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.