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New Garden Bridge probe hit by 'conflict-of-interest' claims

City Hall
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Latest inquiry into procurement of £175 million project carried out by Ernst & Young, a founding donor of the Garden Bridge Trust

A new inquiry into the procurement of the Garden Bridge has been hit by claims of a conflict-of-interest after it emerged that the firm carrying out the probe is a founding donor of the Garden Bridge Trust.

In its latest attempt to draw a line under the ongoing row over the £175million project, TfL recently asked its external auditor, multinational professional services firm Ernst & Young (EY), to review TfL’s internal audit, which was described last September as a ‘whitewash’ by Labour candidate for mayor Sadiq Khan.

However, not only is EY listed on the Garden Bridge Trust’s website as one of its ‘founding donors’ but EY audit partner Julie Carlyle sits on the Trust’s board.

EY has denied any conflict of interest while a TfL spokesperson said: ‘EY is one of the leading audit firms globally, with processes in place to manage any potential conflicts of interest.‎

‘We are confident that they‎ will carry out a thorough and independent review and we look forward to receiving their findings in due course.’

An MP and a leading construction barrister both strongly disagreed and called on TfL to halt the inquiry and order an inquiry which enjoyed public confidence.

Labour MP Gareth Thomas, who has previously raised questions about the Garden Bridge, told the AJ that the latest inquiry could not ‘possibly be seen to be independent and above board’.

He added: ‘There is a clear conflict of interest given EY’s explicit support and TfL should find another organisation with no axe to grind to carry out this much needed review.’

Tony Bingham, a construction barrister at 3PB Chambers, agreed and advised TfL to employ a QC ‘without a shred of interest in the outcome’ of the inquiry.

He said: ‘This is a judicial task that EY has been asked to carry out and their decision has to be reached through impartial and independent means.

‘Nobody would regard [EY] as having this quality of independence. I think TfL is admitting that they have to present an appearance of impartiality to the independent outside observer…so I’m surprised they have not excused EY.’

A spokesperson for EY said: ‘There is no conflict of interest. The procurement took place before our appointment as external auditors to TFL and our involvement as donor to the Garden Bridge project.

‘It is quite standard for auditors to exercise their duties and perform additional work such as this when required.’

The news emerged as outgoing mayor Boris Johnson was criticised for holding a Garden Bridge fundraising meeting the day after soldier Lee Rigby was murdered in south-east London, when the capital was on high-alert.

The mayor yesterday finally answered a number of outstanding questions from London Assembly members including several dating back to last October from Lib Dem member and mayoral candidate Caroline Pidgeon.

Questioned by Pidgeon about the fundraising meeting on May 23 2013 - which was not recorded in the mayor’s statutory report to the London Assembly at the time and emerged following an FOI request – Johnson confirmed he had met with Eton contemporary Barnaby Squire and his cousin Merlin Swire of global conglomerate the Swire Group to discuss ‘possible opportunities including the Garden Bridge project’.

The Swire family, which has interests in industries including property and airlines, were listed at number 50 in this year’s Sunday Times Rich List with a fortune of £2.1 billion.

Pidgeon said: ‘This is yet another murky episode in this whole sorry saga. To have a meeting like this the day after this appalling terror attack simply deifies belief.

‘Whoever gets elected as Mayor today has to cancel this unwanted vanity project which will blight London for ever should it go ahead.’

Former MP for Woolwich, Nick Raynsford, said: ’The murder of Lee Rigby shocked the whole nation. Boris Johnson, as Mayor of London came to Woolwich in the aftermath to pay his respects, as did the Prime Minister and several other public figures.

’I am surprised that Boris Johnson chose at this difficult time to give priority to a private meeting to promote the Garden Bridge.’

In his written response to Pidgeon, Johnson said about the meeting: ’I was accompanied by my former Deputy Mayor for Transport, Isabel Dedring.

‘The FOI response to which you refer shows we have been open about this meeting. There are occasions on which meetings about emerging proposals are not included in the Mayor’s Report. I have sought to keep the Assembly updated on progress of the Garden Bridge.’

The FOI response led to the publication of the mayor’s diary for 2013. This showed Johnson attended a COBR meetings in Whitehall on May 22 and that his Garden Bridge meeting on May 23 was followed by two trips to Woolwich the same day as well as another COBR meeting and a meeting with ‘Muslim community leaders’.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • TfL seem to exercise the same degree of diligence in ensuring their own integrity as has been the case with South Yorkshire Police - could it be a reflection of the values of the Hon Boris Johnson MP?

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