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Boris and his Garden Bridge strategy of denial

Will Hurst

The mayor’s modus operandi in attacking his critics is beginning to look desperate, writes Will Hurst

Boris Johnson’s aggressive response to RIBA president Jane Duncan after she called for an independent investigation into the procurement of the Garden Bridge should come as no surprise.

From the start, the London mayor’s tactic in response to such questions and criticism has been a strategy of denial. He brands his critics ‘demented enemies’ of beauty while refusing to discuss the detail of their complaints.

He’s attacked the different categories of Garden Bridge critic in different ways. He’s pointed the finger at myself and the Architects’ Journal, claiming we’re confused and suggested that London Assembly members are acting only for party political gain. Architects meanwhile are ‘jealous’ of Garden Bridge designer Thomas Heatherwick because he is a highly-successful non architect. How ludicrous given that AJ readers themselves nominated him above all others for last year’s AJ100 contribution to the profession award.

He has an aversion to getting into detail – a worrying trait in a man with ambitions to be Prime Minister

Of course, Johnson shooting from the hip is part of his appeal and colourful rhetoric is part of any good politician’s armoury. But this row has been escalating for more than a year and - as the end of his final term as mayor approaches - his strategy is beginning to look more and more like desperate evasion.

In his letter to Duncan, he claimed that she’d been misled by ‘confused’ commentators and complained: ‘[There] have been so many false reports and statements made about this project.’

The mayor’s denials are always similarly vague and, when firing back, his weapon of choice is the scatter gun. He never says which reports and statements are false and how they are false. He has an aversion to getting into detail – a worrying trait in a man with ambitions to be Prime Minister. Just occasionally though, Johnson’s bluster fails him and he inadvertently says something telling about the Garden Bridge selection process, as he did on LBC Radio a month ago.

What Johnson has never answered is why the legal advice of his own officials appears to have been ignored

After AJ uncovered the fact that Heatherwick was at the meeting that Johnson held with potential corporate sponsor Apple in San Francisco to promote the Garden Bridge prior to TfL’s design contest, Boris appeared on LBC Radio where presenter Nick Ferrari asked how on earth this was fair and proper.

‘What [architects] don’t like – and I’m not saying there was – is the possibility of some kind of inside deal,’ Ferrari said. ‘One architect [sic] meets with the mayor, two or three days prior..’ But the presenter didn’t get the chance to finish his sentence as Johnson blurted out: ‘It was his idea!’

Finally, a statement of substance from the mayor! As TfL’s own legal advisors warned Johnson before the Garden Bridge design contest was held, it was this well-developed idea – and the mayor’s apparent endorsement of it - that presented such a risk of unfairness. It denied Marks Barfield and Wilkinson Eyre, the two highly talented bidders competing against Heatherwick Studio, an equal opportunity in what was supposed to be – and sorry to be pedantic here – a competition.

What Johnson has never answered is why the legal advice of his own officials appears to have been ignored. Heeding this advice need not have compromised the quality of the bridge itself.

Why for example, did only one person do the scoring? And why was this leading public sector client not open with the other bidders about what it actually wanted? TfL could of course have gone down a route such as competitive dialogue or simply asked for designs for a planted bridge, giving other firms enough time to come up with viable or better alternatives. As the Garden Bridge questions multiply, London’s mayor attacks because he cannot or will not answer.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Behind the (calculated) disarming clowning for an audience, and the intemperate bluster when challenged, there lies an overgrown brat.

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  • Quite a slip by Boris Johnson, to reveal that Heatherwick himself initiated the secret, publicly funded and totally unsuccessful sponsorship jaunt to San Francisco, to secure funds for his Garden Bridge. Which happened before the 'competition' to design a bridge, which Heatherwick duly 'won'.

    When such things are reported in London's daily newspaper, we'll know that free debate and open reporting are coming back at last. Congratulations meanwhile to the AJ for keeping its flame alive amidst the hooting hot air, bluster and trumping that emanate from London's mayor.

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