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Garden Bridge Trust inquiry: charities regulator publishes report

Garden bridge revised
  • 3 Comments

Trust’s chairman says it intends to ‘draw a line in the sand’ about project’s controversial history after charities regulator dismisses complaints 

The Garden Bridge Trust is acting in compliance with charity law and has the correct financial controls in place, the charities regulator has said.

Following a number of complaints about the Garden Bridge Trust (GBT) by individuals including MP for Vauxhall Kate Hoey, the Charity Commission launched an inquiry into the registered charity, which is developing the £185 million Heatherwick-designed project.

In a report published today (Tuesday), the commission said GBT trustees were meeting their duties including required standards of financial management and ‘were able to justify the high forward spend made by the charity’, which is believed to total about £40 million-worth of taxpayer funding.

Following a complaint over the award of contracts by the GBT and potential conflicts of interest with anonymous donors to the project, the commission said it was satisfied that conflicts were properly managed and had been able to confirm benefactors ‘were not party to contracts made by the charity’.

However, the report – which did not examine the merits of the project nor how it has been funded – did contain areas of criticism. It said that the GBT’s accounts should have been more detailed, given the level of public interest, including details of how it would meet its liabilities in the event of its closure.

The report also suggested trustees should have examined the progress of other ‘comparable infrastructure projects’ to better understand the risks to the Garden Bridge.

A separate inquiry examining the project’s procurement and value for money is currently being carried out by Labour grandee Margaret Hodge MP and is expected to conclude shortly.

Nevertheless, chairman of the GBT Mervyn Davies said the charity now intends to ‘draw a line in the sand about historical aspects of this project delivered by other parties’ in order to deliver the bridge.

He said: ‘We are pleased this report recognises trustees’ financial management and our strategic leadership. The trustees take their responsibilities seriously. We welcome the fact that the Charity Commission has endorsed our approach and we are always looking to learn lessons and make improvements.

‘The Garden Bridge is an inspirational project that involves the best of British design and innovation. It will be a landmark for central London and bring huge benefits to the capital and the UK.’

Chief operating officer of the Charity Commission David Holdsworth said the report would provide public assurance.

He added: ‘We are aware of the considerable public debate regarding this project. Our role is not to comment on the merits of the project but to assess concerns about its governance and ensure it is compliant with the legal framework for charities.’

Comments

Kate Hoey, MP for Vauxhall (Labour)

The very limited scope of the Charity Commission in its five-page report on the Garden Bridge Trust is regrettable but understandable. The report begs the question as to why a charitable vehicle is being used as a vehicle of a major public infrastructure project when there are not sufficient regulatory powers to provide sufficient and robust oversight. The report itself concludes that this type of infrastructure project would not normally be undertaken by a charity.

I am glad that the Charity Commission validated significant concerns around the Garden Bridge Trust not exploring critical paths for other comparable infrastructure projects and its assessment of its project risks. Specifically, the report confirms my deep concerns around the trustees’ annual report and its transparency around the Garden Bridge Trust’s use of restricted funds.

The Garden Bridge Trust has wilfully ignored findings by the National Audit Office of the Trust itself and I am concerned that none of these have been highlighted in the report, as the Garden Bridge Trust hides behind ‘scope’ arguments. Nor does the report address the key question around the relationship between Transport for London and the Garden Bridge Trust in decision-making.

The Trust should not be allowed to present this limited report as a mandate to proceed unaccountably

Most importantly, the fundamental questions about the viability of the Garden Bridge project, its historical behaviours and the high likelihood that in the event that the project proceeds it will expose the taxpayer to vast ongoing financial exposure are not even enabled to be addressed in this report. Therefore, in no sense should the Garden Bridge Trust be allowed to present this limited report as a mandate to proceed unaccountably, or as some form of endorsement of its viability and objectives.

Caroline Pidgeon

Caroline Pidgeon

Caroline Pidgeon, Liberal Democrat, London Assembly Group
While the Garden Bridge Trust will paint this as a clean bill of health, and is keen to move on, there are still concerns raised by the Charity Commission about the assessment of risk of the project and about providing more information on progress – or lack of progress – with the bridge, given the public interest.

Given the trust has struggled to raise the funding for the bridge and provide for the millions of pounds needed each year to maintain it, the real issue is: will the Mayor of London sign the guarantee for this project or simply put it out of its misery?

  • 3 Comments

Readers' comments (3)

  • Nice to see the Charity Commission's reassurance that the Garden Bridge Trust has the correct financial controls in place, and Mervyn Davies makes the point that the trustees take their responsibilities seriously; this presumably explains why the initial - but remarkably hefty - financial risk seems to have been loaded onto the taxpayer, rather than the trust's donors.
    That £40 million of 'high forward spend' seems remarkably like 'heads we win, tails you lose' - all in a good cause, of course..

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  • There is a very simple way to ensure the future financial well-being of this project, and moreover one that would make clear the public interest in this brilliant idea for London. The Garden Bridge should be accessible by using an Oyster card. People who don't want to use the bridge won't be paying for it, whereas the millions of visitors who will indeed want to experience it will pay for its upkeep and recoup public investment. Mayor Khan should ask his TfL people to look at this seriously; a new sort of development, part bridge, part destination, needs an innovative response, not the sad and tiresome moaning of critics who are frightened of creative ideas.

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  • The charity still need to raise at least £70,000,000 to start building the project (more likely £100,000,000 as they have stated they can't confirm the outturn cost at this stage). In addition to this the charity must secure in trust around a further £15,000,000 to provide income to supplement their projected income (including that which they expect to take in payments similar to what Paul Finch describes above) to cover the maintenance bill of up to £3m annually, for the lifetime of the bridge in its proposed form. They must do this to secure the Mayor's signature on the guarantee which is subject to a planning condition. They need to raise this approximate minimum of £85 million with just months if the Westminster Council stand by their recent demand that all the money must be in place prior to starting on site. The planning consent expires later this year.

    Even with all the questions about value for money, environmental damage, possibly illegal procurement it is clear that there are powerful and influential people that want this to happen. If in the next few months the charity announce that they have secured all the funding then it will demonstrate clearly one of two things. Either their team is amazing and despite the many polls showing that as many as 70% of people think its a bad idea they have convinced a billionaire benefactor that her or his legacy is best displayed set in concrete and cupronickel; or; the UK is a top down society where it is less important how much good your cause will do than it is who you know. Either way its going to be interesting.

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