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Garden Bridge land deal faces further scrutiny

Garden bridge  north landing
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The acquisition of land on both banks of the Thames required for building the Garden Bridge is now in doubt after Westminster City Council announced it is to reassess its approval for the necessary property transactions on the north bank

In the latest setback for the controversial Thomas Heatherwick-designed footbridge, a policy and scrutiny committee will meet later this month to look at the decision, made by cabinet members before Christmas, to acquire land around Temple station.

The land is needed to allow the construction of the proposed £185 million bridge, which would run from the top of Temple underground station on the north bank to Queen’s Walk on the south bankAs project champion Joanna Lumley revealed in September, the Garden Bridge Trust is already struggling to get land permission on the south bank from the leaseholder, Coin Street Community Builders.

A report to Westminster cabinet members revealed that the Garden Bridge Trust will meet the council’s costs, agreeing to pay up to £185,000 (made up of £165,000 for legal fees and £20,000 for surveying fees), pay any Stamp Duty Land Tax and indemnify the council for the costs. A future report will follow regarding the transfer of the public land to the trust.

Once the transactions have taken place, the council will be able ‘to override any private rights or interests that will be adversely affected as a result of the construction and operation of the Garden Bridge’. But the Garden Bridge Trust has been unable to secure releases from owners of adjoining land that would be affected by the scheme.

Members of Westminster’s housing, finance and corporate services policy and scrutiny committee last week requested a ‘call-in’ of the cabinet decision to consider whether it was appropriate. It may recommend that the executive reconsider it and the committee may also be consulted by the executive on forthcoming decisions.

Committee chairman councillor Brian Connell said: ‘We are seeking to ensure all these decisions are being made transparently. We will also be looking for assurances that Westminster taxpayers and the council’s interests remain protected as well as understanding how the council’s decision fits in with the scope and content of the Mayor’s review of the Garden Bridge project.’

Margaret Hodge MP, former chair of the government’s Public Accounts Committee, is looking at the procurement process for the scheme and whether value for money has been achieved from taxpayers’ £60 million contribution.

Westminster council is not providing funding for the proposed bridge but is the planning authority for the landing site on the north bank of the river. It granted planning permission in December 2014.

Independent City of London councillor Gregory Jones QC, a barrister whose expertise includes planning, has separately suggested the Westminster City Council decision was ‘legally flawed’.

In an open letter to Westminster councillors Robert Davis and Tim Mitchell, cabinet members for the built environment, and finance and corporate services respectively, Jones wrote: ‘The decisions listed are for the “appropriation” and “disposal” of land rather than a decision for the “proposed appropriation or disposal”. Significantly, the City of Westminster has by this decision decided to appropriate and disposal [sic] of the lands regardless of the outcome of the consultation process rather than being minded so to do subject to the outcome of consideration of any objections.’

Garden bridge revised

Garden bridge revised

A Garden Bridge Trust spokesman said the trust looked forward to continuing its work with Westminster City Council to progress the project and was confident of the authority’s ‘robust and thorough decision-making processes’.

He added: ‘We have been working with Westminster City Council for several years on plans to build the bridge, which have always included use of the top of Temple Station as the north landing point of the Bridge. Westminster City Council gave planning consent for the Bridge in late 2014 and are currently undertaking a legal process – not a land sale – to allow the space at Temple Station to be used for the Bridge landing.’

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