The London Assembly’s new report on the £53 million scandal is right that blame does not lie solely at Boris Johnson’s feet writes Dan Anderson
Is that it? Is it all over?
It was in May 2012, that Joanna Lumley wrote to then-London mayor Boris Johnson ‘to talk most earnestly about the idea of a BRIDGE!’. It has taken seven years to reach a sense of finality to this misadventure and even that seems oddly unsatisfying.
Today, the London Assembly published the latest and possibly the last instalment in the niche genre of Garden Bridge investigation. It follows audits, reports and reviews by Transport for London (TfL), Ernst & Young, HM Treasury, the Charity Commission and, perhaps most memorably, by MP Margaret Hodge.
The mission statement for this report is broadly set out in its subtitle: ‘Holding the mayor to account and investigating issues that matter to Londoners’. The report is halfway successful in that mission. It is certainly as complete an investigation as anyone could expect. But for reasons beyond the assembly’s control, it still fails to hold anyone accountable. That’s astonishing for a project that essentially wasted over £40 million of taxpayer money.
Having followed the Garden Bridge saga as closely as anyone over the past seven years, I have three main takeaways from the report.
If the Garden Bridge project has achieved nothing else, it has usefully pointed to vulnerabilities in London’s governance
First, the report is meticulous, with painstaking command of the granular detail that lies beneath the shambles. This likely reflects the fact that members of the Garden Bridge Working Group – notably Caroline Pidgeon and Tom Copley – have been so assertive in challenging this project from the start. If you are not quite ‘tired of experts’, it is especially worth reading the section that seeks to explain how the Garden Bridge Trust was allowed to sign a construction contract when it still didn’t own the land, have a full planning consent, or enough money to actually complete the project.
There are some frustrating omissions. It doesn’t explain why the Garden Bridge Trust failed to exercise the break clauses in the construction contract, which were meant to provide some measure of risk mitigation. It doesn’t touch on the fact that the key decision-maker at TfL was en route to a new job at Arup (the bridge’s engineer) even as he signed off on some of these enormous handouts. It doesn’t unpick the detail of a £20 million TFL ‘loan’ that was really just a grant in disguise, or take TfL to task for years of unnecessary evasion and obfuscation. But that’s just nit-picking.
A second observation is the report’s reluctance to lay all the blame at Boris Johnson’s feet. This will surprise some and frustrate others, but the working group deserves credit for that. Consider that all the financial damage was done in Johnson’s second term as mayor. It must have been so tempting for the working group – in which the GLA Conservatives declined to participate – to produce yet another Boris-bashing tome. (And don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the phrase ‘Jennifer Arcuri + Garden Bridge’ was Googled at some stage). But they showed remarkable restraint, focusing less on Johnson’s egomaniacal quest for a monument and more on the systemic failures that gave free rein to his worst instincts.
Indeed, the blame is parcelled out equally between City Hall, the Garden Bridge Trust and TfL. But that is unfortunately as far as it goes. While the report makes a series of recommendations for improved systems and safeguards at Transport for London, it still falls short of any real accountability, mostly because any further investigation would require summons powers that the London Assembly just doesn’t have. It could not even compel the participation of Garden Bridge trustees who signed all the cheques, much less the private firms who cashed them.
If the Garden Bridge project has achieved nothing else, it has usefully pointed to vulnerabilities in London’s governance. Transport for London is a monstrous bureaucracy, with a £10 billion budget and almost no serious oversight. That it could take such extraordinary risks and make such obvious mistakes and then escape with barely a slap on the wrist is something that should continue to concern us all.
Among the many recommendations of the report is the suggestion that the Public Accounts Committee launches its own investigation. I am sceptical that they will, but they should – if not to relitigate the Garden Bridge fiasco then to improve the way that London is governed in future. The Garden Bridge has exposed a gaping flaw in the way the GLA family was originally set up – a weakness in the relationships between the Mayor’s Office, City Hall and TfL that allows these highly paid public officials to run amok. That weakness needs to be fixed or this will happen again.
Dan Anderson is a tourist-attraction expert who works at consultancy Fourth Street