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Is the Garden Bridge dead in the water?

Garden bridge graphic new

NEWS ANALYSIS: Mounting in cost, blasted by the National Audit Office and increasingly viewed as the vanity project of a previous regime, is there any hope left for the controversial crossing? asks Will Hurst

It must be hard taking flak for someone else’s ‘mess’ but that is the situation London mayor Sadiq Khan now finds himself in with the Garden Bridge.

Since his election in May, Khan has consistently distanced himself from the contentious Boris Johnson-promoted project, while maintaining that he’d like to see it built because this would be cheaper for taxpayers than cancelling it. He has handed difficult and persistent questions over its procurement and value for money to Labour grandee Margaret Hodge to examine, and has repeatedly vowed to spend not a penny more of taxpayers’ money on the £185 million Thomas Heatherwick-designed scheme.

Why don’t you call it off now? Pull the plug, cut your losses – nobody wants it

LBC Radio presenter James O’Brien

But, interviewed on LBC Radio last week, Khan’s strategy came under fire as angry listeners flooded the switchboard demanding he scrap what increasingly seems to be viewed as a Boris Johnson vanity project.

‘Why don’t you call it off now? Just seriously, pull the plug, cut your losses – nobody wants it,’ presenter James O’Brien told the flustered Khan.

The past few months have not been kind to the Garden Bridge, even if one mentions only a selection of news items. In August, BBC’s Newsnight revealed its funding gap was more than £20 million larger than previously thought (it now stands at £56 million) and that several donors had pulled out over the previous 12 months. 

In the same month, the Department for Transport (DfT) – which is providing half of the £60 million of public money going to the bridge – agreed to extend an underwriting agreement covering possible cancellation liabilities but reduced the amount from £15 million to £9 million, saying it was up to the Garden Bridge Trust to find private-sector backers who would make up the shortfall. 

In September the scheme was attacked in Parliament by MP Kate Hoey, while Khan rebuked its lack of ‘accountability and transparency’ when he announced Hodge’s appointment. 

Garden bridge  winter

Garden bridge winter

This month, a bigger blow was dealt by the National Audit Office (NAO), which published a damning report on the DfT’s £30 million contribution to the project. This concluded that such grant funding was approved despite the ‘significant risk that the bridge could represent poor value for money’ and revealed that ministers had twice relaxed a cap on pre-construction funding following pressure from then chancellor George Osborne and prime minister David Cameron but against the advice of senior civil servants. The report prompted the chair of the Public Accounts Committee Meg Hillier to raise the spectre of one of the most notorious public sector charity bail-outs of recent times by warning of the risk of another ‘Kid’s Company fiasco’.

So where does this leave a public-private project, which actor and project champion Joanna Lumley has described as a gift to London and ‘a tiara on the head of our fabulous city’? Is the Garden Bridge now dying a death? And what lessons can we already draw from its tortured and polarising progression?

Talking to those who have observed it most closely, descriptions of the current condition of the Garden Bridge range from the merely ‘sickly’ to it being, if you’ll forgive the pun, dead in the water.

Once Hodge’s report is submitted to Khan I can’t see the project surviving because it represents poor value for money

Steve Norris

‘It has been on a life support machine for many, many months and that machine may be unplugged any day,’ says campaigner Will Jennings, who founded the satirical anti-Garden Bridge competition A Folly for London.

Conservative politician Steve Norris, a former transport minister and mayoral candidate, agrees, pointing to the project’s huge funding gap and diminishing support, which he believes is ‘draining away by the day’.

‘Once Margaret Hodge’s report is submitted to Khan I can’t see the project surviving, because she is bound to conclude the project represents poor value for money,’ Norris adds.

The project – whose construction timetable has been repeatedly delayed and is currently pencilled in to start on site next year – faces other major challenges including securing several vital agreements before building work can begin. It has not yet been granted a river works licence by the Port of London Authority nor agreement to use the land needed for its southern landing point by leaseholder Coin Street Community Builders, despite lengthy and ongoing negotiations with the group. And, notwithstanding Khan’s desire to stand well back from the Garden Bridge, it does actually fall to him to decide whether or not to sign off the mayor’s proposed underwriting of its annual maintenance cost, estimated at £3 million a year. This agreement, drawn up by Johnson, is not a prudent safety net for the Garden Bridge Trust but a requirement of the project’s planning permission.

sadiq khan

The trust put its contractor, a joint venture led by Bouygues, on standby over the summer but continues to insist things remain on track.

Asked by the AJ if the project is moribund, the trust’s executive director, Bee Emmott, denies it.

‘Once land negotiations have been concluded and all planning conditions met, we will be ready to start construction next year,’ she says in a statement.

‘That there is also a pipeline of international investors and sponsors ready to invest in one of the world’s greatest cities is further testament to the importance of creative projects in London for the world to invest in.’

In her statement, Emmott also acknowledged a challenging ‘political climate’.

‘Within this environment, a myriad of truths, half-truths and straight-out lies make up the background noise,’ she says. ‘That is to be expected. We live in a democracy and for that I am grateful. The Garden Bridge is a bold, brave and creative idea.’

London needs to be brave if it wants to build the equivalent of new cathedrals and parks. These things cannot be properly analysed economically

Richard Rogers

Despite its challenges and despite the departure of Cameron and Osborne from government, the scheme continues to enjoy the support of powerful backers. These include the Evening Standard, Times and Sunday Times newspapers as well as architect Richard Rogers.

Speaking to the AJ from Boston, Rogers observes that New York’s High Line was also controversial and is ‘now the most popular thing’ in the city. He also believes the location for the Garden Bridge between Temple and the South Bank is the right one and that we should not get too worked-up over an NAO report.

‘Civil servants do their job but they are not known for having much imagination,’ he says drily.

‘Should a bridge be fun? Yes. Should a bridge be beautiful? Yes. Thomas Heatherwick is a fantastic designer and London needs to be brave if it wants to build the equivalent of new cathedrals and parks. These things cannot be properly analysed economically.’

Rogers adds that he has ‘kept out of the detail’ of the Garden Bridge’s procurement but concludes that it would be a major boost to the capital once realised.

‘Its use to London would be worth a thousand times what it costs,’ he says.

Garden bridge revised

Garden bridge revised

Even its supporters, though, will privately admit that serious mistakes have been made with the planning and development of the Garden Bridge. So what are these and what can we learn from its troubles?

Local government expert and LSE professor Tony Travers – a declared Garden Bridge agnostic – is amazed by the amount of attention the project continues to receive, pointing out there are far worse examples of taxpayers’ money put at risk or lost. He believes it has become caught up in a ‘proxy war’ that goes way beyond the scheme itself and involves issues including the near-mythical status of the river Thames and the controversy over the privatisation of public space.

‘The scale of interest in this project makes no sense unless you think of all the stories buried within it which are unravelling,’ he says. 

‘It’s like a story from ancient history which tells several universal truths.

‘Those who went into it seem to have done so in a rather light-hearted way. If you’re going to do something like this, which is celebrity-driven, uses private as well as public money and interferes with Canaletto’s views of the Thames, it’s probably good to do a bit of due diligence first. You have to convince people of the wisdom of your argument.’

 If you’re going to build a bridge over the river, it has to be a public right of way

Anna Minton

Travers’ point about privatisation is echoed by writer and public space expert Anna Minton, a fierce critic of the Garden Bridge, who says she would equally object if the scheme were 100 per cent privately funded, as originally intended.

‘My main objection is that it is a privatised bridge, the ultimate glossy global tourist attraction,’ she says. ‘It’s a really simple point but, if you’re going to build a bridge over the river, it has to be a public right of way.’

The underlying sense that the Garden Bridge was rushed and that the trust failed to do its homework and failed to fully understand what the public wanted is backed by chairman of New London Architecture, Peter Murray, who is a supporter of the scheme. 

He says: ‘The design should have made greater accommodation for those who just wanted to get to the other side. 

‘Joanna Lumley pissed off cyclists – one of the strongest advocacy groups in town – very early on with her injudicious comments. The trust dealt badly with the issues relating to POPAS (privately owned public accessible space) and with photographers. So the main lessons are: better PR and more pragmatism.’

The point is made more aggressively by Jennings, who says the trust has tried to force its project on London but has been undone by ‘interconnected networks, FOIs and a clued-up public tired of having things done to them instead of for them’.

This lack of pragmatism, nous and research should also be laid at the feet of former mayor Johnson, who had free rein to pursue ‘ill-conceived vanity projects’ like the Garden Bridge, Cable Car and ArcelorMittal Orbit at the 2012 Olympic Park, according to Architecture Foundation director and AJ critic-at-large Ellis Woodman.

‘For all these schemes there is this suspicion that they have more to do with the promotion of their backers than London’s very real needs,’ Woodman says. ‘The randomness of these projects is the real concern. There was no strategic overview under Johnson.’

It is essential that such dodgy procurement practices are exposed and prohibited

Ellis Woodman

This perceived randomness is something that continues to haunt the Garden Bridge in terms of its dwindling support within Transport for London (TfL) and the DfT. After all, the NAO report divulged that the latter believed the bridge ‘was not predominantly a transport scheme … did not align with any specific transport policies’ and had ‘highly uncertain’ benefits for tourism.

‘As a concept, the Garden Bridge was undermined by all of the contradictions that cascaded from that very early Boris Johnson decision to foist it on to TfL,’ says Dan Anderson of tourist attraction consultancy Fourth Street. ‘From that moment, the Garden Bridge essentially became a tourist attraction that – for funding expediency – had to masquerade as transport infrastructure.  It has taken a long time, but that basic lie at the heart of the project has slowly unravelled.’

The other thing that has continued to unravel of course is any belief that TfL held open and fair contests to appoint Garden Bridge designer Heatherwick Studio and engineer Arup. RIBA president Jane Duncan for one is clear about what she believes is the most obvious lesson to draw from the Garden Bridge.

‘High standards of public procurement are essential to deliver quality and value for taxpayers and to strengthen public trust,’ she says. ‘It is vital that lessons are learned from this project so that future public procurement projects in London and throughout the UK are delivered to the high standards the public expect and deserve.’

Boris Johnson and Joanna Lumley

For Woodman, this also raises worrying questions about the imbalance of power between architects and major public sector clients like TfL, given the fact that the losing bidders in the Garden Bridge design contest, Marks Barfield and WilkinsonEyre have never spoken out, let alone taken court action.

‘It is notable that neither of the other competitors in what was manifestly a rigged competition have sought legal redress,’ he says. 

‘I can only assume that is because they have deemed it politic to stay on the right side of TfL. It is essential that such dodgy procurement practices are exposed and prohibited and I believe the most effective means of accomplishing that remains for architects to challenge them in court.’

Others, though, including Peter Murray and Ben Rogers, director of think-tank Centre for London, believe a democratically elected mayor should be allowed to pursue grands projets dreamed up by the private sector.

‘We are all in favour of good process and fair procurement but we do want to ensure the mayor’s prerogative to adopt creative ideas is preserved,’ says Rogers. ‘You don’t want a situation where people don’t have the incentive to develop ideas and lobby the mayor but you also don’t want favouritism. 

‘Maybe a mechanism could be established which gives [original] creators recompense but also allows ideas to be tested and allows others to come forward with their own ideas.’

It’s an interesting proposition and one that underlines just how much the Garden Bridge has been discussed and scrutinised by journalists, academics, campaigners and politicians. Whether it floats or sinks, it is all too apparent that the Garden Bridge will continue to make ripples.


Readers' comments (7)

  • If only Calatrava was the designer..if only there were cycleways instead of pathways...

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  • Maybe this will happen maybe not, either way there is an interesting and potentially controversial book here- perhaps Will has just drafted an overview above.

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  • ..."[Khan] he’d like to see it built because this would be cheaper for taxpayers than cancelling it".
    I can hardly imagine a worse justification to spend even more public money. Disappointing really. It seems to me that if money was wrongly allocated, the government duty is to make accountable the people behind all this wrong process. The fact that the taxpayer is who needs to cover the money gaps and wrong doings and not the legally responsible ones is beyond understanding. The precedent would also be risky. One could think that getting public money by promoting questionable projects without delivering them is a legitimate source of profit...

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  • A good, comprehensive summing-up.
    Bee Emmott is right to refer to 'a myriad of truths, half truths and straight out lies' making up 'the background noise' - but has she missed the obvious point that this is more applicable to Boris Johnson's dodgy antics in pushing the project (and bringing the TfL management into disrepute) than to the behaviour of the objectors?
    And Richard Rogers (one of my heroes in my student days, though not up there with Cedric Price) is surely seen by much of the general public, as well as his profession, as someone well worth listening to - so it's all the more surprising that he says he's 'kept out of the detail' of the project's procurement.
    I wonder how many others of the 'movers and the shakers' of the architectural profession took the same view? I spent the first years of my life in a nice house in a leafy suburb in the Ruhr in the late 1940s, and my parents told me how many of their neighbours said the same of what'd been going on in their country in the previous five years and more. An extreme analogy, but food for thought.

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  • The "myriad of truths, half truths and straight out lies' making up 'the background noise" surely comes from the Garden Bridge Trust themselves?

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  • Lord Rogers thinks that the Garden Bridge would be "worth a thousand times what it costs" to London. A thousand times. That's a return of £60bn on the proposed public funding, or £185bn on the estimated total cost.

    By the same token, Lord R might as well argue that the more is spent, the higher the return. So the next increase in estimated costs - and it's high time for another update on this from the Garden Bridge Trust - will make the bridge even better value.

    Expect to read this argument again soon, in the Evening Standard.

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  • I suspect Richard Rogers unconcern for the detail stretches to the construction itself. Were he to examine the plans submitted to the local authorities rather than the fantasy illustrations provided by the PR department and reproduced uncritically by every media outlet running the story he’d find a huge concrete structure clad in copper bling topped with feeble saplings and shrubs. And moreover a structure that requires the destruction of a glorious avenue of mature trees that offers more environmental benefits than the bridge ever can. Rogers' argument that great works warrant great expenditure has merit but banal works that destroy and impoverish should not be financed by the public purse.

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