Designer Thomas Heatherwick’s behind-the-scenes role on the charity developing the Garden Bridge included suggesting that trustees sign the construction contract and begin building work early, according to board meeting minutes
Politicians have previously complained that the bridge’s designer was conflicted because of his additional role as the sole founding member of client body the Garden Bridge Trust.
Now board meeting minutes reveal that Heatherwick argued weeks before the contract with Bouygues was signed that making this move would transform the beleaguered scheme’s prospects.
Although he attended several board meetings, Heatherwick was not a trustee and was not involved in the trust’s day-to-day running. When the AJ revealed Heatherwick’s role in the trust last December, Heatherwick Studio described it as an ‘honorary membership’ and ‘little more than a badge’.
However, the trust’s decision to sign the construction contract – and TfL’s decision to enable it – in February 2016 before building work was ready to begin has become highly controversial. This is because it apparently broke the rules of the funding agreement and is now estimated to have cost the taxpayer up to £19 million of the overall bill of £46 million.
In the November 2015 board meeting, Heatherwick ‘commented that the public attitude will be very different once the trust commits to a construction contract and once construction activity starts’, the minutes state, adding: ‘He expects there to be a very different energy and feeling of momentum that the project is definitely going to happen.’
Four months’ earlier at the July 2015 meeting, Heatherwick reported to trustees that he had recently seen then chancellor George Osborne, who had informed him that ‘they are going to make it happen’.
The designer went on to suggest that construction should be started ‘at an earlier stage to show that the project is gathering momentum’, but this was rebuffed by trustees, who responded that this ‘would not be practical due to funding and programme constraints’.
Heatherwick – whose practice is estimated to have earned £2.7 million on the publicly funded scheme – initially denied being a member of, or a part of, the trust in interviews.
Shadow housing secretary Andrew Gwynne questioned whether Heatherwick had influenced the Garden Bridge Trust’s decision-making and called on the Charity Commission to reopen its inquiries into the trust. The commission gave a largely positive appraisal of the trust in early 2017.
‘These latest revelations support growing concerns that a conflict of interest was operating at the core of the Garden Bridge project,’ Gwynne said.
The MP, who is also calling for a new Parliamentary inquiry, also pointed to the trust’s failure to submit accounts for more than 19 weeks, saying both things created a ‘strong case’ for a new investigation by the regulator.
Lib Dem London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon, chair of the Assembly’s transport committee, backed Gwynne’s call, saying: ‘The Garden Bridge Trust has become a case study of how a charity should not operate.
The Garden Bridge Trust has become a case study of how a charity should not operate
‘Despite having the privilege of receiving so much public money, it has lacked transparency over important aspects of its financial dealings. And even now the trust is holding back on publishing final accounts, [preventing them] from being examined by the public.
‘The latest revelations from their board meetings reveal major questions over how the trustees operated, such as whether potential conflicts existed, which must be addressed. It is time the Charity Commission stepped in and carried out a full investigation on the conduct of this charity.’
A Charity Commission spokesperson said: ‘We are aware of concern following the recent publication of the charity’s board minutes. We have continued to engage with the charity; we held a recent meeting with the trustees and are in regulatory engagement regarding fulfilling their legal obligation to file a fully audited copy of their accounts.
‘As part of that engagement, we are reviewing this new information to ensure that the trustees took reasonable decisions and applied appropriate levels of constructive challenge and questioning when doing so.
‘The principles we expect trustees to follow when making decisions are set out in our guidance on decision-making. If we find that decisions were not made properly or we identify other regulatory concerns, we will consider further regulatory action including the full use of our legal powers.
‘We do recognise the public interest in the proposed bridge and subsequent failure of the project, however the commission’s role is specific to upholding trustees’ compliance with charity law; it is not for us to comment on the merits or shortcomings of the project itself nor on the use of public funds.’
Heatherwick Studio declined to comment.
The Garden Bridge Trust has been approached for comment.