MPs are calling for a Parliamentary inquiry into the Garden Bridge after evidence emerged appearing to show the charity behind it may have misled Transport for London on its financial position as part of a successful bid for a further £7 million of public money
TfL’s decision to release the funding tranche in February 2016 to the Garden Bridge Trust has become the focus of fierce criticism given that it enabled the then beleaguered trust to sign a construction contract, a move estimated to have cost the taxpayer as much as £19 million of the likely total bill of £46 million.
In a letter to TfL sent in late January 2016, the trust’s deputy chair, Paul Morrell, argued that it had met the six conditions in the funding agreement necessary for the release of the £7 million.
The first of these conditions was about demonstrating to TfL’s satisfaction that the trust had secured, or was able to secure, a sufficient level of funding to build the bridge. In this section of his letter, Morrell claimed that the trust had raised a total of £145 million, a figure that included the £60 million coming from central and London government.
No explanation of the funding discrepancy has been forthcoming
However, the newly released minutes of the trust’s monthly board meetings – which TfL attended as observers – show not only that TfL was sceptical that the trust had met the conditions prior to Morrell’s letter being sent, but also that a lower fundraising total was cited shortly before and after Morrell’s letter was sent.
At a board meeting held on 9 December 2015, trustees and observers were informed that the trust had secured £135 million. It was also at this meeting that senior TfL planning officer Andy Brown said his organisation would ‘struggle’ to justify the conditions attached to the release of the £7 million.
At the following month’s board meeting, held on 14 January 2016 – less than two weeks before Morrell’s letter was sent – it was noted that the capital cost of the Garden Bridge had increased to £185 million and that a funding gap of £54 million existed. This would mean that £131 million had been raised at that point, an apparent decline of £4 million in the private money pledged and £14 million less than Morrell then claimed had been raised towards the Heatherwick Studio-designed crossing in his letter.
No explanation of the funding discrepancy has been forthcoming and no mention is made in Morrell’s letter of the increase in capital cost, any decline in funding levels or the 22 ‘significant’ hurdles the project was facing discussed at the January board meeting.
In the letter, sent to TfL’s then MD of planning Richard de Cani, Morrell wrote: ‘Over the last six months, the trust has secured more than £20 million in private sector contributions to the project. This is an unprecedented achievement for a capital project that has yet to begin construction.
‘The Garden Bridge Trust expect fundraising to accelerate further once construction commences later this year.’
He went on to say: ‘Contractual agreements are in place for all of the commitments received to date’ adding that information on this had been shared with TfL for assurance purposes.
Following Morrell’s letter, TfL’s decision to release the £7 million tranche and the subsequent signing of the construction contract with Bouygues on 9 February, the trust’s board meeting on 17 February heard that the charity had raised £130 million at that point. Notably, no reference was made to the fact that less than three weeks prior to the meeting, the trust had ostensibly received pledges of £145 million and no explanation was given as to why the figure had declined so rapidly in such a short space of time.
The trust has yet to release its overdue accounts to Companies House or the Charity Commission and accounts are more than 16 weeks overdue at the latter.
However, MPs and a leading London Assembly member said the apparent discrepancy between the fundraising total cited in Morrell’s letter and what was said at the trust’s board meetings raised very serious questions.
We now know that the scale of the disaster was much larger and was known much earlier than the trust admitted in public
Shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne said that public money appeared to have been ‘misused’ and demanded a Parliamentary inquiry.
‘We now know from the published board minutes that the scale of the disaster was much larger and was known much earlier than the trust admitted in public,’ he said.
‘Many will be very angry that taxpayers have lost tens of millions of pounds on a vanity project, and questions remain on the role played by government ministers and the former mayor in the reckless decision to release public funds for the construction contract.
‘We finally need to see some transparency from the Garden Bridge Trust. Taxpayers deserve an explanation for this discrepancy.’
Lib Dem leader Vince Cable agreed, telling the AJ: ‘The revelations over this scandal keep on coming and this has been very financially damaging to the taxpayer. The time has come for a Parliamentary inquiry.’
Labour MP Kate Hoey – who raised serious concerns with the Garden Bridge in the Commons in 2016 – said the minutes ‘regrettably’ seemed to support her worst fears.
‘They suggest that the trustees, at best, were potentially negligent,’ she said. ‘At worst, they suggest that they were misleading in the way that they presented their case for the release of further tranches of taxpayers’ money, misrepresenting their true financial position in order to garner more public funds.
‘Those involved in the Garden Bridge Trust need to be held to account by the appropriate regulatory or judicial bodies and must be scrutinised in the same way other charities have been.’
If the Garden Bridge Trust deliberately massaged the figures, there is a question as to whether this is now a matter for the police
London Assembly member Tom Copley – who has repeatedly pressed the TfL commissioner Mike Brown on the release of the £7 million grant – also raised the possibility of police inquiries and a full public inquiry.
‘If the Garden Bridge Trust deliberately massaged the figures to make it look as though the project were in a better financial state than it was then not only should the Charity Commission investigate, there is a question as to whether this is now a matter for the police,’ he said.
‘It also raises questions as to the level of due diligence TfL undertook before releasing the extra £7 million.
‘The level of scandal surrounding this project is such that we need urgent further scrutiny both at City Hall and in Parliament, and perhaps a full public inquiry.’
Paul Morrell and the Garden Bridge Trust have both been asked for an explanation for these discrepancies but both declined to comment