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Stop moaning, the Garden Bridge is fabulous

Paul Finch

Paul Finch makes a modest proposal to the Garden Bridge moaners 

A garden bridge across the Thames is a fabulous idea which is now bringing out the worst in a small but vociferous gang of moaners, their criticisms being familiar to anyone who tries to do anything of imagination in the capital, the Olympics being the most recent example. Any inconsistency in the proposition is seized upon by the snapping terriers as evidence of malign intent, financial irresponsibility, design failure or programmatic contradiction. No generosity is offered.

The big picture is this: Joanna Lumley’s idea has gathered considerable financial and political support (way over £100 million pledged), and has achieved planning permission, even though that is now subject to judicial review.  The landing sites are established, with final detailed designs in progress. Thomas Heatherwick and Arup have produced a design that can be delivered, and there has been no official challenge to the procurement process that took place, following the involvement of  Transport for London and an element of public funding. It is the latter that has prompted simulated outrage. How dare they put ratepayers’ money into this private sector vanity project! Actually this is a misunderstanding of why public money is needed at all, which is a curious one, as is often the case when VAT rears its bureaucratic head.

Normally you would not expect VAT to be payable on new construction. If the Garden Bridge Trust, the charity which has taken on the challenge of getting the bridge funded and built, was commissioning a new building, then VAT would not be payable. But weirdly, it seems that if a charity undertakes a civil engineering project, then VAT applies. Unfortunately I am not making this up.

Maybe chancellor Osborne, a supporter of the proposal, thought he might waive the VAT, an anomaly in this instance. However, you make one exemption and, from the Revenue’s perspective, you are opening the floodgates. The VAT men may be frightened that other organisations (St John’s Ambulance, the Girl Guides?) would seize on the exemption and start building roads, bridges and dams. They just don’t want a precedent.

The chancellor can, of course, continue to fund part of the scheme, in the full knowledge that government would get most of it back in VAT. The same thing happened at the London Olympics.

So, yes, there is public funding, but it is modest in scale, and much of it is recoverable. But, for the moaners, things don’t end there, because Mayor Johnson has ‘underwritten’ – in a thus far rather vague way – maintenance and running costs, while the trust finalises its capital expenditure programme and makes realistic projections about how it can pay for them itself.

There is another way of approaching maintenance costs. Suppose we were starting from scratch, and wanted to make it clear that the bridge is a public facility, even though the capital cost is being raised from private individuals and companies. 

And suppose we wanted to guarantee in perpetuity that running costs would be more than met from the public purse, but with no profit made, any excess being used for other public transport purposes. What would we do?

You have probably guessed the answer: make the bridge part of TfL’s transport network, and make it part of the Oyster Card system. You want to go on/off the bridge? Then pay a modest sum, which will be used for the bridge and other transport facilities, and nothing else. Local residents could be given an Oyster Card, giving them a free daily crossing to compensate for the inconvenience of coping with an additional river bridge.  

Perhaps this could be one of Mayor Johnson’s swansong initiatives for the capital.


Readers' comments (16)

  • This f

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  • J C Muirhead


    Are you there?

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  • As I was saying. Among other things it's the great lack of transparency that gets people's backs up. This was first presented as a "free" project. It turns out it's as free as a dodgy timeshare offer. Why could we not have had an honest debate upfront about its real costs and benefits? In stead it's being pushed through with a combination of bullying and schmooze.

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  • I am afraid this article is very inaccurate. It for example fails to mention that Boris Johnson has instructed Transport for London to contribute up to £30 million of public funding from its transport budget towards the construction of the Garden Bridge. In addition the Mayor has also agreed to underwrite the maintenance costs of the bridge.

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  • Besides all other misgivings about this design, its logic and location is the issue how the design was procured. I would like to know what was the process through which the competition participants were selected? We are on TFL panel for such projects but first heard about it from press reports... Heatherwick Studio is not listed on the TFL panel at all...

    CM Bednarski / Studio Bednarski Ltd

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  • When the reader has negotiated some mazy convolutions about VAT, the reward is a prescient suggestion: that this supposed free gift to the people and tourists of London will have to operate as a toll bridge in order to defray its ongoing losses.

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  • Rowan is quite right to use the word "bullying" to describe the approach of the Garden Bridge's defenders, and this column is an excellent example. Finch's words fit in nicely next to the Mayor's comparison of objectors to the bridge to the Taliban. He doesn't even have the basic courtesy to credit objectors with good faith, instead calling the outrage "simulated". Why we would go to all the trouble of simulating outrage about this is left unexplained - just to make trouble, maybe, nothing more than idle mischief. "No generosity is offered" by objectors? Nor by the bridge's defenders, sir.

    Finch's suggestion that the bridge would somehow be more public if it charged a toll might well be sincere, but it is ignorable nonsense, presumably an effort to make a bad idea more palatable by coming up with an even worse alternative.

    It's easy to conclude that the defenders of the bridge come out with this insulting twaddle because any effort to engage with the objections in good faith would reveal the case for the bridge to be the wobbly bluster it is. The fatal contradictions at the heart of this project cannot be ignored. Is it public or private? A private enterprise enjoying remarkable public indulgence and subsidy Is it a tranquil destination for relaxing and enjoying or a useful public footpath? It will not do either job well.

    The tragedy of this bridge is that it could be a great boon if it was somewhere else, either to the east or west, away from an area already heaving with visitors and uniquely rich in beautiful views. But Hammersmith or Canning Town wouldn't have the same cachet. Which is why the bridge exists: to glorify its backers and makers.

    At least this business has given us a beautiful example of the ugly, ugly way that 21st-century London works.

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  • When the GLC is closed and nobody remembers Boris and Conservative Party fraud since 1979 and real architecture and landscape architecture is dead under the Jackboot of BBC technicians along with the countryside we tried to teach for Landscape Planning perhaps Finch can sit in it !, all day and stare into the sunset over the Smog of Swindon sinking in the mire as my Pa stared into Wales where I hoped to stay for 3 more years in Hydrology research and soils, even if the tower was a fire risk, Research staff were put in the top floor as expendable, then he stared into a CofE graveyard in Devon mudslide and I hardly saw him, he must have been disgusted with Britain after all they gave until 1943, stole everything from him and his build work.

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  • Paul McGrath

    In this instance, it would appear Mr Finch is using his platform in the AJ to be gratuitously and deliberately offensive to a small but vociferous gang of what he labels moaners.

    Why? Because we "moaners" have the sheer temerity to voice an opinion. In a democracy!

    What does Mr Finch expect? For us all to meekly to roll over, shut up and acquiesce with the good idea of a minor celebrity and the whims of a star designer no matter what? Stuff the fact that a footbridge east of Tower Bridge is needed more than this one. It's designed by Heatherwick for Heaven's sake! We simply must have it.

    If this country was in any way "fair" such a public proposal would and definitely should have been commissioned by an open competition. Instead we get a fait accompli.

    Like the Olympics, this project has the influential backing of Establishment figures who have the power to raid taxpayer funds at will, when it suits them with the most dubious of justification.

    Mr Finch however, insists this view is just a misunderstanding of what public funds are for! He has failed to grasp even the possibility that this project is an example of all that is wrong with the procurement of public buildings and places.

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  • I agree with everyone, pro and agin. The happy finish is surely that it collapses because of a Heatherwickian miscalculation and remains as a ruin with all the value that our old chum Albert Speer attached to such structures

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