The minutes of the defunct Garden Bridge Trust reveal a self-assured clique who believed the project was unstoppable, writes Stella Smith
Having worked with charity boards for nearly 20 years, I’ve probably read more than my fair share of charity board minutes. Few make truly riveting reading and those of the now-defunct Garden Bridge Trust are no exception. Nevertheless, they do give an interesting perspective on the discussions, the decision-making and the assumptions which led the project to fail.
On reading the minutes, it’s immediately apparent that the trustees had the kind of access to people in power that most charities can only dream of. The Trust Chair casually refers to putting in a call to the Chair of the Charity Commission to find out how to get the charity registered (rather than battling with online registration, like the rest of us). Another trustee comments on a chance meeting at a carol service with then Chancellor George Osborne, who assured them that the bridge would happen.
The social circles of the trustees allowed them direct contact with key decision-makers and this is reflected in the self-assurance of their discussions, their certainty that things would go their way. This confidence is undoubtedly one of the reasons that the trustees got the project as far down the line as they did. It is also the reason they didn’t see the early warning signs of the project’s eventual collapse.
The Garden Bridge Trust board lacked the diversity of background and experience that a healthy board needs. There was a nod to community consultation, but there was no one at board level who was forcefully putting forward the concerns of this vital group of stakeholders.
There was no real challenge to the prevailing views of the established trustee group. The chair regularly reminded trustees of the need to consider the risks, but just as regularly reassured them that the Trust’s track record suggested that the indicators were good. There was no assertive counterbalance to this perspective.
There was no real challenge to the prevailing views of the established trustee group
As judicial reviews dragged on, timescales drifted and estimated costs for the bridge repeatedly escalated, trustees marched on regardless.
There is no evidence of any reflective soul-searching about whether this was really the right course of action, no suggestion that it might be prudent to revisit the evidence on which the initial business plans had been based or whether, in the face of mounting costs, the bridge could really still provide value for money. Trustees clearly thought that having spent so much money and gotten the project so far, that it was unstoppable.
In every new venture you have to have a level of stubborn single-mindedness, a conviction that it will work, regardless of the hurdles. You sometimes have to go ahead against the odds, take some risks. You consider and reconsider the evidence and indicators, using all the intelligence and research you can find to understand trends, revise projections and inform decisions. When you are setting up a private business, you do this knowing that, if the project fails, you have to explain what happened to the investors.
When you are working in a charity setting, you’re working with donated and public money. When large amounts of money are invested and the charity fails, the public needs to understand why and lessons need to be learnt.
When Kids Company went down, questions were asked, poor governance was revealed and it has been a salutary lesson for all charity trustees.
The Garden Bridge initiative was a hugely expensive mistake. Now the board minutes have been made public and the accounts filed, we need to understand why the Garden Bridge Trust failed and make sure any initiative so heavily funded by the taxpayer never makes the same mistake again.
Stella Smith is a consultant working in the charities sector