Transport for London (TfL) commissioner Mike Brown has said both his team and Boris Johnson’s own monitoring officers were worried about the former mayor’s request for extra Garden Bridge funding made shortly before he left City Hall in 2016
Brown told the London Assembly Garden Bridge working group yesterday (13 May) that alarm bells had sounded following a plea to release a ‘significant’ sum of money for the doomed project just weeks before the mayoral election on 5 May 2016.
Taxpayers were left with a £43 million bill for the unbuilt Thomas Heatherwick-designed Thames crossing, which was championed by Johnson but abandoned by his successor Sadiq Khan and finally scrapped when the trust behind it wound up in August 2017.
Brown, who stated he met with Johnson every week while he was mayor, said: ‘I remember particularly having a discussion with the mayor on 6 April  when there was discussion about additional sums of money to underwrite the project.
’[There] was real concern expressed by Greater London Authority monitoring officers and my own team about the appropriateness of this in the run-up to the election campaign.’
The commissioner added: ‘I was concerned, and my colleagues were concerned, that we did not fetter the views of any future mayor, which is why we ended up – instead of the request for quite a significant amount of money – releasing just £1.3 million at that time to keep the project going; to not kill it off as that would itself have been a political decision as well.’
Asked whether pressure was put on him to push the scheme through, Brown said: ‘Political pressure was not applied to me personally, but I was aware there was a lot of dialogue going on from the mayor’s office to people in my team.’
At another point of the hearing he added: ‘Of course, [given] the nature of the project, [and] that it was subject to the number of mayoral directions it was, politics was involved.’
He also said that he had been unaware that construction firm Bouygues had been lined up to build the structure until after the contract had been signed.
Brown (pictured) said TfL had learned lessons from its handling of the Garden Bridge project and made changes to processes.
‘There are lots of things looking back on this sorry escapade that I could opine on in retrospect,’ he said. ‘Mayoral directions were outwith at that time any sort of governance process within TfL; there are lots of things with the benefit of hindsight we might have sought to do differently.’
Much of the hearing revolved around TfL managing director of planning Richard de Cani’s conclusion that the Garden Bridge Trust had satisfied the conditions required for it to receive a £7 million pre-construction payment in spring 2016.
That payment is seen as critical in allowing the project backer, the Garden Bridge Trust, to sign a contract with Bouygues – a deal that led to about half the costs wasted on the unrealised scheme.
Working group member Sian Berry suggested that a mayoral direction had softened the requirements on the trust to trigger this contentious £7 million payout. Rather than requiring the body to demonstrate it had secured the cash to run the bridge for five years after construction, the amendment, she said, meant only a strategy for securing this money needed to be in place.
’I don’t know why the amendment of words,’ said Brown. ‘I was not aware of it at the time.’
TfL head of corporate services Andy Brown said the mayoral direction did not directly affect the criteria for releasing the money.
‘There was no mention in the funding agreement of cash in the bank,’ he insisted. ‘The approach Richard took in reaching a decision on whether the conditions had been met was: had they met to a standard against which we could not defend against paying the money? Were we legally required to make the payment? The business plan… was a credible plan to fund it… that was the position we took.’
Brown admitted that he had only met representatives of the Garden Bridge Trust once, despite the huge sums involved, the political focus on the crossing and the fallout since it was scrapped.
He also defended a 45-page TfL commissioner’s update in 2017 that did not include a single mention of the Garden Bridge – or an approximately £10 million accounting allowance for the project that had been discussed at a recent board meeting.
‘The board meeting is four-and-a-half hours long and I can’t include everything,’ he said, insisting funding for the crossing had got ‘a full level of attention from the board and its committees’.
London Assembly members noted that this report did, however, detail the best-selling toys in the London Transport Museum.