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London Assembly members slam Garden Bridge 'secrecy'

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GLA and Transport for London say they have no record of top-level 2013 meeting between Boris Johnson and TfL commissioner

London government has been accused of shrouding the Garden Bridge in a cloak of secrecy after both the GLA and Transport for London (TfL) denied having any record of a top-level meeting on the project involving mayor Boris Johnson and TfL’s former commissioner Peter Hendy.

The meeting was first revealed two months ago by TfL itself in its internal audit of the Garden Bridge procurement process. It took place in early 2013 around the time of Thomas Heatherwick’s appointment as concept designer and followed a presentation on the Garden Bridge by Heatherwick to the mayor .

Labour group leader in the London Assembly Len Duvall has now written to Hendy’s successor Mike Brown to request an explanation after both TfL and the GLA denied holding any information on the meeting in response to separate FOI requests made by the Architects’ Journal.

The AJ first reported claims that Heatherwick Studio’s appointment ahead of Wilkinson Eyre and Marks Barfield was ‘pre-judged’ in March, while last month TfL’s director of internal audit admitted the procurement process was neither ‘open nor objective’.

Duvall wrote: ‘Either notes of this meeting are being intentionally withheld or the record keeping of such a high-level meeting was clearly not up to scratch. Either scenario raises serious questions. I would appreciate an explanation of how this situation was allowed to occur as well as confirmation that these records definitely do not exist.’

In its audit published in September, TfL said that during the meeting it had agreed to develop a concept for a new bridge after Boris Johnson had ‘stated his desire for TfL to consider whether the construction of an innovative and novel design based around a living bridge concept would be feasible’.

It said that the meeting was also attended by TfL’s then managing director of planning Michèle Dix.

Duvall, who also chairs the assembly’s oversight committee, which has been investigating the procurement process behind the £175 million scheme, urged wider transparency from TfL after the organisation said it was minded to reject four other FOI requests made by the AJ on the 2013 procurement of Heatherwick Studio as concept designer.

He wrote: ‘I write to register my profound disagreement with the suggestion that releasing this information is not in the public interest. I would strongly urge you to reconsider this stance and to release this information to allow for a full and transparent understanding of the decision process which led to the committal of such vast sums of public money.’

‘Whatever one’s view on the project, the fact that to date £60 million of public money has been pledged either as grant or loans, and millions more in operating costs underwritten, means it is imperative that any concerns are addressed fully and transparently. This is particularly the case when these concerns relate to the integrity of the procurement and commissioning process.’

Caroline Pidgeon, leader of the Liberal Democrat group in the assembly and the party’s mayoral candidate, accused the mayor of ‘insulting the public’. She revealed that five written questions on the Garden Bridge, which she submitted to the mayor in early October, have still to be answered and are now four weeks’ overdue.

‘Everything about the procurement and decision process relating to the Garden Bridge has been unorthodox at best and often highly improper,’ she said. ‘To now have the mayor and TfL stalling in answering such basic questions from journalists and London Assembly members is simply a further insult to the public.’

Last month, TfL published a new transparency strategy saying it was ‘committed to operating in an open and transparent way’.

A TfL spokesperson said: ‘We have readily published a range of information about the Garden Bridge, and released an audit of the procurement process, early drafts of the audit and associated emails.  In line with guidance set out in the FOI Act, we have extended the deadline for our response to the Architects’ Journal’s request for further information about the procurement process. The response will be will be sent by mid-December.’

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