The £200 million plan has fallen through, leaving taxpayers with a £50 million bill. What can be learnt from its bitterly contested collapse?
When it finally died a death, the Garden Bridge did not go peacefully.
The £200 million Heatherwick-designed and Boris Johnson-backed scheme, the most controversial grand projet of recent years, left behind it a bill to the taxpayer of almost £50 million and a bitter war of words between the Garden Bridge Trust and Johnson’s successor as London mayor, Sadiq Khan.
In making the long-awaited announcement that the charity developing the project, the Garden Bridge Trust, was being wound up last Monday (14 August), chair Mervyn Davies blamed its demise on Khan’s ‘lack of support’ for the scheme.
He also claimed the current mayor had overseen around £9 million of cost on the bridge by giving the project his backing from his election last May to April of this year, when he withdrew the crucial promise of underwriting about £3 million-worth of annual maintenance costs on the bridge.
But, in his response, Khan said he had given the Trust time to address ‘multiple serious issues’ with the project. These included a funding gap of more than £70 million, the lack of a vital land agreement on the south bank with Coin Street Community Builders – despite three years of negotiation – and an inadequate business plan.
The Trust itself had long been in serious trouble and announced back in January that it was no longer a going concern.
Londoners will, like me, be very angry that London taxpayers have now lost tens of millions of pounds
‘Londoners will, like me, be very angry that London taxpayers have now lost tens of millions of pounds – committed by the previous mayor on a project that has amounted to nothing,’ Khan said.
So what were the recent circumstances behind the sinking of the Garden Bridge? And what legacy does it leave behind for big city projects and for the main players involved? Here the AJ answers four key questions about its demise.
Garden bridge walkway view
What led up to the Trust’s announcement last Monday?
Recent letters between Davies and Khan, obtained by the AJ under FOI, have revealed that Davies repeatedly called on the mayor to offer the project his ‘whole-hearted support’, despite the fact that Khan had already dealt the project a huge blow in April by withdrawing the financial guarantee covering operations and maintenance costs, following the publication of Margaret Hodge’s damning report.
In a letter sent to the mayor on 19 June, Davies said that a ‘philanthropic foundation of appropriate standing’ had expressed interest in stepping in to provide this guarantee, plus additional funding, but had decided ‘not to proceed after speaking with you’.
Davies continued: ‘We have, however, a proposal for an alternative guarantor, which we believe will be acceptable to all parties. Clearly, however, the trustees cannot build such a high-profile project in the city, intended wholly for the public good, if it does not have the whole-hearted support of you as our mayor.’
Davies said this would involve the mayor encouraging public bodies to re-commit to the Garden Bridge.
In his response, sent almost a month later on 13 July, Khan apologised for not replying sooner but said he had been focusing on the consequences of the ‘terrible events at Grenfell Tower and Finsbury Park’.
He certainly did not give Davies the assurances he was looking for, saying it was the Trust’s responsibility to secure financial support and ensure that no further financial support was required from the GLA Group ‘in any circumstances at any time in the future’.
Khan wrote: ‘This includes your financial guarantor being to the satisfaction of the local authorities and the Port of London Authority.
‘As you are aware, my officials have devoted significant time over the last year to supporting the Trust in attempting to obtain the necessary agreement with Coin Street Community Builders, and their related agreement with Lambeth Council. This follows from the, doubtless considerable, efforts made by the previous mayor.’
Garden bridge winter
What was the reaction?
The reaction underlined just how polarised the debate over the bridge has become. While those on social media were generally jubilant about the death of a scheme widely viewed as a vanity project, some prominent architects disagreed.
‘This is tragic … and what a waste of £40 million already spent. It would have been amazing!’ architect and TV presenter George Clarke tweeted. Will Alsop, meanwhile, defended the Garden Bridge during a debate on Radio 4 on 15 August against Lib Dem London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon. ‘I think London is losing something that potentially would have added to the delight and interest of central London in particular,’ Alsop said.
In his letter to the mayor of almost 2,000 words, Davies called it a ‘sad day for London’ and voiced no regrets about the actions of the Trust.
He added: ‘The Garden Bridge would have been a unique place; a beautiful new green space in the heart of London, free to use and open to all, showcasing the best of British talent and innovation.’
This was echoed by a spokesperson for Johnson – the one figure who refused to speak to Hodge during her six-month review of the project.
Johnson’s statement blamed Khan for ‘killing it out of spite’
Johnson’s statement blamed Khan for ‘killing it out of spite’, a far-fetched claim, given the fact that Khan has spent a year since his election uncomfortably supporting the scheme in the face of near-unanimous opposition from the London Assembly.
‘Labour has no vision for London and no ambition … the Garden Bridge was a beautiful project and could have been easily financed,’ Johnson’s statement added.
The project’s instigator and champion, Joanna Lumley, had yet to comment at the time of writing, but Heatherwick said he hoped the scheme would one day ‘find its moment’. He added: ‘Everyone on the Trust board gave their time and hearts unpaid to give London a free new garden and important public artery, and so many donors gave money without looking for anything back other than doing something good for London.
‘Our cities need optimistic, amazing people like this. And London needs new bridges and unexpected new public places.’
But opponents expressed relief and satisfaction. Architect Ian Ritchie, a long-term critic, said it was a day to celebrate, adding: ‘The message has been sent that the public purse is not for plundering. Clarity, honesty and fairness – not vague promises and arrogance – are prerequisite for support by the taxpayer.’
This was reiterated by politicians, such as Labour London Assembly Member Tom Copley, who investigated the procurement as part of the Assembly’s oversight committee.
‘This farcical endeavour should have been cut short many moons ago,’ he said. ‘It is a scandal that the cheerleaders for the bridge were allowed to waste so much public money. Boris Johnson drove forward this vanity project during his mayoralty, and the lion’s share of the blame for this whole debacle must fall at his feet.’
Garden Bridge planting in Spring
What will happen next?
The burning question which still remains unanswered is how so much public money could have been spent on the scheme with nothing to show for it. In her report, Margaret Hodge estimated the final bill to the taxpayer would be £46.6 million and it is possible that this figure will be exceeded, owing to cancellation liabilities.
In his letter to the mayor, Davies promised the Trust would account for ‘every line of expenditure as part of the winding-up operation’.
The AJ understands the winding-up process is expected to take several months and will involve discussions between lawyers acting on behalf of the Trust and the Department for Transport, given the department’s underwriting of these cancellation liabilities, an agreement capped at £9 million.
What we currently know about where the rest of the public money has gone is vague. Almost £11 million has been spent on ‘pre-planning activities’ by TfL before the Trust inherited the project. This went on areas such as design, preparation of planning application materials by specialist technical consultants, and public consultations.
Another £23 million has gone towards pre-construction activities by the Trust, including ‘progressing the design’, obtaining permits, licences and planning approvals and procuring contractors and materials. The remainder, just over £3 million, has been spent on professional fees, such as legal advice.
In terms of how much of the overall £46.6 million went to the design team, Heatherwick told Margaret Hodge that he expected his firm to earn £2.7 million from the Garden Bridge in total, while she reported that Arup had been paid £8.4 million up until April 2015 and will have received further payments from the Trust since then.
What is more certain is that politicians are once again on the warpath, given the collapse of the project and the waste of taxpayer funding on activities yet to be fully specified.
Copley says: ‘Going forward, lessons must be learnt, and I’m certain my colleagues on the oversight committee won’t relinquish the opportunity to give this calamity the proper scrutiny it deserves.’
Meanwhile, MP for Vauxhall Kate Hoey and two local councillor colleagues are calling on the government to mount a full public inquiry and hold trustees accountable for the lost public money.
What now for Heatherwick and Arup and for future grands projets?
With a growing office and a string of major projects in the pipeline around the world, including the beehive-like ‘Vessel’ in New York and (with BIG) the new Google HQ in London’s King’s Cross, Thomas Heatherwick’s practice, Heatherwick Studio, appears to have been relatively unscathed by the controversy surrounding the Garden Bridge.
But, in the opinion of Financial Times architecture critic Edwin Heathcote, things might not be quite as rosy for Arup – project manager, engineer and leader of the design team on the Garden Bridge.
‘Arup is, I think, a little damaged by this,’ he says. ‘Their reputation is of a serious engineer of global standing and I don’t think they should have got involved with this. For Heatherwick, this kind of one-liner or bauble is what he does.’
As for future grands projets in the capital and other major cities, it’s likely that the creativity of designers will have to be better supported, with proper planning and due diligence, in order for schemes to progress.
The chief executive of Coin Street Community Builders, Iain Tuckett, who spent years in negotiation with the Garden Bridge Trust without reaching a deal, is among those calling for lessons to be learnt.
‘We need to focus not just on the cost of creating these projects but also be realistic about the ongoing costs of managing and maintaining them, so that they deliver their promised public benefits,’ Tuckett said.
‘In the case of the Garden Bridge, questions about the real costs of ongoing management and maintenance and who should bear them were initially avoided, and eventually addressed too late.’
Questions about the real costs of management and maintenance and who should bear them were initially avoided, and eventually addressed too late
There is also a feeling among observers that ‘nice-to-have’ projects like the Garden Bridge should never again be propped up with public money.
Architecture critic Hugh Pearman says: ‘A confident city will do good and interesting things that don’t necessarily serve a purpose.
‘And whatever you think of the ArcelorMittal Orbit in the Olympic Park, it was almost entirely privately funded: a rich man’s folly. When you’re using public money, on the other hand, it’s a question of what is necessary.’
In the context of the Grenfell Tower disaster, rampant air pollution and the ever-escalating housing crisis in London, it’s a pertinent point. Suddenly the icing-on-the-city-cake approach pursued by Johnson, with examples such as the Garden Bridge and the Emirates Airline cable car in Docklands, seems inappropriate, even obsolete.
That doesn’t rule out beauty and delight, of course. Why can’t a ‘necessary’ response to a problem be elegant and ingenious? A point made forcefully by Heathcote.
‘There are so many problems in London that need sorting and plenty of them need visionary solutions,’ he says. ‘The Garden Bridge is a nail in the coffin for this kind of vanity project – the end of an era. There is now an opportunity to use architecture, urbanism and design to counter the real problems that the city faces.’