Transport for London boss Mike Brown should face investigation after overseeing a 2016 decision to plough millions of pounds of public money into the Garden Bridge, apparently in contravention of its own rules, Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable has said
Amid continuing scrutiny over how an estimated £46.4 million was spent on the aborted project, Mike Brown last week confirmed that TfL had made a crucial judgement call in deciding to sign off a £7 million payment to the Garden Bridge Trust when the latter was poised to sign its construction contract with Bouygues in early 2016.
Brown, who has been TfL commissioner since September 2015, made the admission in a newly published letter to the chair of the London Assembly’s oversight committee. Len Duvall. In it he acknowledged that TfL had concluded that the trust had met all six conditions set out in the funding agreement between the two organisations.
These conditions were designed to protect the public purse, and TfL’s judgement that they had been met allowed the Garden Bridge Trust to award the construction contract to Bouygues, knowing that the £7 million — provided equally by TfL and the Department for Transport (DfT) — would be released.
However, observers expressed outrage at the decision and said it was clear that two of the conditions had not been met and that several others were open to question (see below).
The six conditions in the Garden Bridge funding agreement and the AJ’s analysis of how they stood in early 2016
They also suggested that this TfL decision may ultimately have cost the taxpayer around £16 million in total, given that the subsequent and almost immediate taking on of a main contractor with land, planning and finance issues still unresolved required the trust to obtain a £15 million underwrite of cancellation costs from the DfT (later reduced to £9 million).
Brown – who earned £515,000 a year at the last count – personally approved the decision, according to the senior officer directly involved in making the judgement: TfL’s then planning boss Richard de Cani.
Reacting to the revelations, Vince Cable told the AJ: ‘Tens of millions of pounds was wasted on Boris Johnson’s Garden Bridge.
‘Now it appears that a large chunk of that taxpayer money was the result of a decision made by the TfL commissioner, whose conduct must be investigated by the National Audit Office (NAO) and then the Public Accounts Committee as a result of this revelation.’
Brown is likely to face additional pressure because of differing statements on the matter he has made previously and over his attempts to dismiss questions over a serious conflict of interest involving de Cani at the time.
As the AJ first revealed in December 2016, de Cani informed TfL on 1 January 2016 that he was leaving the organisation to join Arup, the Garden Bridge’s engineer and lead consultant.
Nevertheless, he was permitted to continue to lead on the Garden Bridge project later that month, including rapidly pushing through the £7 million payment and attempting to convince the DfT to release its portion of the money.
Brown had previously suggested that the £7 million payment was an automatic one, and even claimed that de Cani’s correspondence with the DfT about this and the status of the Garden Bridge followed the signing of the construction contract. In fact, this correspondence preceded the signing of the contract on 9 February.
When Assembly member Tom Copley wrote to Brown in January last year about de Cani’s position, Brown denied any conflict of interest, replying: ‘Arup’s contractual relationship is with the Garden Bridge Trust, not TfL. Once the trust had signed the contract, this marked the transition to the next phase of the payment schedule under the funding agreement, which was signed in July 2015 and varied in November 2015.
‘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.’
Cable was joined by politicians across the political spectrum in expressing deep concern over the latest news.
It is inconceivable that at least two of the conditions in the Garden Bridge Trust’s funding agreement could possibly have been met to TfL’s satisfaction
Labour member Copley called Brown’s acknowledgement that the release of funds was not a formality ‘hugely significant’ and said it appeared to vindicate Margaret Hodge’s conclusion that crucial decisions on the Garden Bridge were driven by electoral cycles.
‘It is inconceivable that at least two of the conditions in the Garden Bridge Trust’s funding agreement could possibly have been met to TfL’s satisfaction and they have never been able to explain how they judged that they had been,’ Copley said.
‘The commissioner knew that the TfL officer responsible for making this judgement was on his way to work for a company that stood to directly benefit from the project going ahead, yet astonishingly didn’t judge there to be a conflict of interest. This wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service and raises the question of whether the Nolan Principles have been breached.’
Christian Wolmar, a transport expert and Labour politician who stood to be the party’s candidate in the 2016 London mayoral election, said Brown’s actions had to be examined ‘very closely’.
‘Mike Brown should take a look at his actions and consider his position,’ he said. ‘He should certainly apologise for this loss and explain in detail exactly what happened.’
The Conservative group in the London Assembly refused to comment, but Tory backbench MP Peter Bottomley said that in the past a body like the Audit Commission, a statutory corporation closed several years ago by the coalition government, would have investigated AJ’s latest findings.
‘Everyone who was involved in this episode should explain exactly what they did and why,’ Bottomley said. ‘I’m sure there must have been people who knew that things weren’t right.’
Labour MP Kate Hoey said she was ‘extremely concerned’ that no one had yet been held accountable at either TfL or the Garden Bridge Trust for what she called ‘irresponsible behaviour with taxpayer funds’.
She added: ‘It is becoming ever clearer, as we suspected, that a significant amount of taxpayers’ money was released to the trust by TfL, without the necessary conditions being met and a significant lack of clarity in respect of timings by TfL and decision making.’
In its 2016 report on the Garden Bridge, the NAO was highly critical of the signing of the construction contract and pointed to the ‘significant risks to the project’s future’ at that point including the fact that the trust had not secured the land on the southern side of the river.
Civil servants at the DfT were never convinced that the construction stage had been reached and had to be overruled by ministers before they consented to any further release of the department’s portion of the funding.
A spokesperson for TfL 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.’
Caroline Pidgeon, Lib Dem London Assembly member and chair of its Transport Committee
At a time when TfL finances are so tight that bus services are having to be cut and new rolling stock on the London Underground shelved, it is simply galling to discover that TfL released public funding for the Garden Bridge without even following the basic rules.
At its best TfL can operate to the highest standards and deliver services that are the envy of the world. Yet at its worst it can be an organisation that makes mistakes, tries to hide these and will defend the indefensible.
On this issue, TfL’s record is sadly very much the latter.
John O’Connell, chief executive, the TaxPayers’ Alliance
It is completely unacceptable that so much money was spent whilst mistruths and worse were peddled, not to mention that some of the conditions of payment had not even been met.
Taxpayers have been sorely let down by this charade, and it goes to show how right it was to scrap the whole project. Politicians should learn not to throw good money after bad, as happened too much with the Garden Bridge fiasco.