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New FOI reveals early fears over escalating Garden Bridge budget

London Mayor Sadiq Khan
  • 1 Comment

The charity behind the Garden Bridge voiced its alarm at the bridge’s escalating cost within weeks of the scheme being unveiled in 2013, new correspondence released to the AJ under Freedom of Information has revealed

The deputy chairman of the Garden Bridge Trust Paul Morrell predicted that the cost of the bridge was likely to be in the region of £170 million in an email dated 4 December 2013, just a few weeks after the establishment of the Trust and the public announcement of a cost of £150 million.

The revelation has emerged amid a desperate bid by backers of the scheme to save it following the loss of the mayor of London’s support, with Joanna Lumley telling The Times on Saturday: ‘There was so much negativity about this £60 million of public money. All we heard was £60 million, £60 million, £60 million. But […] it’ll work out at about 32p a person in the UK. It’s not as if we’re stealing bread from people!’

In the email, part of a large cache between Transport for London’s Richard de Cani and Arup released by TfL, Morrell emailed De Cani and Arup’s Mike Glover and copied in Heatherwick and Bee Emmott, the Trust’s executive director.

He wrote: ‘You will appreciate that there will be considerable discomfort on the part of the other trustees to learn that the £150 million estimate doesn’t cover everything that’s currently contemplated (I don’t think anyone involved in that rather fraught discussion re cupro-nickel at the last Trustees meeting realised that the budget didn’t cover it anyway); and it is a bit alarming that (particularly in respect of costs off [sic] the bridge itself) the figures seem to move in one direction when probed.

‘On a quick review, as at yesterday’s meeting, I think we got to a total of, say, £170 million.’

TfL’s Strategic Outline Business Case, published five months later in May 2014 (see below) quoted a figure of just £158 million while a mayoral decision on the bridge the following month by Boris Johnson provided a figure of £159 million.

Lib Dem London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon said the email showed that costs ‘were rising on an upward trajectory steeper than the face of Everest’ from the project’s earliest days.

‘The fact the Garden Bridge Trust were concerned about the escalating costs of the project as long ago as December 2013 is deeply concerning,’ she said.

‘These latest findings also confirm that TfL’s Strategic Outline Business Case was not only inadequate but a desperate attempt to back up a project that had no real case for public funding.’

Labour member Tom Copley said the correspondence placed further pressure on the former mayor.

He said: ‘It is impossible to believe that Boris Johnson did not know that the public cost of the Garden Bridge was likely to be far higher than he was claiming.

‘Even members of the Trust were warning that the rising costs of the Bridge were “alarming”. He could not have been so naïve as to not have understood that his stated estimates were far too low.’

A spokesperson for the Garden Bridge Trust said: ’Trustees negotiated a fixed-price Design and Build contract which was recognised as a robust decision by the Charity Commission. The trust has been warning for some time that the cost of the bridge would rise above £185 million because of third-party delays outside its control. It is misleading to claim that £60 million was the original starting cost for the Garden Bridge because this was a figure that looked at construction costs only and did not address design, planning, groundwork or planting costs at all. The first figure used by the trust when it was launched in November 2013 was £150 million.’

The Mayor of London declined to comment.

 How the cost of the Garden Bridge grew and grew

  • June 2013: Cost of bridge privately estimated at £60 million by TfL managing director of planning Michele Dix in email to mayor Boris Johnson
  • July 2013: Cost estimated at £60 million-£100 million when Garden Bridge project was seeking authority from the Finance and Policy Committee of the TfL board to spend £4 million
  • November 2013: Cost estimated at £150 million at press conference announcing the establishment of the Garden Bridge Trust
  • December 2013: Cost estimated at £170 million in private email sent by trust’s deputy chair Paul Morrell to TfL and Arup
  • May 2014: Cost estimated at £158 million in the project’s Strategic Outline Business Case
  • June 2014: Cost estimated at £159 million as part of Boris Johnson Mayoral Decision to direct TfL to provide £30 million
  • July 2015: Cost estimated at £175 million in funding agreement
  • August 2016: Cost estimated at £185 million by Garden Bridge Trust
  • April 2017: Cost estimated at more than £200 million by Garden Bridge Trust, according to Margaret Hodge’s independent report

Comment

‘It is fantastic news that there finally seems to be agreement between the Garden Bridge trustees and the many voices of opposition! Both sides equally feel “discomfort” that costs since 2013 only seem to “move in one direction when probed”. The trust should have been more open about this at the time and it may have led to a wonderful friendship with shared concerns and we could have all probed the project together rather than constantly have to fight against a wall of spin, avoidance and miscommunication.

‘However, the most concerning aspect is why TfL has consistently ignored these warnings from the trust, opposition and experts that the budget was burgeoning and could only increase rapidly. The question that has to be asked is: who had any oversight? It appears that the trustees have allowed the project to snowball recklessly while TfL and Boris Johnson appear to have remained (wilfully?) ignorant of the developing debacle.’

Will Jennings, anti-Garden Bridge campaigner

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • I wonder if The Rt Hon Boris Johnson's apparent naivety will be any more convincing than his apparent buffoonery?

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