Critics say the charity behind the aborted Garden Bridge has ‘gone rogue’ after it refused to provide its public sector sponsor Transport for London with records of its key decisions despite the loss of close to £50 million of taxpayers’ money
The AJ revealed earlier this month that TfL had called upon the Garden Bridge Trust to produce copies of the minutes of its board meetings.
As well as funding and helping to establish the trust in late 2013, TfL oversees the charity and had the right to attend these meetings.
However, following pressure from London Assembly’s oversight committee, TfL’s commissioner Mike Brown admitted before Christmas that it had failed to keep copies of the minutes.
The oversight committee is continuing to investigate the scandal of the £200m Heatherwick-designed bridge amid continuing questions about how an estimated £46.4 million could have been spent on the project without construction being started.
In a letter dated January 9, replying to the request from TfL’s director of city planning Alex Williams, the trust’s executive director Bee Emmott (pictured) said the organisation did not consider that it was required to produce the minutes.
While the Garden Bridge’s 2015 deed of grant sets out TfL’s right to inspect copies of the trust’s records of the project’s progress along with income and expenditure, Emmott argued that this was never intended to include the ‘dealings of the trust’.
In the letter, she wrote: ‘As you know, we have been through an investigation by the Charity Commission, and have given them everything that they have asked for and been given a clean bill of health; and we have been through the Hodge Review, and given her everything that she had asked for – and we feel that there has to be a limit.
The trust’s refusal to provide copies of the minutes is astonishing. It begs the question of what they are trying to hide
‘The time taken up by these exercises was both costly and a distraction from the primary business of the trust, and we do not feel it is right to add to that burden, on a purely speculative basis, at a time when the trust’s now very limited resources need to concentrate on closing down operations in a business-like way.’
Emmott - who worked at the bridge’s designer Heatherwick Studio before joining the Garden Bridge Trust - added that the trust had concerns about commercial confidentiality and was not covered by Freedom of Information laws.
She added: ‘As you know, TfL have been invited to trust board meetings and have attended the great majority of them, and have therefore been able to observe all dealings of the trust.’
TfL’s legal chief Howard Carter has now responded to Emmott to insist that the minutes be produced, demanding that she respond within 10 days.
‘I see no reason why the term “project records” would not encompass something as significant as board minutes, which are, clearly, the primary record for all significant decisions that were made in respect of the project,’ Carter wrote in his letter of January 22. ‘I am sure that on further consideration the trustees will accept that it is right and proper that its decision-making is entirely transparent to the public.’
The project is dead – I cannot see how concerns about ‘commercial confidentiality’ can apply in this instance
London Assembly and oversight committee member Tom Copley, who has been calling for the minutes to be published for several months, said TfL might now need to consider legal action to force the trust’s hand.
‘Arrogance and hubris have been the hallmark of the Garden Bridge Trust’s attitude to scrutiny and challenge over the years since its unfortunate inception,’ he said.
‘But even by their standards, the trust’s refusal to provide TfL with copies of the minutes of their board meetings is astonishing. It begs the question of what they are trying to hide – not just from the public but from the organisation that bankrolled them with millions of pounds of taxpayer cash.
‘The fact this project was set up at arms-length from TfL despite the level of public money being spent on it has led to problems with transparency and accountability from the very beginning.
‘Given the trust is winding up and the project is dead I cannot see how concerns about “commercial confidentiality” can apply in this instance. The trust may want the bridge to die as it lived – shrouded in secrecy – but taxpayers deserve to know what decisions were taken by those responsible for the loss of their money.’
Dan Anderson, a tourist attractions expert at consultant Fourth Street who has closely followed the Garden Bridge saga, said TfL and the trust seemed to be trying to top each other in terms of ‘outrageous’ behaviour.
‘TfL put £46 million into this project – they should have some proper documents somewhere,’ he said. ‘And now it appears that the Garden Bridge Trust has gone rogue and won’t provide them. How on earth did we get to this place?’
The Garden Bridge Trust declined to comment.