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Heads should roll over Garden Bridge debacle – but the odds are they won’t

Will Hurst

The Garden Bridge costs reveal a shocking recklessness with public money, but there’s no sign anyone will be held to account, writes Will Hurst

There was some good news for Joanna Lumley in yesterday’s deluge of Garden Bridge information. She and the other Garden Bridge trustees will get their final £5.5 million chunk of public money from TfL.

That, and the fact that all this embarrassing information was released the week after she presented the BAFTAs.

What else did we learn? Apart from the fact that the total bill for her escapade with Thomas Heatherwick stands at an eye-watering £53 million, 80 per cent of which will be borne by the taxpayer, we found out that the trust really knew how to spend our money.

Well over £400,000 went on a gala fundraising event in Battersea, while £1.3 million was spent on marine geotechnical surveys of the Thames in a ‘careful search for unexploded ordnance’.

The £161,000 paid for the Garden Bridge’s perfectly adequate website caused astonishment on Twitter, with web designers queuing up to enquire where they could find such a client.

A lot more money was expended on the architectural and engineering consultants.

None of this money would have been payable were it not for TfL’s astonishing decision to sign this contract

Heatherwick Studio – whose boss helped establish the Trust, triumphed in a rigged TfL design contest and sat in on board meetings where he urged trustees to plough on in the face of massive adversity – got £2.7 million.

Garden designer Dan Pearson received more than £300,000 and engineer and lead consultant Arup, whose appointment also raised serious questions, took an enormous chunk of the total – close to £13 million.

But even these sums are dwarfed by the £21.4 million handed to the Bouygues and Cimolai joint venture contractor which was given the construction contract.

And this is really where the trustees and their political overseers at TfL are on the rack, because none of this money would have been payable were it not for their astonishing decision to sign this contract in early 2016.

At that point, the trust had neither the necessary land permissions nor the funds to build its crossing.

Not only that, but the trustees and TfL knew that the project was facing no fewer than 22 significant hurdles, including ongoing rows with key stakeholders and the ‘big risk’ of a judicial review. Yet still they pressed ‘go’.

This decision was directly enabled by the trust’s public sector sponsor, TfL, which broke at least two of the six conditions in its own funding agreement with the trust in order to approve a £7 million payment required by the charity.

Will gb graphic 3

Will gb graphic 3

This move by TfL is the very hardest thing for the arch villain of the Garden Bridge, Boris Johnson, to explain. For all his evasive bluster in giving evidence to the London Assembly last year, the former mayor proved completely unable to say why he subsequently watered down these six conditions if his position was that they had already been met at the point the contract was signed.

TfL’s enabling of the contract was also pushed through by TfL’s then planning boss, Richard de Cani, weeks after he had told his bosses he was leaving to join Arup, a jaw-dropping conflict of interest which has never been acknowledged by TfL’s commissioner Mike Brown nor its chair, mayor of London Sadiq Khan.

De Cani, for his part, insists that he did not act alone and that Brown – who earns close to half a million pounds a year – personally signed off the decision.

For Johnson, the Garden Bridge is just one of many scandals he is responsible for yet seems able to keep at arms length, at least for now.

Whether the Charity Commission ever remembers its role as a regulator and takes action against the trustees remains to be seen.

But TfL’s position is just as shaky as the Trust’s, and Brown’s job must surely be precarious if he is responsible for half of the £43 million loss to the taxpayer in this scandal.

Speaking yesterday, TfL’s director of city planning, Alex Williams, made an attempt to draw a line under the Garden Bridge debacle.

‘We have now confirmed the final payment legally required under the terms of the underwriting agreement made by the government. This formally ends our involvement with the project,’ he said.

Wishful thinking perhaps?

Well, given the so-far lamentable response to this scandal from the institutions that are supposed to protect the taxpayer, learn the lessons of serious failure and uphold public confidence in our systems of government, he may just be proved right.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Drawing a line is not going to happen. Keep up the pressure Will

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  • Boris Johnson seems to have taken Horatio Bottomley as role modeI, and his rise in the political firmament is the stuff of nightmares.
    When it comes to the so far lamentable response to this scandal from the institutions that are supposed to protect the tax payer, I wonder if there are other institutions that seem to be 'asleep on the job' - is the Arup outfit so big and influential that one or more professional institutions are carefully looking the other way?
    Cronyism rules, OK?

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