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Garden Bridge trustees marched on regardless towards a hugely expensive mistake

Garden Bridge planting in Spring

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

Readers' comments (7)

  • The real scandal is that nothing was built despite a substantial public investment, that the mayor played a very political game rather than one benefiting London, and nobody was prepared to consider ways of making the bridge pay for itself, for example by making it part of the oyster card system. In the circumstances of professional jealousy, bean-counter sniping and media lynch mobs, it was an amazing achievement to raise £4 million in the last year of the fund-raising campaign, a tribute to how popular the idea was -- except with a small clique of miserablists. Before the nasties go into response overdrive, I had no connection at all with the trust or its fund-raising.

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  • Paul Finch is rather too fond of using the term 'small clique of miserablists' - presumably for its journalistic impact, as I don't believe for one minute he's so naive as to be unaware of the devious and manipulative behaviour of the former mayor in promoting this project via what seems to have been a 'very political game' of the corrupt variety, when you consider the antics of some of his senior civil servants within TfL.
    Is it 'miserabilist' to object to an apparently charitable project that sought to impose - by hook or by crook - a very substantial intervention on the character of the centre of London?
    Sought to grant financial donors the right to use it as an exclusive party venue (so much for vital pedestrian route) and sought to front-load the financial risk onto the public purse rather than the promoters. One of whom made a fat packet out of it anyway.

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  • I think I am one of Finch's "miserablists".

    he couldn't be further from the truth. I was joyous when the bridge was stopped, and not just because it was a total pile of archiwankery, which was my subjective opinion (though agreed with by the thousands of people I spoke to), but because it showed a huge interest, power and agency of us "public" in their built environment.

    This passion and engagement should not only be celebrated, but built on by the sector, and people who have power like Finch, to develop genuinely beneficial, participatory, sustainable, functional ideas to help London and Londoners into the 21st century.

    Nobody who opposed the bridge was a luddite, but throughout the whole process I talked to public, architects, politicians and other interested parties who say the ending of it as a potential start of a new way of doing things in which people could not only take part but feed into and take community interest in - basically everything this most vulgar and damaging of impositions wasn't.

    So, let's turn this on its head. I am optimistic and excited about post-Garden Bridge london architecture, and I suggest Paul Finch is the "miserablist" for remaining in the closed-networked, white man's club that develops projects like the bridge in secret rooms to the economic and architectural benefit not of London or Londoners but a cabal of high business, chummy mates with narrow aesthetic invention and existing structural systems.

    Paul, stop being so miserable, come and have fun and dream of a new London of transparency, involvement and genuine sustainable invention we can ALL benefit from!

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  • Paul Finch says that he 'had no connection at all with the trust or its fund-raising'. Perhaps if he'd known a little more of how the Garden Bridge project operated, his pronouncements about it would be less deluded.

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  • Mr Finch is not wrong that it was an impressive achievement for the Trust to raise £4 million, after the project had become so toxic in the media and so radioactive to sponsors.

    But that just makes it all the more baffling that they didn’t stop — or at least pause — the project so much sooner than they did. The Trust still had a £55 million mountain to climb and everything was moving in the wrong direction. They were no closer to securing the land, planning authorities were stalling, the GLA refused to issue the Guarantee as written, and they were losing more funders than they were gaining.

    One consultancy after another told them the same thing that Mr Finch says above: that their business model was not sustainable unless they reversed some of the pledges on charging, naming rights and closures that they’d already made to get planning. As the minutes clearly demonstrate, they were absolutely prepared to consider those things — they just weren’t prepared to say it publicly.

    There were break clauses in the construction contract that allowed them to pause the project at any time to stop the bleeding and put it back on solid ground. But as Ms Smith rightly points out, there was not single voice of doubt or caution on the Board. They just pulled every political lever in their reach to access more public money in a vain attempt to spend their way through the problem.

    Whatever one thinks of the design or the merits of the project, it’s hard to argue that there wasn’t a breakdown in governance and serious questions to ask about the Trust’s management and the professional advice it was given.

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  • For ‘garden bridge’ substitute ‘Brexit’. Madness and financial profligacy combined.

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  • I, too, am a happy miserablist. Ding dong the bridge is dead!
    It wasn’t just the incredibly short-sighted, ugly and ill-conceived design, it was the fact that those involved with all aspects of this 2nd rate bridge thought they were better - or grander - than the likes of, say, Wordsworth and felt they were at liberty to steam roller his “View From Westminster Bridge”.
    That this bridge ever received consideration says very little for the aesthetic views of those involved - it says even less for the then-Mayors design ideas. A case of the Emperor’s New Clothes?

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