over a creek somewhere in Essex, where the construction cost would be markedly less than in central London and thus affordable to the private sponsors without help from Boris, or need for a VAT holiday from George.
    Boris and George could still experience the delights of the incredible bridge, by joining one of the coach tours that would cover both it and Grayson Perry's nearby folly.

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