The Garden Bridge Trust raised less than £4 million in donations in the year before the controversial £200 million project was scrapped, despite spending almost four times this amount on ‘pre-construction costs’
The trust’s long-delayed accounts for the period ending March 2017 have finally been published by regulator the Charity Commission after being submitted by the trust more than 150 days late.
They cover a period beginning after the critical signing of the construction contract with main contractor Bouygues but before the publication of Margaret Hodge’s damning report on the project in April 2017.
The taxpayer is facing an estimated total loss of £46 million on Thomas Heatherwick’s unbuilt bridge and the accounts show that the trust, which is currently being wound up, spent £14.4 million on pre-construction costs that year and a further £630,000 on operational activities, spending a total of £17.4 million over the 12 months.
Donations equated to just £3.9 million including £1.5 million from trusts and foundations, £950,000 from individuals, £390,000 from corporate donors and £17,500 from patrons.
In August 2016, Davies told Newsnight that fundraising had ‘good momentum’
The figures will create serious questions for the Charity Commission, given that it published a positive report on the trust’s governance and finances following its eight-month probe into the charity, carried out during the period the accounts cover.
In a report published in February 2017, the regulator 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 was then believed to total about £40 million of public money.
The commission had started its inquiries in June 2016 following complaints by individuals, including MP for Vauxhall Kate Hoey, over how it had spent two-thirds of its £60 million of taxpayer funding before construction had even begun.
At the time, the trust’s chairman, Mervyn Davies (pictured), consistently talked up the trust’s fundraising in the face of huge public controversy and four simultaneous official inquiries into the Garden Bridge by the commission, the National Audit Office (NAO), the mayor of London and Transport for London’s external auditor Ernst & Young.
In August 2016, Davies told BBC2’s Newsnight that fundraising had ‘good momentum’ adding that ‘the pipeline is very strong’.
He admitted that ‘one or two donors’ had withdrawn but added: ‘What I’d say with confidence is that we as a group of trustees believe we will raise the money.’
The following month, he said the trust was not far from being satisfied that it has received enough pledges from private donors to proceed with construction, with several announcements ‘in the pipeline’.
Davies enjoyed links to the Charity Commission’s leadership, meeting with then chairman William Shawcross to ask his advice
Davies – a well-connected crossbench peer in the House of Lords – enjoyed links to the Charity Commission’s leadership and even met with its then chairman William Shawcross to ask his advice on how to register the trust as a charity back in 2013.
In an overview to the newly published accounts signed off on 17 June 2018, Davies struck a defiant tone and pointed to the commission’s ‘very positive’ report on the trust.
‘The Charity Commission opened an operational compliance case in order to review the trust and its governance,’ he wrote. ‘The findings of this case are published on the commission’s website and recognise the trust’s strategic leadership, engagement and financial management.’
In the overview, Davies also noted the National Audit Office and Hodge reports, but did not refer to their damning conclusions.
‘All of these reviews inevitably created uncertainty and doubt that the project would happen,’ he added. ‘This created a climate which frustrated the project programme, thereby causing delay, and impacted on fundraising.’
Winding up costs have included those due to the main contractor, the accounts stated.
‘Given the discussions with the contractor, the trustees have been unable to produce accounts providing a true and fair view until those discussions have reached their conclusion – as they now have,’ the accounts explain.
The accounts also note that the trust will return £7 million to donors and is expected to wind up in a solvent state over the next two months with the publication of a closing statement.
Davies had previously promised London mayor Sadiq Khan that the trust would account for ‘every line of expenditure’ as part of the winding up operation.
A Charity Commission spokesperson said: ‘We can confirm that we have now received Garden Bridge Trust’s annual report and audited accounts for the financial year ending 30 March 2017.
‘We have published these and are currently reviewing them for our own regulatory purposes.’