The Garden Bridge Trust rushed to sign the construction contract for its proposed Thames crossing despite identifying 22 remaining ‘significant hurdles’ that the project still faced
Newly released minutes from the trust’s board meetings – published last Thursday (17 May) after a legal wrangle – reveal how major obstacles were still unresolved when the trust signed the contract with Bouygues.
The decision to enter into the agreement with the major contractor was taken on 9 February 2016, before work was ready to begin, and led ultimately to the loss of as much as £19 million of taxpayers’ money when the bridge was scrapped.
But just weeks before the contract was signed, at a board meeting on 14 January 2016, trustees discussed issues including the short-term ‘commitment problem’ from donors, ongoing rows with key stakeholders and the ‘big risk’ of a judicial review.
The financial risk if the bridge was never realised was among the issues raised. According to the minutes, trustee Alistair Subba Row ‘questioned if the trust would be deemed to be reckless in signing the construction contract without the full funds in the bank’.
But the trust’s chair Mervyn Davies sought to reassure the board, advising ‘that the pledges we have to date in addition to the pipeline should give trustees confidence there are risks but they are not being reckless’.
Later, the trustees discussed how the total cost of delivering the bridge had by this point increased from £175 million to £185 million, as well as the loss of pledged funds and the ‘pressure on fundraising’.
‘There was a plan to raise the necessary money to cover the initial shortfall. However the trust will [be] running out of items to sell now the shortfall has increased,’ the minutes state.
In addition to ‘22 significant hurdles that could potentially delay the project’, the trustees also discussed how there were ‘a lot of hurdles’ the trust needed to fulfil before it could secure the next tranche of £7 million of funding from Transport for London (TfL), its public sector sponsor.
Despite this £7 million being signed off by TfL, Davies began the February board meeting by highlighting two current major issues faced by the bridge: ‘short-term funding and cash flow’ and ‘the mood and public opinion surrounding the bridge’.
Subba Row went on to explain that he felt the trust would resolve its issues with Westminster Council on the north side of the bank.
However, he felt the ongoing issues with Lambeth Council, ITV and Coin Street Community Builders – all of which own land on the south side of the river – were ‘far more contentious with a risk that resolution might not be met in time’.
With the trust ‘running out of time’ to find a solution with ITV, which was objecting to the project because it claimed the bridge would impact on its building’s right to light, Davies suggested giving ITV ‘something of recognition’ worth £500,000 to address the issue.
This was despite the trust’s own surveyor valuing the right to light at somewhere between £30-40,000. The minutes reveal how Subba Row reaffirmed that the trust could not build the bridge without ITV, adding: ‘We are talking about £500,000 versus £185 million.’
The February meeting later returned to the subject of fundraising, with trustee John Heaps commenting on the difficulty of asking donors for liability funds ‘where they might not get any value for their money should we terminate the project’.
Heaps went on to discuss the possibility of approaching then chancellor George Osborne with the aim of setting up a ‘contingent liability’ with the Treasury. ‘If the bridge doesn’t go ahead, we have spent £36 million already, which will be bad for the government which is why they are the obvious party to approach,’ the minutes state.
The meeting ended with Davies informing the board he would be in touch with Osborne’s office to propose a meeting – a move the board agreed was a ‘sensible next step’.
The Garden Bridge Trust has been approached for comment.