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The Garden Bridge is gone – so why won’t the story go away?

Garden Bridge planting in Spring
  • 5 Comments

Taxpayers have been mugged over the Garden Bridge fiasco and it’s time we had some explanation from those responsible, says Dan Anderson

Dan Anderson

Dan Anderson

Dan Anderson

So the AJ is still at it – breaking stories about the Garden Bridge that continue to heap embarrassment and awkward questions on those involved.

The latest is about the fact that Transport for London missed a chance to stop the project more than one year before Sadiq Khan’s decision to call time on it – something that could have saved the taxpayer some £16 million. The project reached a critical milestone in early 2016, where TfL not only had the opportunity stop the project, but in fact had a responsibility to stop it.

That was when then Garden Bridge Trust had to demonstrate that it had satisfied a set of conditions for the project to proceed to the next stage and for further funding to be released by TfL.

The Trust demonstrably fell short of meeting those conditions, but officials at TfL – up to and including its Commissioner, Mike Brown, it’s understood – chose to let the project go ahead anyway. That not only released a further £7 million of grant funding, but also required the Trust to then seek a £15 million Government underwrite of cancellation costs (later reduced to £9 million).

A cross-party spectrum of politicians from Parliament and the London Assembly has lined up to demand answers from Brown about what happened. How did TfL manage to convince itself that the Trust had met its funding conditions when at least two of those conditions were so clearly not satisfied?

How did TfL manage to convince itself that the Trust had met its funding conditions?

In truth, we knew much of this back in December 2016, when the AJ broke the story of a possible conflict of interest, where the main official responsible for these decisions – TfL’s then planning director, Richard de Cani – was in his notice period, having accepted a job with Arup, the bridge’s engineer and lead consultant. I even wrote about it in City Metric at the time. Why is it all being rehashed now?

It’s because Brown has at last admitted that the release of funding was at TfL’s discretion and was not a purely procedural payment that was automatically triggered by the Trust’s decision to sign a construction contract. It has thus far been impossible for the London Assembly or enquiring journalists to ask probing questions about these funding conditions, because Brown stubbornly refused to acknowledge that they even existed or that they mattered.

Brown has spent over a year trying to dodge this issue. When appearing before the London Assembly or its committees, Brown answered verbal questions about this decision with some combination of the following phrases: ‘I don’t know’, ‘I don’t remember’, and ‘I’ll have to come back to you on that’. He then followed up a few months later with written responses that skilfully parse words and legal subtleties to further obfuscate and confuse the issue.

Now that the commissioner has finally conceded that the release of funding in February 2016 was at TfL’s discretion, it is incumbent on the organisation to come clean about exactly what happened.

Why did TfL choose to ignore the safeguards that it had previously built into its own contract with the Garden Bridge Trust? Did TfL exceed the mandate of the Mayoral Decision that instructed it to fund the Garden Bridge Trust and that specified that ‘payments to GBT will be staged to cover pre- and post-construction contract award activities, with conditions to be met before funds are provided’?

Why did TfL choose to ignore the safeguards that it had previously built into its own contract with the Garden Bridge Trust?

What role did Richard de Cani – from an apparently conflicted position – play in that assessment? Did Brown, as commissioner, intentionally mislead the London Assembly when he wrote to member Tom Copley that this decision came after the signing of a construction contract that ‘had already taken place’ (it hadn’t)?

More generally, one gets the sense that the Garden Bridge story simply won’t die until somebody, somewhere, takes some measure of responsibility for it.

Almost £50 million was spent with nothing to show for it. Yet, amazingly, the only individual to a pay any price whatsoever for their involvement with this project is Dame Margaret Hodge, who repaid £2.97 for using House of Parliament stationery to write her damning report. She was even made to apologise for this supposed breach of ethics.

I now think about that every time I am moved to make a joke about dysfunctional politics in America. Because everyone else is rolling in clover.

Joanna Lumley first dreamt up the idea for the Garden Bridge and lobbied Boris Johnson for the funding. She then served as its celebrity advocate and full-throated evangelist, responding to any criticism in the acerbic voice of Marie Antoinette:‘There was so much negativity about this £60m of public money … All we heard was £60m, £60m, £60m. But … it’ll work out at about 32p a person in the UK. It’s not as if we’re stealing bread from people.’ [The Guardian]

But Lumley’s ‘national treasure’ status remains untarnished as she prepares to host the BAFTAs.

Thomas Heatherwick pitched the idea to TfL, picked his own procurement method, conceived the idea of a Trust, recruited its Trustees, installed its chief executive and served as its Founding Member. He now denies any involvement with the Trust and takes every opportunity to remind us that he was ‘just the designer’. He has also walked away with nearly £3 million of fees.

Thomas Heatherwick takes every opportunity to remind us that he was ‘just the designer’. He has also walked away with nearly £3 million of fees

That’s chickenfeed compared with the engineering giant, Arup, which must have banked at least £10 million from the project. Apart from those innocent early days when it seemed the whole PR strategy for the Garden Bridge consisted of one project manager from Arup trying to take on the Internet, the practice has only raised its head above the parapet long enough to send threatening letters to The Architects’ Journal.

And, of course, the two individuals who probably worked hardest to advance the project – TfL’s Richard De Cani and former deputy mayor for transport, Isabel Dedring – are now gainfully employed at senior positions within Arup.

Others at TfL who were involved in these critical spending decisions include Michelle Dix, Andy Brown and Alex Williams, all of whom have since been promoted to, respectively, managing director of Crossrail 2, head of corporate affairs and director of borough planning.

Sir Peter Hendy, the previous TfL Commissioner, who oversaw nearly £10 million of spending on the project and advanced it through planning before the TfL Board even knew it was ‘a thing’, has since taken over at the London Legacy Development Corporation.

Sarah Sands was the then-managing editor of the Evening Standard, which aggressively championed the Garden Bridge since its inception. The surreal transcript of her meeting with Margaret Hodge reveals a creepy, almost cultish belief in the ‘genius’ of Thomas Heatherwick and her corresponding disdain for anyone that doesn’t succumb to it. She is now editor of Radio Four’s Today programme.

Sands was replaced at the Standard by George Osborne, who has at least had the good sense to stay quiet and hope that everyone forgets that – as the responsible ‘Austerity Chancellor’ – he tried to funnel £30 million of national taxpayer’s money into a pretty garden in Central London.

The Garden Bridge trustees were investigated by the Charity Commission, which looked specifically at the signing of the construction contract and concluded that the process was ‘robust’ because there had been ‘some benchmarking of hourly rates and materials’. That’s a little bit like an inquiry into the Titanic concluding that the captain did nothing wrong because – up until the iceberg – the ship was bang on schedule throughout the whole journey. The Charity Commission investigation said less about the Garden Bridge Trust than it did about the competence of the Charity Commission to investigate charities.

It’s a little bit like an inquiry into the Titanic concluding that the captain did nothing wrong because – up until the iceberg – the ship was bang on schedule

Almost everyone on this list spoke to Hodge during her review and found a way – some more diplomatically than others – to pin the blame on then-Mayor, Boris Johnson. We made him Foreign Secretary. (Which is a come-uppance of sorts, I suppose, as it’s clearly not the job he really wants.)

Sure, the London Assembly has managed, through a legal summons, to dragoon him back to City Hall for one more grilling. But what will that achieve? He’s been in that chair before. Johnson thrives in that environment. He will bluster and buffoon his way through it, complaining about a political witch-hunt instigated by Sadiq Khan and executed by Labour grandee Margaret Hodge. He doesn’t care – he’s already building a bigger bridge to France.

Taxpayers are out of pocket by nearly £50 million and everyone involved has either profited directly from our loss or has been promoted out of reach. We were mugged and we never had the chance to ‘confront our attacker’. We never had closure. That’s why the AJ’s latest story is important.

Someone, at last, is demanding a complete and honest answer from Transport for London about its role in the key decisions that led to so much money being wasted.

Despite its best efforts to ‘off-shore’ responsibility to an unaccountable Trust, Transport for London has left its fingerprints all over this fiasco. Of all the people recently quoted, Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon probably comes closest to hitting the nail on the head:

‘At its best TfL can operate to the highest standards and deliver services that are the envy of the world. Yet at its worst it can be an organisation that makes mistakes, tries to hide these and will defend the indefensible.’

It may be fun to pick on Boris Johnson, celebrity designers or entitled Trustees, but of the £46 million wasted, TfL is directly responsible for about £30 million.

Of the £46 million wasted, Transport for London is directly responsible for about £30 million

Some of that spending does pre-date Mike Brown’s appointment as TFL Commissioner. But Brown cannot wash his hands of that critical decision in February 2016 and all the problems that cascaded from it.

That was a bad decision made on his watch. He now needs to provide a better explanation than ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t remember’. He really needs to get back to us on that.

Dan Anderson is a tourist attraction expert who works at consultancy Fourth Street

Vince Cable: TfL chief should face inquiry over £7m Garden Bridge grant

  • 5 Comments

Readers' comments (5)

  • The reason the taxpayer has paid out quite unnecessarily is because nothing has been built. The squeaking and squealing is a consequence of a 'London can't make it' miasma which is promoting bean-counter zealotry over creative achievement. (It was the same with the London Olympics until it was a success. Then the moaners started claiming the credit.) On housing, the armchair strategists know all about procurement but don't know how to actually getting anything built. London tourism is dependent on historical public expenditure which took place on a vast scale to create magnificent buildings and parks. Now we are too frightened to build a simple pedestrian bridge which would have attracted millions of visitors. It is the same small-mindset that doesn't get the need for an estuary airport. Sad.

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  • I commend Paul Finch for his consistent stance in defending the Garden Bridge, and he might in part be speaking out on the principle that there's a need for someone to act as 'devil's advocate' in the face of so much criticism of what he seems convinced would have been a marvellous asset.
    But the amount of 'artful dodging' from a variety of prominent people and organisations who should be role models for ethical behaviour is more than just disquieting, and needs addressed.

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  • The key here is the fact that it was transport funding, not tourism funding - it was money assigned in the public purse for projects with a proven cost:benefit ratio, proposals tested by going through consultations and voted on by our elected representatives before being adopted in the London Plan, Borough Council Plans and the TfL transport plan.

    I am going stick my neck here again... when the decision was made by the then Mayor to give £30m of transport funding to the garden bridge this was the entire amount that TfL had at their disposal for any bridges anywhere in London. The only pedestrian bridge at that point that is adopted policy in both the London Plan and the local Borough Plans, and had planning consent already in place and was has a proven cost:benefit ratio independently verified by 2 separate studies undertaken by TfL and Wandsworth council was the Diamond Jubilee Bridge. This bridge could have been completed and open with change to spare at that time for less than the £30 assigned to the Garden Bridge.

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  • There's a former Mayor of London (now a cabinet minister and climbing) and some of his very senior and well remunerated former TfL employees, who should be held to account for their actions - inter alia - in favouring the Garden Bridge over the Diamond Jubilee Bridge.
    Politely asking them to explain themselves doesn't seem to work that well - it would seem to be easier to extract a monster fat berg from a London sewer than gain clarification of Garden Bridge matters from the hon. Boris Johnson..

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  • If the abandoned Garden Bridge design should be regarded as a "simple pedestrian bridge", as Paul Finch suggests, should we regard the Houses of Parliament to be a "simple public meeting hall"?

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