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.