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Feature: Soothing the Garden Bridge’s troubled waters

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Amid signs that the Garden Bridge’s proponents still have hopes it might be built, Will Hurst looks at what lessons the mayor and TfL need to draw from the debacle

It may have been written off by most but, for its powerful backers, there remains at least the faint hope that London’s badly-battered Garden Bridge may somewhere, somehow be realised.

Following mayor Sadiq Khan’s decision, at the end of April, to pull the plug on Thomas Heatherwick’s £200 million scheme – a decision that followed the AJ’s long-running investigation into the project’s procurement, and the publication of MP Margaret Hodge’s damning report – almost two months of silence from the Garden Bridge Trust and its supporters ensued.

Then, a fortnight ago (Thursday 22 June), London’s Evening Standard published an appeal by Richard Rogers for the scheme to be saved arguing it had become a ‘victim of politics’. The newspaper has always been a supporter of the project, and is now edited by George Osborne, who as chancellor was jointly responsible with Boris Johnson for its £60 million of taxpayer support.

On the same day, Conservative member of the London Assembly Andrew Boff, ostensibly a Garden Bridge opponent, attacked Hodge and her report, claiming she had broken Parliamentary rules by using her office at Portcullis House for research, and was paid £9,500 for her six-months’ work, despite the GLA initially saying she would work pro bono.

Just a week ago, Osborne’s Standard devoted yet more space to the fight-back, interviewing the project’s celebrity champion Joanna Lumley, who reflected on Khan’s decision to withdraw support.

Lumley told the paper she felt personally responsible that the bridge was axed ‘because it was my idea’, but insisted that ‘hundreds of thousands’ of people supported it. ‘But their voices are held quiet and only the vociferous “antis” are heard and relished,’ she said.

For many architects, however, the re-emergence of such arguments will feel like a distraction from the very real questions on future public procurement raised by the AJ’s investigation and the Hodge report in terms of fairness and transparency.

The new TfL Board has a greater ability to provide proper oversight and scrutiny over decision-making’

So what reforms, if any, are Khan and Transport for London (TfL) introducing, and do they go far enough? Moreover, is there now a danger this multi-billion pound public-sector client will draw the wrong conclusions and retreat into a fearful tick-box approach?

On publication of Hodge’s report in early April, Khan wrote to her acknowledging the ‘extremely serious’ questions about the way Boris Johnson’s administration handled the Garden Bridge – an issue he was alerted to by the AJ in 2015 while campaigning for election.

Since entering office, Khan said, he had harboured concerns about ‘how the previous mayor influenced TfL practice on this project in areas like procurement’ and said he had acted on these concerns ‘from day one’ through measures including strengthening the TfL Board, which was only told about the Garden Bridge project after TfL had appointed both Heatherwick Studio and engineer Arup.

‘A key part of this was putting in place a new, stronger TfL Board following a highly competitive recruitment process,’ he wrote. ‘The new board has a greater ability to provide proper oversight and scrutiny over decision-making, including how mayoral directions are implemented and ensuring that relevant processes are followed.’

The mayor added that TfL was working towards the ‘highest standards of public accountability’ but pledged to consider further improvements in light of Hodge’s review.

Last week, TfL’s draft response to the Hodge report was approved by its Planning & Investment Committee. It has yet to be approved by the TfL Board, but among its proposals are: ensuring the board is involved in projects ‘earlier rather than retrospectively’; having bids evaluated by more than one individual; using ‘specialist software which records decisions and facilitates transparency’; properly minuting informal meetings; and reviewing TfL’s audit functions. 

Such procedural changes are welcome, but for many observers of the Garden Bridge saga, they do not go far enough and fail to recognise the gravity of what took place.

TfL’s own commissioner Mike Brown has long defended the procurement of Heatherwick Studio, rejecting calls from the London Assembly for losing bidders Marks Barfield and WilkinsonEyre to be compensated, and calling TfL’s design competition ‘appropriate and fair’.

The criticism wasn’t to do with the mayor deciding on a project and wanting to get on with it. It was that this wasn’t done in an open and transparent way

Labour member of the London Assembly Tom Copley – a persistent critic of the project – says huge questions remain unanswered ‘about the way TfL went about procuring this project under the mayor’s predecessor’.

He says: ‘I do not believe it is right to simply draw a line under this and move on. TfL must be held accountable for why its own procedures weren’t just not followed but totally flouted. 

‘I am writing to the chair of the London Assembly’s Oversight Committee to request that we bring in senior TfL officials to answer questions on this. We must ensure that lessons are learned so that nothing like this ever happens again.’

Conservative politician Steve Norris agrees. The former transport minister and London mayoral candidate is calling for a thorough and urgent review of TfL procurement by an independent and suitably qualified authority.

‘Probably the most serious aspect of the whole Garden Bridge debacle is the procurement process which saw Heatherwick Studio and engineering designer Arup engaged in circumstances where TfL appear to have breached their own procurement process guidelines on several occasions,’ Norris says.

Others though are worried TfL might become damagingly risk-adverse because of the criticism heaped on it over its handling of the Garden Bridge. This is a particular concern for those architects and engineers who have invested time and intellectual capacity in ideas that they wish the mayor and TfL to back financially.

Rotherhithe bridge

Rotherhithe bridge

Rotherhithe Bridge proposal by reForm Architects and Elliott Wood

One of these is managing director of reForm Architects, Nik Randall, who estimates that his firm – alongside engineer Elliott Wood – has spent ‘hundreds of thousands of pounds’ on developing the design for a £100 million cycle and pedestrian bridge across the Thames between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf. This proposal has won support in principle from Khan and TfL as well as the Port of London Authority and, seemingly, the local community.

‘It’s certainly good that TfL is revising its procurement processes … but will this make it even more cautious of anything that doesn’t fit into the boxes?’ Randall asks. 

And he sums up concerns that TfL misunderstands its critics, saying: ‘The criticism, from Margaret Hodge and others, wasn’t to do with the mayor deciding on a project and design and wanting to get on with it. It was that this wasn’t done in an open and transparent way.’

The challenge for the current mayor is to ensure that TfL is not only a fair and open client but one that is able to back the big ideas that London needs.

Photograph of main image by John Hill

  • 4 Comments

Readers' comments (4)

  • Let the Garden Bridge supporters build their beloved bridge over the Serpentine in Hyde Park (a far more appropriate setting for such a thing)........but without any more public money.

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  • A reminder that the design and work to date on site for the Diamond Jubilee Bridge, which has had 2 independent transport and business cases that proves it is needed and value for money, is in the London plan, is adopted policy of both local councils, is in the tfl plan and the mayors transport plan, has planning consent and has started on site has cost been granted £0 from central government and £0 from Tfl. The design to planning cost the public £0 exactly and the design licence has been granted pro-bono to Wandsworth Council who have raised through CIL about 1/3rd of the construction cost thus far...

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  • The last paragraph says it all, and if only our esteemed Foreign Secretary, the supposedly hon. Boris Johnson, had been unable to dodge Margaret Hodge's questions we might have learned rather more of the detail of what went on, seemingly behind the Board of TfL's back - and Nik Randall might have less cause to worry about the way TfL treats worthwhile infrastructure proposals from now on.
    But surely Tom Copley and Steve Norris are right - there needs to be a really effective review of TfL's procurement processes to avoid the risk of cronyism and clarify the suspicion that fear of antagonising such a powerful client has played a part in the Garden Bridge story.
    How Mike Brown can defend the procurement process is incomprehensible, and whether or not he's just trying to avoid any personal liability he should surely be barred from having any further involvement in public procurement.

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  • At last, the Mayor has revoked the bridge - so that the procedure would have begin all over again. Maybe the supporters of this ill-conceived and trite piece of overblown ugliness can see it for what it truly is. A ghastly monument to all that is wrong in London with the planning laws. Nothing that Boris Johnson has signed off has - or had - any architectural merit. You only have to look at that awful "sculpture" the Mittal orbital (hookah pipe) that we are still paying for. Think the cable car, the Walkie Talkie, the routemaster

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