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Revealed: Thomas Heatherwick was founding member of Garden Bridge client body

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Politicians have pointed to a ‘conflict of interest’ after it was revealed that Thomas Heatherwick had a role in founding the Garden Bridge Trust and personally head-hunted the organisation’s chair and deputy chair

Heatherwick – whose practice is estimated to have earned £2.7 million on the publicly funded scheme – has repeatedly denied being a member of or a part of the Trust in interviews.

Asked by Radio 4’s Today programme in September if he’d given up on the project following the announcement that the Garden Bridge Trust was winding up, Heatherwick replied that he was ‘just the designer’ and ‘wasn’t part of’ the Trust. In August the previous year, he also insisted he was ‘not a member of the Trust’ as part of a lengthy interview with BBC’s Newsnight.

However, documents obtained from Companies House show Heatherwick is the charity’s sole founding member. While he is not a trustee and not involved in the day-to-day running of the trust – which is still being wound up – he attended eight Trustee meetings and signed off two amendments to the charity’s Articles of Association in 2013 and 2015, which amended the aims of the Trust and increased the number of trustees from 12 to 15 respectively (see below).

Amid continuing questions of how an estimated £46.4 million could have been spent on the Boris Johnson-backed project without construction work beginning, the latest revelation has sparked claims of a serious conflict of interest, given Heatherwick’s dual roles as part of the client organisation and a paid consultant.

It is already widely known that the Trust’s executive director, Bee Emmott, was employed by Heatherwick Studio prior to taking up the role and that Trustee and Garden Bridge champion Joanna Lumley was previously named as an ‘associate’ of Heatherwick Studio in its bid to the project’s original client, Transport for London (TfL), for the design contract.

However, analysis of the interviews carried out by MP Margaret Hodge as part of her review of the £200 million scheme has also shown that Heatherwick personally head-hunted both the Garden Bridge chair Mervyn Davies and its deputy chair, Paul Morrell, after being appointed by TfL (see below).

Vauxhall MP Kate Hoey, who has raised a series of questions about the project in Parliament, accused those behind the bridge of a ‘shocking disregard of transparency’.

‘I am concerned about the ongoing lack of accountability of those who were involved in the Garden Bridge Project and believe that all those who were responsible for the misuse and wastage of £40-50 million of taxpayers’ money should be held fully to account,’ she said. ‘This latest conflict of interest by Thomas Heatherwick is just one more example of the shocking disregard of transparency.’

Hoey added that both the Charity Commission – which carried out what she called a ‘deeply inaccurate’ review of the Trust – and the BBC’s Today programme should examine their actions.

‘I have also highlighted my concerns in my speech in Parliament about the biased reporting of the Garden Bridge by the then editor of the Evening Standard, Sarah Sands,’ Hoey said. ‘It is noticeable that this appears to have translated to the BBC’s reporting on the Today programme [now edited by Sands] which was the only mainstream news outlet to not report on the failure of the Garden Bridge and has since provided a voice piece for key proponents of the Garden Bridge without challenge as to their role and responsibility for vast amounts of wasted money.’

Stella Smith, a leading consultant in the charity sector, accused the Garden Bridge Trust of doing the sector a ‘disservice’.

‘This is absolutely a conflict of interest,’ she said. ‘It’s so convoluted and non-transparent and this is such a high-profile project. Nowadays more than ever it’s paramount that you show everything is above board.

‘With the Garden Bridge, there seems to have been a lack of diversity and a lack of challenge at the top of the organisation and that tends to influence the decision-making. You do need outside people challenging what you’re doing.’

A spokesperson for Heatherwick Studio said: ‘It’s well known that the studio’s role on the Garden Bridge was first as paid designer, and second as voluntary advocate. The studio chose to use our own time to have meetings and when necessary travel to promote this charitable public project because we were excited about it. We spoke to hundreds of people and did our best to excite others about it too.

‘The Garden Bridge Trust chose to give Thomas Heatherwick an honorary membership in recognition of this advocacy. In reality, this was little more than a badge. Of course we had no power to appoint anyone or take decisions on behalf of anyone but ourselves.’

A spokesperson for the Garden Bridge Trust said: ‘The Trustees are responsible for running the Charity. Thomas Heatherwick is not and has never been a Trustee or member of the Board of Trustees and has therefore never been responsible for the running of the Charity.

‘Thomas Heatherwick’s role as a Founding Member means that he is one of the 12 company Members of the Charity, all of whom hold collectively a small number of powers limited by the Companies Act 2006. The position of Founding Member has no special power or rights attached to it and is simply a title.

‘Thomas Heatherwick’s only involvement in the Charity as a company Member has been to approve (together with the rest of the company Members) two amendments to the Charity’s Articles of Association, both of which are publicly available on Companies House. The fact he is a company Member is a matter of public record.’

In her report, Margaret Hodge spoke of the perceived ‘cosy nature’ of the project and the ‘perception that the whole project was owned and controlled by a small, inner group’.

Heatherwick is not an architect but was made an RIBA honorary fellow in 2007. The RIBA declined to comment.

Five reasons Heatherwick was more than just the ‘designer’ of the Garden Bridge

1. He was instrumental in establishing the project’s client and developer, the Garden Bridge Trust, sat in on board meetings as its sole ‘founding member’ and signed off decisions

In October 2013, Heatherwick helped establish the Garden Bridge Trust as its sole founding member. At that meeting, Heatherwick – who had been appointed by the bridge’s original client TfL to work up his design seven months previously – attended as founding member. Also present and representing his Heatherwick Studio were staff members Stuart Wood, the firm’s head of innovation, and Bee Emmott, then head of special projects. By December of that year, Emmott was issuing the Trust’s meeting minutes as she had been seconded to the Trust before becoming the Trust’s executive director in April 2014. Since the Trust’s inaugural meeting, Heatherwick has attended a further seven trustee meetings and has, alongside trustees, approved two memoranda of association in 2013 and 2015 which amended the aims of the Trust and increased the number of trustees from 12 to 15 respectively. In her interview with Margaret Hodge MP, TfL’s former MD of planning Michele Dix said Heatherwick had been previously involved in devising the very idea of a trust. Hodge asked her: ‘So who decided to go for a trust then?’ Dix replied: ‘In terms of the trust, that came out from discussions between the Mayor’s Office and Heatherwick and the design and some of the people who had expressed interest in putting money into the bridge in the first place.’ Dix said that a trust had been chosen in order to avoid the type of corporate branding seen with the Emirates Airline cable car.

2. He was directly involved in selecting the Garden Bridge Trust’s leadership

The chairman of the Garden Bridge Trust, Mervyn Davies, told Hodge that Heatherwick had asked him whether he ‘would be interested in being the chairman’ prior to the establishment of the charity. The two had known each other since Davies, as a government minister, had worked on Heatherwick’s British Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. In the same meeting with Hodge, deputy chairman Paul Morrell told her that TfL drew up the structure for the Trust and Heatherwick was ‘looking to populate it’. And In his separate interview with Hodge, Heatherwick said that he had previously known Garden Bridge trustee Joanna Lumley for 14 years and knew deputy chairman Paul Morrell ‘probably better’ than he knew Davies. In an interview with Heatherwick in 2015, Management Today reported that the designer had effectively ‘appointed his own client’ by approaching Morrell to join the Garden Bridge Trust two years’ previously. The article quoted Morrell calling Heatherwick a ‘genius’ and predicting that the fees earned by his firm on the project would be in the ‘low millions of pounds’.

‘Morrell, who was the government’s construction tsar, he seemed the person most experienced,’ Heatherwick told Hodge. ‘I think he’s famous as the best construction consultant this country has ever had, so on thinking who could you work with, who would be the best people…’

3. He played a crucial role in securing the support of London’s former mayor, Boris Johnson

As the AJ previously established through FOI, Heatherwick, along with Joanna Lumley, actively lobbied Johnson and others to back the Garden Bridge, attending at least five meetings with London’s mayor or deputy mayors prior to TfL holding the contest he went on to win. In her interview with Hodge, Lumley suggested that he had prompted her to resurrect her longstanding idea for a Garden Bridge and present it to the mayor, something she duly did in May 2012. She told Hodge: ‘Suddenly in 2012 I get a call here from Thomas Heatherwick which says “Shall we talk about your bridge? There’s an idea that maybe there is a footbridge being planned in London. Can we talk about it?” So he’d got wind of it. Somebody had said, either Transport for London, because Thomas had done all those buses, “What can this brilliant boy do next?” the Leonardo da Vinci, as Conran called him, of our day, and so presumably that’s how it happened.’ Lumley added that Heatherwick had said, at a later stage: ‘I think we’ve got to take this idea to the Mayor’s office” prior to their initial meeting at City Hall.

4. He advised TfL on how it should commission the bridge before going on to win the tender

 As Hodge noted in her report, TfL consulted Heatherwick on which procurement route he would prefer in January 2013, several weeks before its tender process took place. According to internal emails within TfL from its then managing director of planning, Michele Dix, he recommended ‘option 3’, which involved separating the initial design work from the appointment of engineers in order to hold a non-OJEU design contest. Despite the recommendation from TfL’s legal department that an OJEU competition was necessary for reasons of fairness as Heatherwick had already raised his proposal, option 3 was then adopted by TfL and Heatherwick subsequently won the tender.

5. He was heavily involved in fundraising activities for the bridge

Sarah Sands, a friend of Heatherwick and a vocal campaigner for the Garden Bridge when editor of London’s Evening Standard, confirmed the extent of Heatherwick’s fundraising for the bridge in her interview with Margaret Hodge.

She said: ‘Thomas was sort of fundraising, you know, he should probably never been involved in all that, you know … he’s having to sort of absolutely sell himself to all the donors.’ In the Garden Bridge Trust’s meeting with Hodge, the Trust’s then executive director, Bee Emmott, said that Heatherwick’s celebrity was part of the reason it thought it could charge £25,000 for corporate membership of the bridge. Emmott said: ‘I think it’s because it’s particularly high-profile with access to Thomas Heatherwick, Joanna Lumley, Dan Pearson, the people who have been involved. A behind-the-scenes kind of, you know, chance to sort of meet those people.’

Boris Johnson’s now infamous fundraising trip to see Apple in California in early 2013 also seems to have come about through Heatherwick’s existing contacts with the firm. Heatherwick – who attended the meeting with Apple in order to pitch his Garden Bridge – told Hodge that he was visiting the tech giant ‘anyway’ because he was asked by its chief design officer Jonathan Ive to give a presentation.

Heatherwick said: ‘I was going there anyway to give a talk to his (Ive’s) design team. And so there was a tagging of two things. I was doing that anyway, so the mayor coming was a coincidence of them saying: “Why don’t we come at the same time?” because I was going to be there anyway.’

Garden bridge revised

Garden bridge revised

Other comments

Architect Ian Ritchie, founder, Ian Ritchie Architects

‘The engineer Brunel was quite an operator and also good at rustling up money. The difficulty comes when you’re trying to spin two stories at once. Heatherwick says he is just the designer of the Garden Bridge, but is clearly instrumental in setting up the whole thing. He’s hiding behind the Trust and it seems a bit duplicitous.

‘I think his firm should make an apology and a big one for the Garden Bridge. Whether he apologises as a person is up to him.’

Caroline Pidgeon, Lib Dem London Assembly member and deputy chair of the Transport Committee

‘I find these latest revelations about Thomas Heatherwick’s deep involvement in the creation of the Garden Bridge Trust quite frankly shocking. 

‘By revealing very blatant conflicts of interest they add further weight to the serious concerns raised by Dame Margaret Hodge in her investigation.

 ‘We already know that many lessons have to be learnt in public procurement following the selection of the Heatherwick tender by TfL. I would now add that the Charity Commission should consider issuing guidance on the selection of trustees in newly created trusts which are seeking to engage so heavily with the extensive use of public money as well as reliant on winning public sector contracts.’

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Heatherwick should repay.

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  • Could Sarah Sands' reluctance to report on any of this have anything to do with the fact that the current editor of the Evening Standard is alleged to have invested personally in the Garden Bridge?
    If Thomas Heatherwick were actually an architect this would surely be a case for RIBA disciplinary action.

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  • Not that much of a surprise, and it's just one part of a chain of sleaze involving the 'fixing' of design bids - with blatant dishonesty involving nothing less than the 'shafting' of highly regarded members of the design professions - and to the strong suspicion that TfL's clout as an enormously powerful client was grossly misused with the active participation of senior staff (one subsequently recruited by one of our biggest design professionals).
    There's clear evidence that the then Mayor of London (currently our Foreign Secretary) was 'in it up to his ears', with the then Chancellor of the Exchequer (currently editor of the London Evening Standard) not far behind him, and - adding insult to injury - that they enabled the tens of millions of pound of pre-construction fees and expenses to be funded not by the sponsors but by involuntary public subscription from London council / UK government tax payers.
    I wonder if architects basking in the reflected glory of being associated with Mr Heatherwick might wonder if they risk flying too close to the sun?
    And - just a minor point - did the planning procedures really ensure due diligence in assessing the impact of this project?

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