The loss of £53 million on London’s unbuilt Garden Bridge risks undermining public trust in charities, the Charity Commission said today (9 April)
In a report, which it said concluded its scrutiny of the saga, the Charity Commission criticised the Garden Bridge Trust’s approach to transparency and accountability but said trustees, including Joanna Lumley and former chief government construction advisor Paul Morrell, had not breached their legal duties nor mismanaged the charity.
Former London mayor Boris Johnson, alongside former chancellor George Osborne, committed £60 million of public money to the scheme while Johnson oversaw its outsourcing from Transport for London (TfL) to arms-length charity the Trust.
Referring to this in a veiled swipe at Johnson, the Commission warned policy makers to ‘think very carefully’ before setting up a new charity to deliver a singular public project.
The report added: ’[Public] policy makers will be aware that they retain ultimate responsibility for application of funds and should build in appropriate accountability mechanisms, checks and balances.’
Lib Dem leader Vince Cable, who has been highly critical of the Commission over its handling of the Garden Bridge scandal, told The Guardian the report was ‘very weak’ and called for further Parliamentary review of the Commission’s role.
He said: ‘The fact that nobody has been held to account is appalling. I sense there is a real scandal here that has not been recognised as such.’
Tina Stowell, the crossbench peer appointed last year to chair the Commission, said in a statement accompanying the report: ‘Londoners and taxpayers will legitimately feel angry and let down by the waste of millions of pounds of public money on a charitable project that was not delivered.
‘I understand that anger and am clear that this represents a failure for charity that risks undermining public confidence in charities generally.
‘While the charity was not mismanaged, the public would also expect, as I do, that the right lessons are learnt from this case, so that we don’t see a similar failure arising in future.’
While the report repeatedly stressed that the failure of the Heatherwick-designed crossing had wider lessons for policy makers, charities and the Commission itself, it avoided directly criticising individuals or highlighting paricular failures.
The report said: ’In setting out these lessons, we do not seek to apportion blame to any organisation or individual for the failure of the project, nor are we making any comment on the specific events of this case or concluding that those involved in the project necessarily failed to take any of the particular steps we identify or recommend.’
However, it said the project’s value for money might be further scrutinised by bodies such as the National Audit Office or relevant Parliamentary committees.
Lib Dem London Assembly Member Caroline Pidgeon said the report was in some ways ‘disappointing’.
But she added: ‘The Charity Commission is also, above all else, highlighting that the Garden Bridge project was a high-profile and expensive failure, with significant sums of public money thrown away for absolutely nothing of public benefit. This is clear to everyone it seems other than Boris Johnson and George Osborne, who so foolishly invested so much time and taxpayers’ money in this absolute folly of a project.’
Labour MP Steve Reed commented: ‘This damning report slams the failure of the Garden Bridge project. While criticising the charity’s approach to accountability, it also points the finger at former London Mayor Boris Johnson.
’He must now explain why he over-rode public tendering and procurement processes at City Hall and wasted over £40m of public money on a vanity project that never had any chance of actually getting built.’
Tom Copley, Labour London Assembly member and chair of its Garden Bridge working group, said: ’It is extremely disappointing that the Charity Commission has decided not to further investigate the role of the Garden Bridge Trustees for their part in the loss of millions of taxpayer’s money.
’They are far from the only ones to blame for this fiasco. However, their decision to sign a construction contract in an attempt to push this project through, despite not having even secured the land on the south bank to build it on, nor the necessary planning consents, cost the taxpayer £21 million. Londoners may raise their eyebrows at the Commission’s conclusion that this was a reasonable decision.
’We are clear that our enquiries into the myriad of failings surrounding the Garden Bridge will continue. As the Commission points out, it’s now incumbent on the National Audit Office, Public Accounts Committee and TfL to look deeper into how the Trust handled public funds. But when it comes to seeking clarity around this murky project on behalf of London’s taxpayers, the Assembly will not drop the mantle. We look forward to questioning TfL on this matter over the coming weeks.’
Last week Cable warned that the scandal was being ‘brushed under the carpet’ by TfL and the Commission and reiterated calls for a Parliamentary inquiry.
The Commission’s inquiries came in for particular criticism after it cited the reassurances it had received from TfL Commissioner Mike Brown in its decision not to launch a full statutory inquiry into the Trust.
Brown himself is facing serious questions about his own role in the Trust’s ruinous decision to sign a construction contract in early 2016.
Garden bridge winter
Top-line findings of the Charity Commission’s concluding report
- ‘Charities that receive public funds to deliver public services or projects should demonstrate scrupulous accountability and a spirit of transparency and openness to the public. The legal minimum set out in the accounting framework should be viewed as just that: a minimum, not an aspiration.’
- ‘Funders should build appropriate terms and conditions into funding agreements to ensure the money is spent in line with the original intention and delivers the benefit and impact that is desired. They may also wish to consider building in accountability and reporting requirements for public money which are more demanding than the general responsibilities for charity trustees, in order to meet public expectations. This will increase transparency of spend and provide protection of the funds. A grant agreement or other appropriate legal arrangement should be in place prior to transferring money to a charity in order to deliver protection of public funds.’
- ‘Trustees should consider themselves accountable to the charity’s funders, stakeholders and the wider public. Charities should not only provide them with information, but consult with them and take their views into consideration where appropriate.’
- ‘In future, when we receive applications from charities established, or being established, wholly or mainly to deliver a publicly funded project, we will engage with those seeking to establish the charity to ensure they understand the consequences and responsibilities that follow, including the need to meet the public’s expectations around the transparency and financial stewardship. This will not affect the status of such organisations as charities, which is determined in accordance with the legal test.’
- ’We would advise policy makers to think very carefully before setting up an entirely new charity to deliver a singular public project or purpose. We consider it unlikely that the public would expect risks that are inherent in a major public infrastructure project to be outsourced to such a charity.’
- ‘Where the setting up of a new charity is considered in relation to such a project or purpose, public policy makers will be aware that they retain ultimate responsibility for application of funds and should build in appropriate accountability mechanisms, checks and balances.’