Transport for London (TfL) believed it would ‘struggle’ to justify the release of £7 million of public money to the beleaguered Garden Bridge Trust just seven weeks before it agreed to do so in early 2016
The revelations have emerged in newly released minutes from the Trust’s board meetings, which have finally been published after being handed by the Trust to TfL, its public sector sponsor, at the end of February following a legal tussle.
TfL’s decision to release the funding in February 2016 has been widely criticised, having directly enabled the Trust to sign a construction contract with Bouygues before construction was ready to begin, a move which ultimately led to the loss of as much as £19 million of taxpayer funds.
Under the funding agreement between TfL and the Trust, the £7 million should only have been released if TfL was satisfied that six key conditions had been met by the Trust (see below). These included the Trust having all necessary consents to deliver the bridge and enough money to operate and maintain it for at least the first five years.
In the event, construction of the Garden Bridge never started and the minutes of the Trust’s board meeting on 9 December 2015 show that TfL had expected the £7 million to be released only ‘once construction starts’. The organisation was also unconvinced that the necessary conditions had been met, according to Andy Brown, the senior planning officer at TfL who addressed the meeting.
‘From discussions with [Brown’s boss] Richard de Cani, and others from TfL, he believes that TfL will struggle to justify the conditions attached to the release of this funding tranche in February when the Trust requires this,’ the minutes state.
He believes that TfL will struggle to justify the conditions attached to the release of this funding tranche
Brown went on explain that TfL would need to satisfy the conditions in the funding agreement as this was a ‘public document’ and that it was important that TfL could ‘defend the decision and the release of funds.’
However, he came under intense pressure from trustees at the board meeting, who argued the signing of the construction contract at this point in time was crucial to persuade potential sponsors and funders in the private sector to commit to the Garden Bridge.
The issue remained unresolved and was once again discussed at the next board meeting on 14 January 2016 with the Trust’s chair Mervyn Davies saying ‘we need the £7m before the end of February’.
The minutes for this meeting show that Andy Brown once again stuck to his guns, saying the ’Trust needs to demonstrate that the conditions have been met and the risk of the project has been reduced’ before he ‘agreed to go back’ to de Cani [TfL’s then MD of planning] for further discussions’.
TfL has never explained why it agreed to release the £7 million tranche, which allowed the Trust to sign the contract, a decision handled by de Cani while serving out his notice period before joining Garden Bridge engineer and lead consultant Arup.
The organisation’s commissioner Mike Brown, who has faced scrutiny because he oversaw this conflict of interest and because – according to de Cani – he personally approved the £7 million payment as commissioner, initially told politicians and the AJ that the release of the funds was automatically triggered by the signing of the contract. In fact, TfL made a decision to release the funds, something which preceded the signing of the contract on 9 February 2016 and was a necessary step towards it.
When London Assembly member Tom Copley wrote to Mike Brown in January last year about de Cani’s position and his lobbying of the Department for Transport to release its half of the £7 million, Brown denied any conflict of interest and even claimed that TfL was not involved in the signing of the construction contract.
In a letter to Copley, the commissioner replied: ‘The correspondence referred to in your letter was our explanation of this to the DfT. It had no relation to any approval for the Garden Bridge Trust to enter into its construction contract, which had already taken place and in which neither we nor the government were involved.’
More recently, Mike Brown has said that TfL did conclude that the Trust had met the six conditions but has provided no reasoning for this. In her report, Margaret Hodge MP called it ‘astonishing’ that the Trust was not prevented from signing the contract.
The six conditions in the Garden Bridge funding agreement and the AJ’s analysis of how they stood in early 2016
During the December meeting, trustees including Garden Bridge chair Mervyn Davies told Andy Brown that the Trust needed the £7 million in February to help with ‘cash flow’ and that trustees were being expected to take on an unacceptable level of risk.
Board member John Heaps appeared to argue that TfL should support the Trust’s signing of the contract whatever the conditions of the funding agreement said.
‘JH suggested that there needs to be a re-adjustment in the relationship between the Trust and TfL considering the change of circumstances and the need for a construction contract to be awarded in advance of securing all planning and property,’ the minutes said.
‘The Trust needs support from the public bodies. JH expanded that when the project started, the Trust was set up but has taken on a huge degree of responsibility and ultimately TfL and the government need to recognise their responsibilities as well.’
Back in January this year, Lib Dem leader Vince Cable called for an investigation to be launched into the role of Mike Brown as overall boss of TfL in the signing of the construction contract and the release of the £7m.
Reacting to the latest news, Tom Copley said: ’What one earth changed in seven weeks that led TfL to conclude that the Garden Bridge Trust had satisfied TfL’s funding conditions? We know from the Hodge report that enormous political pressure was being exerted on TfL by the then Mayor Boris Johnson, and he still has questions to answer about his role in this fiasco. But, regardless of the political pressure, TfL had a responsibility to ensure public funds were not going to be wasted.
Enormous political pressure was being exerted on TfL by the then Mayor Boris Johnson
’Mike Brown has on several occasions given evasive or misleading answers about TfL’s role in releasing funding for the project. We now need full transparency. The Commissioner needs to provide the full detail of how TfL concluded that the Trust had satisfied its funding conditions – not just the flimsy statements we’ve had so far. This must include all correspondence and meeting notes related to the sign-off, and all the evidence that TfL used to reach its decision.
’Crucially we must also be told the name of the person or persons who took the decision. In October, Mike Brown told me that he did not take the decision personally, yet in his evidence to the Hodge review, Richard de Cani said he went to the Commissioner to ensure he was happy with the decision. We need clarity on this crucial matter of accountability.’
A Transport for London spokesperson said: ’TfL’s involvement in the Garden Bridge project followed four Mayoral Directions signed by the previous Mayor. As we have made clear previously, grant payments were made to the Garden Bridge Trust as they had met the conditions of payment, outlined in a funding agreement from July 2015.
’In January 2016, we considered the evidence supplied by the Trust, as well as wider information we had on the status of the project from them, and determined that the conditions of payment had been met. No payment was made to the Trust until we received confirmation that the contract had been signed – meeting the conditions of this payment. Had TfL not made this payment, we would have been in breach of our funding agreement.’