The Lib Dem leader has condemned scrutiny of the collapsed Garden Bridge after a letter emerged from TfL’s under-fire boss Mike Brown to the Charity Commission suggesting no grounds for further inquiry
The letter, responding to another from the Charity Commission about the unbuilt £200 million crossing, was sent in July last year. Both have now been released by the charities regulator following an FOI request by the office of London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon.
In his letter, Brown said he had no concerns about TfL’s assessment in early 2016 that the Garden Bridge Trust had met the six conditions of payment necessary for the agreement to release of £7 million of public money. That agreement prompted the Trust to sign a fateful construction contract with Bouygues which saw an eye-watering £21.4 million handed to the contractors.
Last month, the Charity Commission cited the reassurances it had received from Brown in its decision not to launch a full inquiry into the Garden Bridge, sparking outrage from politicians given that TfL and Brown himself are in the line of fire over the scandal.
The signing of the contract is now known to have cost half of the overall £43 million bill to the taxpayer for the never-realised scheme. Yet observers point out that at least two of the conditions, which were there to protect the public purse, had not been met (see below).
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In his letter, Brown also said that he was ‘not involved’ in the assessment of the conditions himself, a claim directly at odds with the evidence of TfL’s former managing director of planning Richard De Cani, who repeatedly told the Hodge inquiry that Brown was involved in the decision.
Reacting to the latest correspondence, Cable accused TfL of failing to protect the taxpayer and renewed his call for further scrutiny.
He said: ‘This exchange shows why the Charity Commission cannot brush the Garden Bridge scandal under the carpet and reinforces the need for a full Parliamentary inquiry.
‘The Garden Bridge Trust’s signing of the project’s construction contract in 2016 was ruinous and completely unjustified. That one decision has cost taxpayers more than £20 million.
‘TfL knew it was happening and had every opportunity to stop it – but instead of acting in the taxpayers’ interest, TfL behaved like an agent of the Garden Bridge Trust.’
Pidgeon, a fellow Lib Dem and chair of the Assembly’s transport committee, accused the Charity Commission of perfunctory and timid questioning of TfL.
‘The release of this correspondence reveals the serious lack of effective questioning and scrutiny by the Charity Commission,’ she said.
‘A four-sentence letter, containing nothing more than just a vague question, is the toughest form of challenge that the charity regulator appears to have undertaken.’
Of Brown, she added: ‘The Commissioner of TfL also has a great deal of explaining to do over how TfL so casually released funding to the Garden Bridge Trust.
‘Either he was in charge of the situation, in which case he needs to give a full account of the utter folly of so much public money being wasted; or, instead, he made the mistake of allowing significant decisions to be made without his involvement. Neither explanation is satisfactory.’
A spokesperson for TfL claimed it had ‘no involvement in the Garden Bridge Trust’s decision to sign the main construction contract in February 2016’.
On the question of Brown’s involvement in assessing the conditions, they added: ‘The Commissioner was not involved in this assessment […] he was naturally kept aware of the project by the MD of Planning, due to its political nature.
‘However, this was only for awareness and his regular meetings with City Hall, rather than decision-making.’
A spokesperson for the Charity Commission said: ’Our purpose in writing to TfL was to establish whether or not those responsible for oversight of the allocation of public funds to this charity had any concerns in relation to the trustees’ application of those funds or whether they believed any breach of the terms of the agreements surrounding the funds had occurred.
‘Had TfL, as the fund-givers, raised concerns about how the funds were handled in relation to the agreements they had put in place, this would have raised charity law concerns, which we would have wanted to assess.
‘We take this matter very seriously, which is why we took the unusual step of proactively contacting other agencies and are working to provide a comprehensive update on our regulatory engagement shortly.’
Tom Copley, Labour London Assembly member and chair of the Assembly’s Garden Bridge Working Group
’TfL authorised the release of this £7 million and it is inconceivable that the Trust would’ve signed the construction contract without being assured of this funding.
’Mike Brown’s claim that he was not involved in the assessment of whether the Trust had met its funding conditions is directly contradicted by a former senior TfL officer, and Londoners can be assured that the London Assembly will be seeking clarification about his role in this.’
TfL statement in full
’As we have made clear before, TfL had no involvement in the Garden Bridge Trust’s decision to sign the main construction contract in February 2016. As the Trust had signed the contract and then demonstrated that they met the criteria for additional funding to be released, we were required to release the funds in accordance with the funding agreement.
’The Commissioner was not involved in this assessment. As Commissioner, he was naturally kept aware of the project by the MD of Planning, due to its political nature. However, this was only for awareness and his regular meetings with City Hall, rather than decision making.’