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Why the Garden Bridge debacle should concern us all

Heatherwick Garden Bridge

A damning report has strongly criticised Boris Johnson and TfL’s actions in selecting Thomas Heatherwick to design the controversial Thames crossing

The construction contract for London’s £175 million Garden Bridge is signed. It has £60 million of support from the taxpayer and £85 million from the private sector, and its backers are vowing to start building it this summer.

Its powerful backers include George Osborne, Boris Johnson, Joanna Lumley, Richard Rogers, Ken Shuttleworth, Zac Goldsmith, Sadiq Khan and London daily paper the Evening Standard. Given this, why should we care about the circumstances in which its designer Thomas Heatherwick three years ago won a concept design contract for the project worth just £60,000?

We should care if we think procurement and transparency are  important. We should care if we think the failure by one of the largest public sector organisations in the country to hold a fair and open design contest for what became a landmark project for our capital city is important.

According to a recently released report by the London Assembly’s oversight committee, the multi-billion pound client Transport for London (TfL) did indeed unfairly award the design contract for the Garden Bridge to Heatherwick Studio. As well as strongly criticising TfL, the report says London mayor Boris Johnson’s own actions in providing preferential access to Thomas Heatherwick ‘undermined the integrity of the contest’ and ‘cast a shadow’ on the ultimate outcome.

The report’s recommendations – backed by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens but disputed by the committee’s Conservative members – include reimbursing unsuccessful bidders Marks Barfield and Wilkinson Eyre for the time and expense they ran up preparing their plans, given how unfair TfL’s early-2013 design contest seems to have been.

TfL has a duty to uphold the highest standards, particularly when it comes to awarding multi-million pound contracts

Such findings have sparked headlines in media outlets ranging from The Guardian and the Daily Mail to The New York Times. But headlines aside, what has the report uncovered? And what impact could this escalating row have on public sector procurement in the capital, on the prospects for the bridge itself and indeed, on the reputation of Boris Johnson amid speculation he hopes to become the next leader of the Conservative Party?

In his foreword to the report, committee chairman Len Duvall speaks of ‘significant and worrying failures’ by TfL, and underlines why the facts uncovered by the committee – and by the AJ in its long-running investigation – go beyond the example of the Garden Bridge and are important for public sector procurement and transparency in general.

‘With a budget of £10.5 billion of public money, making it one of the largest public organisations in the country, Transport for London has a duty to uphold the highest standards in openness, fairness and transparency, particularly when it comes to awarding multi-million pound contracts,’ Duvall writes. ‘Whenever public money is committed to a project, fairness in the awarding of the contract is paramount. Ensuring fairness and best value for taxpayers is precisely the purpose of the procurement process.’


Garden Bridge timeline



The report, which praises the AJ’s ‘persistent and meticulous’ investigation, calls for a range of measures to overhaul TfL’s procurement function and promote transparency (see What does the report recommend?) and suggests that other organisations, including the National Audit Office, should examine the Garden Bridge contest. It also singles out the mayor for criticism, saying he should have been ‘more up front’ about his ‘preference’ for a garden bridge rather than just a pedestrian bridge and about the contact between his own office, TfL and Heatherwick Studio. Such contact included five official meetings between Heatherwick and the mayor or his team prior to the contest, one of which was held in San Francisco with potential corporate funder Apple.

‘Over many months, the mayor attempted to conceal who attended the meeting with potential funders in San Francisco,’ Duvall adds in his foreword. ‘This was despite promising a full list of attendees, which was never forthcoming.

‘It was revealed later through a Freedom of Information response, that Thomas Heatherwick, the architect (sic) behind one of the bids for the bridge design contract had joined the mayor. We were then asked by the mayor to believe that it was no more than a “coincidence” that they just happened to be in San Francisco at the same time … The mayor’s actions, providing access for one of the bidders ahead of the procurement process, appear to have undermined the integrity of the contest.’

Conservatives on the committee have said the report’s findings are overly harsh because of the challenging ‘evolution’ of the Garden Bridge project in its early stages. But even they, in a minority report, have called for a number of procedural reforms including a ‘dramatic’ improvement in the recording of meetings by the mayor’s office.

TfL’s own head of internal audit Clive Walker acknowledged the process was neither ‘open nor objective’

Speaking shortly after the report’s publication, Duvall predicted that TfL would not welcome the report’s overall recommendations (see box) but said he was determined to see them implemented.

‘I expect TfL to take these steps and to ensure that we never see something like this again,’ he told the AJ.

‘As far as Boris is concerned, the cavalcade moves on and he leaves some serious questions behind, although I’m sure people will raise these with him as he goes on to the next phase of whatever he wants to do.’

For its part, TfL has yet to respond to the report in detail. However, the mayor’s office has continued to defend TfL’s procurement, with a spokesperson saying: ‘An audit of Transport for London’s procurement process found that it was open, fair and transparent.’ This incredible statement was made despite the fact that TfL’s own head of internal audit Clive Walker acknowledged last October that the process was neither ‘open nor objective’ – a conclusion also arrived at last month by TfL’s audit and assurance committee.

In a letter sent to Duvall, dated 9 March 2016 and published in the appendices of the report, the chairman of the audit and assurance committee Keith Williams wrote of Walker: ‘In his opinion, taken together, the issues identified by the audit adversely impact on the openness and transparency of the procurements. As a committee we concur with what Clive said.’

Ultimately, the chances of really far-reaching procurement reform in London will probably come down to who is next elected to the increasingly powerful office of mayor.

Both the Conservative and Labour candidates for mayor, Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan, support the bridge and have said little about its procurement. Khan told the AJ that he had ‘real concerns’ about the procurement of the bridge, adding somewhat bizarrely that these ‘might need to be fully investigated by the next mayor’. Liberal Democrat Caroline Pidgeon, meanwhile – also a member of the Assembly’s oversight committee – is an opponent of the project who strongly supports further inquiry into its procurement.

As for the bridge itself, the project faces further hurdles, but appears to still be progressing, with the Garden Bridge Trust holding a glamorous fundraising event and releasing a new promotional video in recent days.

Responding to last week’s report, a spokeswoman for the trust told the AJ it would not be diverted from delivering its highly controversial scheme.

‘We understand the GLA Oversight Committee’s role in reviewing expenditure and processes,’ she said. ‘But it is important to remember this is a separate process. The Garden Bridge is progressing strongly with the construction contract awarded last week to Bouygues and Cimolai, and construction will begin in the summer.

‘The Garden Bridge Trust is on course with its fundraising targets, and is meeting the requirements of its planning conditions. The project continues to enjoy huge public support and partners and stakeholders are working hard to make the bridge a special place in the heart of the city to be enjoyed by Londoners and visitors for years to come.’

Its backers still clearly hold out the hope that the Garden Bridge can become a triumph despite its murky beginnings.


What does the report recommend?

The London Assembly oversight committee report has called for better pre-tender planning and management, and underlined the need for TfL to keep procurement documentation and improve its internal auditing function. It said the committee would monitor the implementation of its recommendations over the next six months. Specifically, it recommended that TfL should:

Consider which other officers or teams, besides the manager of the audited project, should comment on initial drafts of internal audit reports

Report back to this committee on progress against all the recommendations of the published audit report around  training, tender evaluation and enforcement

Consider introducing a co-ordinated, cross-directorate approval process for the finalisation of procurement decisions. It could require a signature from each of the key directorates at the awarding of major contracts and would have the advantage of avoiding potential disputes between directorates

Consider reimbursing the unsuccessful bidders for the Garden Bridge design contract to compensate them for the time and expense incurred in preparing their proposals for a pedestrian bridge.

The report also recommended that:

The mayor’s office should take responsibility for compiling a written record of all meetings the mayor holds with external bodies, to include clarity about what capacity he is there in (ie as mayor or as chair of TfL).

Where major, priority projects are commissioned by a future mayor and are not in the mayor’s transport strategy, that the mayor implements them by directing the TfL board. Making it clear that such projects have a different status would offer two benefits: a) better protection of the respective functional body and its officers in the case of external challenge; and b) greater clarity to potential bidders about the status of such projects.

TfL’s external auditor and the NAO may wish to consider whether appropriate steps were taken to ensure the public received value for money as a result of the flaws discovered in the procurement process.

Four of London’s mayoral candidates on the Garden Bridge and its procurement

Sadiq Khan, Labour candidate

I fully support the Garden Bridge, as I have made clear. However, there are real concerns about the procurement process at City Hall under Boris Johnson, and these might need to be fully investigated by the next mayor.

Zac Goldsmith, Conservative candidate

I think the design is beautiful and iconic, and that once built, the bridge will be a source of pride for Londoners. It’s a good example of the public and private sector working together, and given that the public contribution has already been spent, it would be a great shame and waste if the project were shelved. Like all infrastructure projects, it been through a thorough procurement and planning process, and it’s right that the [London Assembly] should scrutinise it, which is their job.

Caroline Pidgeon, Liberal Democrat candidate

When examining the record of TfL it is important to remember that, ultimately, senior TfL staff have an obligation to defend the instructions they are given by the mayor of London. However after an extensive investigation it is clear that the whole procurement process was seriously flawed from the very beginning, with major mistakes with the awarding of both contracts. The evidence is clear that Boris Johnson oversaw a rotten procurement process that will hopefully never happen again under a future Mayor of London.

Sian Berry, Green Party candidate

The Garden Bridge famously started life as the whim of one of Boris Johnson’s friends. He then went off trying to sell this bad idea, and TfL bolted on a flawed procurement process to try and fit around it. If it were a proper project designed to meet proper needs, it would probably have been procured properly too.

If I’m elected mayor I’ll junk TfL’s hugely expensive road and bridge building programme, and invite architects to submit ideas for creative and financially viable crossings for pedestrians and cyclists where they’re most needed.


Readers' comments (6)

  • On top of this, a recent FOI showed that Cllr Peck and Sue Foster of Lambeth Council also met Joanna Lumley and Thomas Heatherwick BEFORE the procurement began.

    Why? And what was discussed?

    It's a real shame that Lambeth never have minutes from the meetings they reveal through FOIs or we may know.

    But, it's worth noting that the recent lease amendment revealed that Lambeth will get 50% of rent from the new commercial unit that is being built on the existing public park. So, in effect, they are selling off public assets.

    Just as the same people - Peck & Foster - are doing elsewhere in the borough, be it the libraries which are being fitted at taxpayer's expense to be given to a private leisure firm to operate as private gyms, the loan they have given a development company to build themselves a new vanity town hall, perfecly good and enjoyed social housing being sold off to give land to private developers and more - from Brixton arches to Stockwell Skatepark.

    The truth about all meetings between Lib Peck and Sue Foster with developers, Garden Bridge Trust and more needs to come out.

    This is a council determinedly fighting against the wishes or benefit of its own residents and many of its own councillors, including the brave Cllr Rachel Heywood who is likely to lose her party whip by speaking up on behalf of her constituents and against those at the top and potential vested interests they have:


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  • depressing stuff all round and clearly the story is not over yet.

    In the meantime our efforts to build the diamond jubilee bridge - a real and much needed infrastructure project - continue. The bridge could have been built for what TFL donated to the GBT and we achieved full planning consent for nil fee, nothing, nada, not at least £10,000,000 of fees that the GBT spent; zero fees paid by the tax payer.

    The project has cross party support and the new website is now live: http://diamondjubileebridge.london/

    Please find below an overview of the history and an update on the progress of the Diamond Jubilee Bridge.

    The Need
    In 1924 Viscount Curzon MP acknowledged in the House of Commons that a bridge for pedestrian access situated between Wandsworth Bridge and Battersea Bridge was needed. As you will be aware the area around Battersea Railway Bridge, on both sides of the river, has seen a renaissance in recent years. Thousands of new apartments as well as many restaurants and bars and two 5* hotels have been constructed in the area, opening up the riverfront to leisure and thoroughfare. Many more developments are planned and under construction in the immediate vicinity. A new pedestrian and cycle bridge alongside the railway bridge will enable greater integration between the north and south of the river both in terms of transport and economic activity whilst also having a positive impact on the environment and creating an extension to the amenity space and linear park of the Thames Path. During the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations the Queen boarded the Flotilla and set sail from this very location. A new pedestrian and cycle link here at this time will be a fitting legacy for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and one which makes financial, business, infrastructure and common sense.

    Planning Policy, TfL & Local Authority Support
    The bridge is supported both by local authority and GLA planning policy. Planning consent has been granted in Wandsworth, Hammersmith & Fulham and by the GLA. The Mayor and TfL announced the diamond jubilee bridge as part of a wider ambition to build several Thames crossings and it was covered widely in the press last December, however TfL’s have made no financial commitment but their positive engagement is of course welcomed. Wandsworth have recently adopted an SPD that will enable the council in future to assign CIL contributions to a bridge and a recent S106 agreement with Barratt London has secured the piling of the bridges foundations on the Battersea side of the river (expected to be complete this July).

    Cost & Funding
    With an estimated build cost of £26m (plus risk 10%), Wandsworth’s financial appraisal indicates that the scheme has a Benefit/Cost Ratio (BCR) of 2.0:1. This indicates that the scheme would provide high value for money, with a BCR above the TfL pass mark of 1.5:1 and at the level representing high value for money in Department for Transport guidance. It has always been our intention to achieve corporate sponsorship for the full amount in exchange for naming rights and we are still working on this by trying hard to keep the scheme alive to local residents, the press and seeking out any contact opportunities with corporations and potential sponsors wherever possible. Unfortunately we have not yet succeeded.

    To assist with funding we have written to the Chancellor to ask that he grant the same VAT offset that you have granted on the Garden Bridge and other schemes that provide and support economic growth as this project does. Specifically we have asked that he provide a capital grant of £4.8m which is the equivalent of the 20% vat that will be returned to the exchequer in tax receipts during the construction period. This grant would enable the project to seek potential match funding from TfL and other authorities and most importantly allow us (in partnership with Wandsworth) to seek corporate sponsorship for the remainder with potential sponsors therefore assured of HM Governments’ commitment to the project. We await his response.

    Public Support
    Over the past 4 years, during the consultations on the early design, through the design development and planning process the level of public support has been off the chart. Jane Ellison MP received some 480 notes of support during the planning process and the comments to the local authority in favour of the bridge were in the hundreds. Some 2 years after the planning process we are receiving almost daily communications from local residents seeking details of timing and progress.

    Political Support
    At the outset, with an initial idea and a model, we met with the elected politicians of the area and explained the idea. Since that very first meeting in 2011 we have had the active support of Jane Ellison MP, Richard Tracey AM and Cllr Govindia along with the ward councillors and would take this opportunity to thank them all again for their continued positivity and efforts.

    The role of One-world Design Architects
    Our intention from day one has been to highlight the need for the bridge and assist in any way we can to facilitate it. We have led a team that includes world class engineers Beckett Rankine and Expedition Engineering through the design process. Although one-world design architects have been working pro-bono the vital input of the expert design team has been made possible by the kind and forward thinking hotel Rafayel and its proprietor Iqbal Latif along with Palace Investments.

    One-world design have no ambitions of being appointed for the next delivery stages. We have been working pro-bono gladly for some 5 years and have been delighted to play our part in getting the project this far and have done simply because we feel strongly that the bridge is needed and to pursue it is the right thing to do. Our view is supported by local planning policy, residents, local businesses, developers, local councillors, MP’s, the local London assembly member, the GLA, TfL, The Mayor of London, Council Leaders and council officers who have all been instrumental in pushing the project to this point.

    The Plan for 2016
    In short we need to make real progress on 2 fronts, funding and the discharge of planning conditions. If it is clear that construction work will not start by February 2017 then we will submit a new planning application in the summer of 2016. However, there is still a chance that construction could start before 2017 and that is what we are aiming for.

    There is an opportunity here for the right corporate sponsor or private benefactor to forever be associated with a much needed and very popular addition to London’s infrastructure. Yes, its great news that Wandsworth are seeking to raise funds through CIL contributions but it is highly likely that this funding source will form part of a funding solution rather than the whole solution. What we need to attract a sponsor and the press coverage required to do this is difficult to come by with a zero PR budget.

    More information can be found on the following websites;


    Yours sincerely


    Chris Medland RIBA

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  • 2

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  • I wonder how long criticism of the Garden Bridge procurement affair will continue to be couched in polite language - implying (perhaps unintentionally) that the matter is just a minor aberration, on honest mistake by well intentioned servants of the people?

    TfL has recently mishandled another procurement exercise with breathtaking financial consequences - letting a contract for new signalling on the subsurface lines of the underground system to an inexperienced contractor by 'cooking' the bid analysis. 'Flawed evaluation and scoring during the bidding process' according to a London Assembly report (sound familiar?), which estimates the losses at £886 million for the increased cost of a new contract, £271 million in lost revenue due to a five year delay in the introduction of a 40% increase in passenger capacity, a £181 million hit on the wider economy of London due to the delay, and £85 million termination costs to exit the original contract.
    That's a total of £1,422 million, i.e. £1.422 billion.

    What worries me as much as London - and the country - being stuck with Boris's legacy of a monument that owes more to cronyism than anything else is the wider question of what Caroline Pidgeon refers to as a 'rotten procurement process'; is the Garden Bridge affair just the tip of a grubby iceberg?

    What of all fourteen planning call-ins that the developer-friendly Mr Johnson approved over the heads of the council planning authorities - all above board?

    Zac Goldsmith hardly encourages confidence in stating that 'Given that the public contribution has already been spent, it would be a great shame and waste if the project were shelved'. That's an interesting notion from someone hoping to take over the reins from Boris, and of the same political party - in effect, throw public money at a controversial project that you've been promoting 'on the sly' and then tell the public that they must accept it otherwise it'd be a waste of public money.
    I wonder if Jaroslav Hasek and Franz Kafka might accuse Zac Goldsmith of plagiarism?
    Doubtless Messrs Goldsmith, Johnson and friends are well aware that politicians and civil servants can no longer be surcharged for the cost to the public purse of their shenanigans - but there are other sanctions available, given the will to impose them. Perhaps it all depends on who your friends are?

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  • How utterly crap the Garden Bridge is has been well documented but it has set an interesting precedent in regard to VAT payments on infrastructure projects and the treasuries involvement.

    The treasury have donated £30,000,000 to the garden bridge project and have previously stated that the money would be returned to the treasury by VAT payments on the construction cost, which makes a lot of sense. We wrote to the Chancellor to ask that he grant the diamond jubilee bridge the same courtesy that he did the garden bridge.

    We asked the Chancellor simply that the Diamond Jubilee Bridge is treated in the same manner as, it that wouldn’t even involve any money actually changing hands, it’s more a kind of VAT waiver -a simple letter of intent would suffice. The treasuries response, 5 monts later, via Greg Hands MP (chief secretry of the treasury and the MP for Chelsea & Fulham) was not just no - it ignored our question altogether and instead pointed us towards the mayor of London and TfL who despite announcing the bridge as part of their plan last december have also confirmed that they have no money for such a project.

    The same rules in the spirit of fairness should apply to all crossings. All things being equal this would and should be the case. We cannot understand why it is not and we believe this difference in treatment needs to be explained, not to us but to the tens of thousands of people here in Battersea and Fulham that will use this bridge should it be constructed.

    We do hope that the treasury has a change of heart and will reconsider their opinion on this matter.

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  • To Chris Medland: If your bridge had been the 'brainwave' of a luvvie, and designed by the 'flavour of the month', then you'd have had more chance of the gift of a tax holiday from on high.
    It probably didn't help that your bridge would be a really useful addition to London's infrastructure, rather than a piece of frippery - and, don't forget, the 'spirit of fairness' probably only applies to the behaviour of naive and simple-minded oiks devoid of personal ambition..

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