Leading politicians including Lib Dem leader Vince Cable have reacted furiously to the charity regulator’s decision not to launch a full inquiry into the £53 million collapse of the Garden Bridge project
In a letter sent this week to Lib Dem London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon, the deputy chief executive of the Charity Commission, David Holdsworth, said he expected the Garden Bridge Trust to be able to clear up the commission’s few remaining ‘regulatory concerns’ shortly and then wind itself up.
Holdsworth’s letter – replying to one from Pidgeon sent seven weeks ago – dismissed two highly critical legal opinions about the behaviour of the Garden Bridge trustees from separate QCs.
He also said the commission had been reassured about the charity’s governance and expenditure by TfL commissioner Mike Brown, himself in the firing line over the scandal.
Holdsworth also has history with the Garden Bridge, having overseen a Charity Commission report published in February 2017 which, in stark contrast to the findings of MP Margaret Hodge and the National Audit Office, made favourable conclusions about the Garden Bridge Trust.
Lib Dem leader Vince Cable accused the commission of ignoring a clear-cut ‘failure of charity governance’ which implicated some of the most high-profile figures in British politics.
‘This is a truly grave scandal in respect of public money,’ he said. ‘Yet nobody is being made to pay for the loss of tens of millions of pounds paid for a non-existent bridge.
‘This started as a vanity project for Boris Johnson in London and was fully supported by George Osborne and David Cameron. For poor communities which struggle, the idea that money of this scale should just be thrown away is scandalous.
‘It is clear these three Tory politicians have questions to answer and the Public Accounts Committee needs to look in detail at those aspects of funding.’
In the letter, Holdsworth apologised for the delay in responding to Pidgeon. He said the commission ‘fully understood’ the public concern over the use of public funds on the Garden Bridge and that it had thoroughly investigated this as well as holding the trust to account where necessary, such as when it was late filing accounts.
But he said it was up to trustees to manage their own charities, as long as they acted within the law and in accordance with the charity’s governing documents.
In her letter, Pidgeon drew attention to the opinion of QC Jason Coppel, who said that the trustees – who include Garden Bridge champion Joanna Lumley and former chief government construction adviser Paul Morrell – were likely to have breached their legal duties to act with reasonable skill and care, particularly in relation to the signing of the construction contract, a decision now known to have contributed £21.4 million of the overall £43 million bill to the taxpayer.
However, Holdsworth said Coppel had written nothing ‘to cause us to revisit our findings’, adding that the QC only had access to documents in the public domain to the best of the commission’s knowledge.
Commenting on the opinion of QC David Matthias, who concluded that the charities regulator could face a judicial review challenge from a concerned member of the public due to its ‘failure’ to call the trustees to account, Holdsworth said the expending of public funds was a matter for ‘other bodies’.
‘I did take the step of writing to the commissioner of Transport for London to ascertain if, as the main funder, TfL had any concerns over expenditure or governance in order to ensure trustees were complying with their legal and contractual duties and to determine any regulatory issues,’ he wrote.
‘We received a response stating that they did not. We do not therefore believe that a successful judicial review could be brought against the commission in this regard.’
A trio of Labour MPs also slammed the Charity Commission and called for fresh investigations to be launched.
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: ‘Boris Johnson should face investigation over his role in the Garden Bridge project, which he promoted for political gain rather than value for money.
The government and former London mayor should be held to account for such reckless and incompetent protection of the public purse
‘Decisions taken by TfL and the Department for Transport escalated the risk to the public funds. With the project now cancelled before any construction has even taken place, £43 million of taxpayers’ money has been wasted.
‘The government and former London mayor should be held to account for such reckless, uncontrolled and incompetent protection of the public purse.’
Fellow Labour MP Rupa Huq said: ’The Sex Pistols gave us “the great rock’n’roll swindle”. Boris Johnson, ever worried about his legacy, and the now departed George Osborne have bequeathed the world with the great garden bridge scandal in which millions of taxpayer pounds were wasted unnecessarily from the public purse.
‘This shocking waste begs a multitude of questions: what fiscal safeguards there are in place for large publicly funded infastructure projects, the role of arms-length charitable foundations as well as an astronomical sum from the Department for Transport of spending for a London construction of little obvious utility in central London when, in northern towns, proper transport upgrades have been cancelled.
’Before the trust winds up and TfL washes its hands of this forever, the appropriate bodies and ministers must be called to account.’
And Steve Reed, MP for Croydon North, called the Commission’s decision ‘unacceptable’.
’I will be raising this urgently with ministers and fellow MPs,’ he said. ’The Commission must get serious about this scandalous misuse of public money at a time when other vital public services are being starved of funding.’
The appropriate bodies and ministers must be called to account
Pidgeon, who is chair of the Assembly’s transport committee and is understood to be urgently responding to Holdsworth, accused the Commission of failing to recognise that the wider reputation of the charity sector is under threat.
‘We are now in the incredible position that the Charity Commission is stubbornly refusing to investigate the actions of Garden Bridge trustees because of assurances they have received from the Commissioner of TfL,’ she said.
‘The Commission is failing to see the bigger picture and address the fundamental issue that public money has been scandalously wasted by trustees who were clearly out of control.
‘It also needs to address a much wider concern that the Garden Bridge is not the first charity that has been established for the delivery of public goods, with no real thought given to how to manage its relationship with its public partners.’
Other Labour MPs who have previously called on the Commission to launch a full statutory inquiry into the Garden Bridge include shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne and Kate Hoey.
Earlier this month, writer and broadcaster Peter Stanford, a charity chair for more than 20 years, wrote of his fears over the reputational damage the ‘sorry tale’ of the Garden Bridge would do to all charities in the publication Third Sector.
In her evidence to Margaret Hodge’s investigation into the Garden Bridge, Lumley claimed that a Charity Commission representative had given a strong endorsement to the Garden Bridge Trust regarding its governance in 2016 ahead of its final report being published.
Lumley said: ’He came to give a presentation and he just said, “You are five star, top of the class ever of any charity.”’
She added that the Charity Commission representative had described the Trust as ’the best-run charity I’ve ever seen’.