Hodge is right to call out the powerful people behind the Garden Bridge who have dismissed public and expert opinion alike
Margaret Hodge MP is known as a political Rottweiler and her long-awaited report on the Garden Bridge is true to form.
On former mayor Boris Johnson, on the senior officials who circumvented the rules in supporting his desire for the Lumley/Heatherwick Garden Bridge, on the scheme’s value-for-money and on Transport for London itself, the MP and former chair of the Public Accounts Committee is excoriating in her criticism of a scheme which has already cost the taxpayer £46 million without a spade entering the banks of the Thames.
It was in late 2014 that I first got an inkling that cronyism was at play and obtained under the Freedom of Information Act correspondence between Garden Bridge champion Joanna Lumley and mayor Johnson as well as the scoring details of the TfL ‘competition’ involving Heatherwick Studio, Marks Barfield and WilkinsonEyre.
The investigation was driven by my anger over the brazenness and arrogance of that procurement exercise and the subsequent dismissal of those raising concerns. Thankfully I quickly found myself well supported by my able colleagues at the AJ, by our readers and by politicians and campaigners who shared my concerns. I have given evidence on the key findings of our investigation to Hodge over the past few months.
But despite our detailed body of work and that of a host of Garden Bridge objectors, the powerful people driving this project forward have been utterly consistent throughout in dismissing all valid criticism. That applied whether the questions came from the AJ, from other journalists, from the local community on the South Bank or from politicians, lawyers or any other experts.
It was no surprise to see, within two hours of the report being released, the chairman of the Garden Bridge Trust Mervyn Davies adopting metaphorically the pose of the orchestra on the Titanic, saying the Trust would not abandon its sinking ship and ‘remains as determined as ever to make the Garden Bridge happen’.
In her report, Hodge picks up on this type of arrogance and evasion and rightly condemns it.
Garden bridge revised
Garden Bridge champion Joanna Lumley describes the concept as ‘the people’s bridge’, but Hodge concludes there is actually ‘a lack of connection to the local community south of the river’ and notes that those sitting with Lumley on the board of the Trust include a special adviser at Number 10 Downing Street and the brother of a leading Conservative minister.
She picks up on the AJ’s revelations about the many meetings that took place between Heatherwick, Lumley and Johnson prior to Heatherwick’s appointment and that there remains a ‘completely unacceptable’ lack of records about these meetings because no minutes were taken.
There remains a ‘completely unacceptable’ lack of records about these meetings because no minutes were taken
And she takes issue with the reaction of the Trust’s deputy chair Paul Morrell, revealing that when barristers at Middle Temple on the north side of the Thames had the temerity to express concern over the impact of the bridge in 2014, Morrell wrote in an email ‘I think Middle Temple would find it hard to handle the PR fallout if they were to become “the people who stopped the bridge” which is of course how we would position them in the press.’
The other wronged parties, of course, were architects Marks Barfield and WilkinsonEyre who – as Hodge documents – were led a merry dance by a powerful client in Transport for London, which should have respected these excellent firms. Neither ever spoke out publicly about their treatment but both gave evidence to Hodge, with Marks Barfield telling her of the practice’s deep embarrassment ‘to have been used in this way by a publicly accountable body who should know better’.
It is true that fault does lie with TfL, an unaccountable body with a £3.8 billion capital project which has long been in need of reform.
Marks Barfield and WilkinsonEyre – as Hodge documents – were led a merry dance by a powerful client
However, the ultimate villain of the piece is Boris Johnson – the one person who utterly refused to co-operate with Hodge on her inquiry.
Johnson would no doubt say that Hodge’s inquiry was a party-political attack, but the fact remains that he has a long history of dismissing and attacking Garden Bridge critics, including his memorable description of Lib Dem Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon as having a ‘Taliban-like hatred of beauty’ after she raised first concerns about its procurement at City Hall.
Let’s hope for all our sakes that the Foreign Office proves better at controlling his worst impulses than the GLA did.
This column was published in the Built to rent issue – click here to buy a copy