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Garden Bridge risks were ‘downplayed’ to please Boris Johnson

Garden bridge revised

A new report by the London Assembly has accused former mayor Boris Johnson, Transport for London (TfL) and the Garden Bridge Trust of a ‘reckless’ use of public money, heaping pressure on Parliament to investigate

The report concluded that the risks of the Thomas Heatherwick-designed scheme were ‘downplayed’ by TfL to satisfy the former mayor.

‘There were consistent failures to adequately, effectively and transparently deal with the escalating risks of the project,’ said assembly member and chair of the Garden Bridge working group Tom Copley. ‘It is unacceptable that these risks were being downplayed by TfL in order to fulfil the former mayor, Boris Johnson’s pet project.’

The report said that Johnson himself had placed TfL under ‘significant pressure’ to expedite the scheme’s planning and development.

And it reserved particular criticism for the Garden Bridge Trust, the arms-length charity tasked with delivering the 366m-long Thames crossing.

The trust, however, refused to appear before the assembly to give evidence. The report pointed out that the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee, unlike the assembly, ‘has the power to summons former executives and third-party stakeholders involved’ and recommended that the committee launch its own inquiry.

The trust’s decision to sign a construction contract with Bouygues in February 2016 was a single decision that cost taxpayers £21.4 million and has already been widely attacked, given that the charity had neither the land nor the funding required to build the bridge.

TfL, the Garden Bridge Trust’s public-sector sponsor, said it did not hold a copy of this contract and Bouygues refused to co-operate with the assembly’s inquiry.

However, the new report said the trust took the decision to sign the contract when it was in a ‘precarious’ financial position in order to ‘temporarily alleviate’ its monetary woes, which were identified in minutes of the trust’s board meeting in December 2015.

‘The minutes note that the trust had liquidity until 31 January 2016,’ the report said. ‘Subsequently, the trust required supplementary funds to meet forecast expenditure until 30 July 2016 – that is the expected commencement date for the construction of the bridge.’

The report said that at the board’s subsequent meeting on 14 January, chair of the trustees Mervyn Davies discussed the prospects for signing the construction contract but advised fellow trustees not to read the contract in full.

Instead, Davies suggested they make their decision based on a summary report because ‘issues arise when trustees with little or no experience are asked to submerge themselves into something that they may not fully comprehend’.

Nevertheless, the report noted, some trustees expressed concern that the trust might be acting in a ‘reckless’ manner in signing the contract, given that they still did not have full funds in the bank and that the project was facing 22 significant risks.

The trust subsequently signed the contract on February 9 yet this only exacerbated the project’s problems, the report said.

‘A mere six weeks after the construction contract was signed, the trust was in serious discussions regarding its ever-increasing risks regarding its liabilities if the Garden Bridge project continued to experience project delays and financial insecurity.’

The report accused all of those involved in the project of repeatedly ‘passing the buck’ when it came to ultimate responsibility for the failure, noting that nobody had apologised for the amount of public money wasted on the scheme.

It concluded that the trust, ‘and by extension TfL, acted most recklessly with public monies’ and set out a number of recommendations to ensure ‘nothing like the Garden Bridge fiasco ever happens again’.

A spokesperson for the prime minister Boris Johnson said: ‘This is a matter for TfL and the Garden Bridge Trust.’

Chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Meg Hillier MP, pointed out that her committee has already looked at the Treasury’s role in the Garden Bridge project.

She said: ’This report from the London Assembly underlines what the PAC uncovered in a trail of paperwork with government departments.

’This sorry saga has cost taxpayers dear and shown a cavalier disregard for splashing other people’s cash. And there is nothing to show for it.’

A spokesperson for TfL said: ‘We welcome the report by the London Assembly Garden Bridge Working Group on the learnings of the Garden Bridge project. We will review the report and respond to the recommendations for TfL in due course.’

A spokesperson for London mayor Sadiq Khan said: ’The Mayor’s office and TfL will consider the report’s recommendation and respond in due course.’

The Garden Bridge Trust and Bouygues have been contacted for comment.


Readers' comments (5)

  • While there is nothing new or revelationary in this report, it is worth reading for those who have followed this whole debacle for how it concentrates on that key period of Johnson's directive to soften the payment requirements and the consequential decision by Trustees to sign a huge contract, which has still not been made public.

    This also reads as a final line on the matter by the Assembly, and is a clear call for Meg Hillier and the Parliamentary Accounts Commission to pick up the baton and use all the documentation that has come from City Hall and elsewhere to use their stronger powers of summons and scrutiny to fully investigate and hold to account.

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  • So was the GBT's application to drawdown funding from the public purse after they signed the construction contract without meeting the funding conditions fraudulent? If it was then why did TfL hand over the money, and if it wasn't then why did the Mayor later soften the conditions (that still have never been met)?

    Put it this way - if anyone of us reading this had applied for that funding I suspect we would be in front of a judge, yet no one is and nobody will be, why is that?

    If you can answer that question honestly to yourself then you will be aware of the huge problem that this country has. This issue will now fall between the accountability gaps and nobody will be held to account, but those of us who have been over the detail are now a lot more 'woke' to this particularly British form of cronyism and yet there is nothing anyone can seemingly do about it.

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  • Anyone kept count of Boris's 'pet projects' in recent years?
    There was his 'Boris Bus' to replace the controversial Heatherwick designed 'bendy buses' and ease his way into the job of Mayor (not that the so called Routemaster replacement came anywhere near matching the design quality of the original, or the aspirations of any bus operator outside London).
    Then there was the promised cancellation of Heathrow's third runway to ease his way back into Parliament (while still Mayor, nice if you can get away with it) - not that Boris was serious, he flitted off to Afghanistan for the day rather than 'face the music' in Parliament.
    Then there's the Garden Bridge project, which seems to have involved a host of fiddling, corner-cutting and dodging and diving when it came to accounting for public expenditure (and on whom it was spent) - not that Boris was to blame, he even tried to smear a journalist who was asking awkward questions.
    And there is an uncanny analogy here with the conduct of the great Brexit project - and both are yet to achieve closure.
    There's another 'pet project' currently in the headlines (and not just of the tabloid press), also involving the disbursement of public funds - but of such a personal nature that it's probably not for discussion here.
    Boris clearly expects to be able to fly merrily on his way towards pseudo Churchillian stardom, but for the good of all of us he needs his wings clipped, now.

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  • BoJo will crash and burn, entirely figuratively speaking of course, soon.

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  • Correction to my comment: Heatherwick was responsible for the design of the Routemaster replacement, not the 'bendy bus'.

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