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MPs demand action from charities regulator over Garden Bridge Trust

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The Charity Commission must take action against the Garden Bridge Trust after it missed another deadline for filing its accounts, a group of senior MPs have said

Shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne, Lib Dem leader Vince Cable and Vauxhall MP Kate Hoey hit out at the trust which, as of today (Friday), is 65 days overdue in filing its accounts to the commission.

The trust is in the process of being wound up following the collapse of the Garden Bridge project in August last year and the loss of close to £50 million of public money.

Filing accounts is a legal requirement and back in early February, the commission warned the trust it could face regulatory action if there was a ‘significant’ delay.

Separately, the trust was required to file accounts at Companies House on March 29 but also missed that deadline, itself extended from the end of 2017 due to a shortening of the accounting reference period.

Gwynne wrote to the commission’s chief executive Helen Stephenson on Wednesday (April 4), urging it to ‘take regulatory action in the public interest’, the AJ has learnt.

Gwynne – who last month called on Boris Johnson to apologise to the AJ over its Garden Bridge coverage – wrote: ‘As a result of this delay, the most recent set of accounts that are available for this organisation only cover the period to March 2016 – more than two years ago … almost £50 million of taxpayer funds have been spent on this project.’

He went on to say that there was an ‘ongoing lack of transparency and openness around the Garden Bridge project’ and asked Stephenson a series of questions about the commission’s dealings with the trust and its largely favourable report on the trust published in February 2017.

Cable called the trust’s behaviour scandalous and said this reflected the actions of Garden Bridge champion and former mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

‘The foreign secretary attracts attention by making outrageous comments designed to make us laugh,’ Cable told the AJ. ‘But his legacy in London is less funny. Taxpayers have been landed with a £50 million bill for the Garden Bridge project that wasn’t.

‘And the lack of transparency, accountability, and basic legal compliance by the trust set up to promote the project is a scandal.’

Labour MP Hoey added her support to a separate letter sent to Stephenson on Wednesday by Lambeth Labour councillors Jen Mosley and Kevin Craig.

‘The continued absence of properly filed accounts to the Charity Commission by the Garden Bridge Trust is not acceptable,’ she said.

‘I do not see why the trust should be allowed such leeway and I am calling for the Charity Commission to take action immediately to make the trust comply with the law.’

Mosley and Craig’s letter warned that the commission faced ‘reputational damage’ and pointed out that they and Hoey had raised ‘grave concerns’ with the regulator about the trust back in June 2016 which led it to carry out its investigation and report.

‘The trust leveraged the Charity Commission report to justify ongoing expenditure whilst other reviews reached very different conclusions about the Garden Bridge itself (eg National Audit Office and Margaret Hodge review for the Mayor of London),’ the letter stated.

It continued: ‘We would like to understand why the Charity Commission has not taken any action to date to enforce the Garden Bridge Trust to comply with its legal obligations and what next steps it will be taking in this context?’

A spokesperson for the Charity Commission said: ‘The charity is in the process of winding up, however it still has a duty to file its accounts. We will be keeping a close eye on this to consider whether regulatory action is in the public interest.’

A spokesperson for the mayor of London said: ‘The mayor believes Londoners deserve full transparency around the decisions that were made by the Garden Bridge Trust.

‘That is why he commissioned Dame Margaret Hodge’s independent review of the project, and why TfL’s legal team have sought access to the minutes from the Garden Bridge Trust board meetings.’

The minutes were obtained from the trust by TfL on February 28 but have still to be made public.

A spokesperson for the trust told the AJ: ‘There are a number of matters the trust is currently working through as part of the project’s closure. Until such matters are concluded, the trust does not consider to be in a position to appropriately file accounts.’

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Readers' comments (4)

  • The continuing delay in filing the trust's accounts with the Charity Commission - together with TfL's ongoing failure to make public the board meetings minutes that they've succeeded in extracting from the trust - both suggest that there could be serious legal questions over the behaviour of the trust (as well as that of TfL under the then mayor's direction, and even the Charity Commission if it's dragging its feet).
    But that shouldn't prevent the Foreign Secretary from having the decency to apologize to the AJ for his Kremlin-style attempt to divert attention by claiming that straight reporting of the history of his involvement in the Garden Bridge affair was unfair criticism - unless, of course, he has difficulty in understanding the concept of 'straight'?

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  • It shouldn't be forgotten in this discussion that the reason £40m-plus of public money has been wasted is because of Mayor Khan's decision to veto the project, despite having supported it on numerous occasions. Mayor Johnson was trying to get a landmark for London built, Mayor Khan would rather not have it, and adopted an attitude which might be described as 'London can't make it.'.

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  • Mayor Khan's decision to veto the project was a belated favour to the public, to stop Boris Johnson's big black hole from getting any bigger. The Garden Bridge Trust was clearly anything but trustworthy to deal with public funds, It is high time it was brought to account, and Boris's bluffoonery called.

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  • Neither should it be forgotten that the landmark that Mayor Johnson was trying to get built was utterly pointless - a costly concrete monstrosity that would have trashed its location and overloaded an area already heaving with tourists.

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