EXCLUSIVE: National Audit Office (NAO) and Charities Commission both launch new probes into use of taxpayer funds after complaints by Kate Hoey MP
London’s beleaguered Garden Bridge project is now facing at least four official inquiries after the NAO and the Charity Commission separately pledged to investigate the spending of millions of pounds of public money on the contentious scheme.
MP for Vauxhall Kate Hoey recently wrote to both bodies to request an inquiry into how the Garden Bridge Trust (GBT) spent almost two-thirds of the £60m of taxpayer funding for the proposed link across The Thames before construction has even begun.
In a letter to independent spending watchdog the NAO last month, Hoey called for the £175 million Heatherwick Studio-designed project to be halted and said she was alarmed by comments made by London’s new mayor Sadiq Khan, who told his first mayoral question time: ‘If the bridge was cancelled now, taxpayers will have spent £37.7 million for no benefit at all.’
In a reply to the Labour MP (see file attached), Amyas Morse, the comptroller and auditor general of the NAO said the body had no powers over Transport for London (TfL) or the Garden Bridge Trust.
However, he added: ‘It is within the remit of the NAO to examine the Department for Transport’s decision to commit £30 million of central government funds to the project, and to look at how it has exercised controls over the grant.’
Morse said that the NAO would now investigate the DfT’s role in the project, with the results of the probe expected in early autumn.
Following the reply from Morse, Hoey also wrote to the Charities Commission - which regulates charities - to request ‘a full review of the Garden Bridge Trust and how this money has been spent, and the status of the Garden Bridge Trust as a Registered Charity’.
She wrote: ‘I have had a significant amount of representations from GLA members, local councillors, organisations and interested individuals who are concerned that the Garden Bridge project is “hiding behind” its status as a Registered Charity in order to prevent the transparency and accountability that would normally be required of a public infrastructure project of this size.
‘There is a concern that there may be a scenario of serious non-compliance by the GBT that has the potential to damage its reputation and/or the reputation of charities generally, as well as the reputation of the Commission itself, if this is not looked into.’
The AJ can reveal that the Charities Commission was already investigating a separate complaint about the Garden Bridge Trust spending close to £40 million ‘without furthering’ any of its own aims as a charity. The organisation will now add Hoey’s questions to its ongoing inquiry.
A spokesman for the Commission said: ‘We can confirm that we have received a second complaint about the Garden Bridge Trust. We currently have a case open into the charity regarding these complaints about the charity’s expenditure and are assessing the concerns to determine if there is a regulatory role for the commission.’
As well as the NAO and Charity Commission probes, the Garden Bridge is also the subject of:
In addition, the project is facing a challenge in the High Court after Lambeth resident Jenny O’Neil last month instructed lawyers over a recent decision on land use made by the local council.
The AJ has also learnt that the Garden Bridge Trust was rapped over the knuckles recently by the Advertising Standards Agency after a complaint that it had stated on its website that ‘87 per cent of Londoners support the Garden Bridge’.
The Trust’s website now states that ‘78 per cent of Londoners support the Garden Bridge’ and attributes this to a July 2015 survey by Comres.
A spokesperson for the ASA said: ‘The complainant challenged whether this claim was misleading and could be substantiated.
‘The ASA investigated this complaint and after speaking with us the advertiser made some changes to the claim to ensure that it related to a survey of Londoners as a whole.
‘They also made changes to the webpage on which the claim featured.’
A Garden Bridge Trust spokesperson said: ‘The Garden Bridge Trust has legitimately spent a total of £37.7 million on pre-construction work as announced a few weeks ago. Public funds were specifically allocated for pre-construction and construction work. This funding was also intended to act as a catalyst to unlock private funding for the Bridge which it has done.
‘We are surprised that some people who were involved in facilitating meetings in the local community until the end of last year without querying any use of public money are now suddenly criticising the terms of the use of that money which has never been a secret.
‘With reference to the other proposed enquiries, these are matters for the DfT and TfL who conducted the procurement process. The Trust is focusing on delivering the bridge. This year we have met the majority of our pre-commencement planning requirements, we are in advanced discussions about the land needed on both sides of the river, legal agreements with neighbours are being finalised and we have a construction contractor on board.’
A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: ’Our £30m funding is crucial to help get this landmark project in central London off the ground and act as a catalyst to attract private funding.
’As with all major projects we provide funding for, we assessed the business case to ensure value for money and we believe that the Garden Bridge will become an iconic addition to London’s landscape which boosts the economy and brings a range of other benefits.
“We have been in contact with the NAO about their investigation, and are cooperating fully.’