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Garden Bridge faces four separate inquiries

Heatherwick Garden Bridge
  • 8 Comments

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:

- A review into its procurement by mayor Sadiq Khan

- A much-criticised audit by TfL’s external auditor Ernst & Young (EY), revealed as a founding donor of the Garden Bridge Trust by the AJ last month

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.’

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  • 8 Comments

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Readers' comments (8)

  • The Department for Transport reference to 'this landmark project' is certainly correct - but whether or not 78% of Londoners support the thing is neither here nor there, it's being imposed on the centre of our capital city in a location of national significance.
    If built it would have a very substantial impact on the character of the area, and of the views up and down the river.
    But the Trust seems to be indulging in some breathtakingly arrogant parochialism - thank goodness for someone like Kate Hooey with the strength of mind to call for them, and TfL, to be brought to account.
    She seems to have rather more spine than the new Mayor of London and the President and Council of the RIBA put together.
    Investigating the procurement saga is essential, because it absolutely stinks, but not calling for a halt to this project is risking bringing the President and Council of the RIBA into disrepute - particularly with members outside London, let alone the wider public.

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  • There is an irony that people complaining about procurement are really complaining about the idea of the project as a project. If the procurement had been perfect, whatever that might mean, they would still be moaning about the proposal. Given the level of professional services sought, there was no need to have a competition in the first place under OJEU rules, but TFL was bending over backwards to do right by the Bean-counter Gazette brigade, some of whom, embarrassingly, are architects. There is an easy way to fund this project, and its maintenance, which would be to make access and egress subject to the Oyster Card process, part and parcel of TfL. The Miserabilist Tendency would moan about having to pay to go on a London bridge, but then according to many of them it isn't really a bridge but a destination. If so, this means that visitors and tourists would be contributing towards the creation and upkeep of a new part of the urban spectacle that is the London Thames. Miserablists could continue to use Waterloo or Blackfriars Bridges in their cheery way.

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  • Now that Boris Johnson unexpectedly has more free time on his hands, perhaps he might consider a national fund-raiser for his Garden Bridge project? In less-visited places, such as Paisley or Port Talbot, he could explain why it's so crucial that London should continue to shine as a world city with alluring projects like this, plumped up with taxpayer's money. By going door to door rattling a collecting tin, he'd be assured of a specially lively welcome.

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  • For Paul Finch - Irony?
    I - for one - am not using the procurement issue as cover for my dislike of the project - you surely aren't taking an 'Emperor's New Clothes' attitude to the procurement issue, are you?
    Isn't Transport for London supposed to be responsible for what its title says, and not for a politician's pork-barrel antics in favour of his public image and his friends?
    The scoring for the bridge design experience was quite outrageously weighted in favour of Heatherwick and against far more experienced firms, and the initial TfL review of process has quite correctly been described as a whitewash.
    Either there were senior staff within TfL happy to 'bend the rules' at the Mayor's bidding, or this organisation perhaps has an integrity problem like that within the Metropolitan Police.
    I share your dislike of the OJEU rules, but isn't high-level 'fiddling' within public authorities that have enormous powers of patronage exactly the sort of problem that breeds a proliferation of tedious rules?
    The Garden Bridge affair isn't the only TfL procurement controversy of recent years.
    Perhaps you could give us your opinion of the reason why there doesn't seem to have been much in the way of public objection from the architects who were pretty obviously shafted in the design procurement process?
    Concern about upsetting the wrong people?
    Some sort of informal understanding that the winning bidder was pre-determined?
    And, returning to the 'idea of the project', just how can such a major intervention on the Thames in Central London have been subjected only to local authority planning approval?
    What's going on in London, and the Westminster government? - London's not a separate city-state like Singapore, yet.

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  • This is now the 4th time in the past 6 months that I find Mr Finch's view laughable. There seems to be a growing disconnect between architects of different generation perhaps?

    There are lots of reasons, ranging from common sense to design and all the way to possible criminal behaviour, to dislike the garden bridge. It is just rubbish in every way and represents a strange part of the design world that operates in a weird bubble where normal rules and real problems that need to be solved are not relevant to them.

    I read about somebody calling the project philanthropy the other day- as someone who has spent 5 years working for free on a much needed local river crossing I nearly wet myself. Philanthropy isn't building private space over what is already public and allowing the masses to use it as restricted times- that's stealing. As for the £40m of public money spent on fees so far with not much to show for it, well that's a very expensive design and most certainly not philanthropy either (no doubt there will be questions for some to answer here when it all unravels- particularly for Mr Johnson- he's not having a great week).

    If built it may not be dreadful, but it is hugely environmentally damaging and will not add any green space at all- it destroys existing public green space by building commercial units over it and privatises the views we all currently have for free.

    However, the chances of it going ahead now are slim- It is looking increasingly likely that the GBT cannot afford to build it, don't own the land to build it on and can't afford to maintain it. The mayor may not have instructed its cessation, but by stating that there will be no more public money towards it he probably has already finished it off.

    In the meantime whilst we wait to see how history will unfold for that project we continue our efforts to build a bridge that resolved a real problem in west London and Sustrans and doing the same out east.

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  • I am glad to have given Mr Medland so much amusement in recent months. Obviously it is a mistake to support something which is 'just rubbish in every way', a phrase that may pass into the lexicon of intelligent analysis. On the serious matters raised by Robert Wakeham, all I can say is that my experience of public procurement procedures suggests that they at odds with the democratic and transparent outcomes he desires, because they are incapable of fulfilling this role for a variety of reasons that deserve discussion, not diatribes. Planning procedures in London are a separate matter.

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  • I would happily elaborate on and intellectualise just how rubbish the bridge is but many much more qualified people have already done so. They have been aided in part, as AJ readers already know, thanks to the diligent investigative journalism of your Will Hurst and his team. Please refer to http://www.afollyforlondon.co.uk/ for a good list of well written and suitably informed articles.

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  • Why let the law get in the way of a good bridge idea?

    Paul Finch is probably correct in stating many people objecting to the procurement process are really people who simply object to the idea of a bridge. If the business case justifies it, planning consent is awarded and the majority think it's a good idea, then I suppose to many people, continued negativity might now sound a bit tiresome.

    However I am sure Paul Finch is not suggesting this justifies breaking the law?

    The story here cannot only be about the public hue and cry about whether or not the bridge is a good idea. I know that I am far from alone in believing the concern about procurement is a story which stands alone. Surely this is something that should be of interest to us all - not just opponents of a bridge across a river in London.

    These are serious allegations and if correct would amount to a manifest breach of the Public Contract (Amendment) Regulations 2009. The issue here is not just whether or not the initial appointment should have gone to competition, it is about the overriding legal obligation to ensure all bidders were given equal opportunity and a fair and equal assessment of their bids. These concerns are link two separate procurement exercises, the second of which is very high value.

    Under the Public Contract procurement rules the process must be transparent in order to ensure accountability - an obligation to the bidders but also to the public purse. The reason for this is to give people an opportunity to check the process was fair and equal and in accordance with the rules - and to raise an action should grounds arise. If authorities do not fully advise the unsuccessful bidders how their tenders have been assessed (or how the terms might have changed) then it will be impossible to determine grounds to challenge an award and set in motion any process of accountability.

    The recent GLA Oversight Committee report into the TfL internal audit is damming to say the least, particularly TfL's lack of disclosure. However it appears to have failed to consider key legal obligations as set out in the Public Contract Regulations. Indeed there appears to have been no consideration at all to the remedies that might apply should a manifest breach be discovered. These remedies are not just about learning lessons and moving on.

    Since 2009 remedies are no longer just about compensating unsuccessful bidders but also include terminating a contract where an award has already been made, as well as issuing significant fines. It is important to note the intention of this legislation is that remedies are to be proportionate and dissuasive.

    While the legislation provides some defences to authorities against a contract being set aside where such a decision might be onerous, it is important to note this specifically excludes grounds of cost.

    These remedies were specifically introduced in 2009 for good reason.

    These reasons had nothing to do with whether or not the Garden Bridge was a good idea or not.

    Paul Finch mentions the bean-counter brigade, and dismisses their concerns with a suggestion as to how this project might be more affordable. While this sounds to me like a good idea, this is beside the point. It is important to bear in mind that accountability is not just about numbers and value for money. For those of us who have an interest in fair public contracts procurement accountability is about those responsible for spending public money being able to demonstrate compliance with the law and being held to account if they can not.

    While there may be significant consequences for the Garden Bridge project should it be discovered these allegations are correct, there would be even bigger implications if authorities were allowed to ignore or bend the rules and act with impunity.

    While I welcome the NAO's response to Kate Hoey MP, confirming they will investigate the procurement process, as opposed to value for money, my concern is that no-one seems to be thinking about the implications should these allegations be correct.

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