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.’
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.