Preparations to pay the charity behind the Garden Bridge project its final multi-million pound chunk of public money should be suspended, the shadow transport secretary has said
The Garden Bridge Trust recently wrote to its public sector sponsor Transport for London with a request for up to £9 million of public money earmarked in an underwriting agreement provided by the Department for Transport (DfT).
However, Labour politicians including shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald have now called on TfL to withhold the money in the wake of a new legal opinion by a QC recently revealed by the AJ, raising the prospect of limiting the aborted scheme’s cost to the taxpayer, currently estimated at £46 million.
Jason Coppel, an expert in public and procurement law, said it was ‘likely’ that the trustees breached their legal duties to act with reasonable skill and care, ‘in particular in relation to the conclusion of the construction contract with Bouygues’, although he added that a claim against the trustees would not be straightforward due to the difficulty of any potential claimant proving they had suffered loss.
While Coppel’s opinion is understood to be strongly denied by the trustees, Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has now written to TfL commissioner Mike Brown, attaching Coppel’s legal opinion and calling on Brown to ‘halt any payment of further public money to the trust’ until TfL had obtained its own legal advice over whether trustees had indeed breached their legal duties.
Copley’s intervention was backed by McDonald, the second shadow cabinet member to raise serious questions over the actions of the Garden Bridge Trust in recent weeks after repeated calls for a new Parliamentary inquiry were made by shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne.
McDonald told the AJ: ‘It’s the right thing to do by taxpayers to attempt to recover every penny possible from Boris Johnson’s scandalous Garden Bridge vanity project.
‘The taxpayer’s interest must be the priority, and that means using whatever legal means are available in order to limit the cost to the public purse.’
In his letter to Brown, which was copied to London mayor Sadiq Khan and the Charity Commission and was dated August 7, Copley wrote: ‘It has come to my attention that the Garden Bridge Trust has yet to draw down the £9 million of public money provided by the DfT, but has recently made a request to do so which TfL is reviewing.
‘I’m sure you will have seen the opinion of Jason Coppel QC … in light of this opinion from an eminent QC, which I attach, I’m writing to ask you to halt any payment of further public money to the trust until you have sought legal advice as to whether TfL can withhold further payments on the grounds that the trustees may have breached their legal duties. If this is the case it should be the trustees that are liable, not the taxpayer.’
In its latest set of accounts, published recently by the Charity Commission after being submitted more than 150 days late, the trust estimated that it would request £5.5 million or less of the £9 million underwriting facility from TfL in order to meet its financial liabilities.
The DfT’s guarantee was controversially provided in 2016 by then transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin in the face of strong opposition from the department’s then permanent secretary Philip Rutnam.
Brown has yet to reply to Copley but a TfL spokesperson said: ‘The Garden Bridge Trust has written to TfL with a request for payment under the underwriting agreement. We are currently reviewing their request.’
The Garden Bridge Trust is currently in the process of winding up and trustees were unavailable for comment.