Having pledged shortly after his election to ‘let the sunshine in’ on TfL’s murky Garden Bridge procurement, London Mayor Sadiq Khan is showing no sign of launching the real investigation he promised, says Will Hurst
Back then, Khan was pledging to scrap the Heatherwick Studio-designed project, calling it ‘another of Boris Johnson’s white elephants’ which did not provide public value for money. A year ago, while campaigning to be mayor of London, Sadiq Khan called for a ‘proper investigation’ into the procurement of the Garden Bridge following revelations made by the AJ.
Things have certainly changed since then. Not only has Khan been elected, he’s also become a reluctant supporter of the £185 million project – chiefly it seems because with around £40 million of public money already spent, he’s concluded that it would cost Londoners more to cancel construction of the bridge than it would to build it.
Whether or not you agree with his analysis (critics say it an example of throwing good money after bad or the ‘sunk cost fallacy’), you can see where he’s coming from. Psychologically, at least, it is difficult to accept the writing-off of such an eye-watering sum with nothing to show for it.
But this doesn’t explain Khan’s shameful failure to make good on his promise of an investigation into the project’s procurement. After all, the bridge itself and the bureaucratic process by which its designers were appointed are two separate things. And, just as the cost of the Garden Bridge project has steadily mounted, so have questions about the fairness and the legality of the two 2013 Transport for London (TfL) contests that saw Heatherwick Studio and Arup appointed.
On this, Khan seems to say one thing and do quite another. A year ago, when the AJ showed him a leaked TfL audit report on the procurement, which was far more critical than the published version, he positively leapt on it, claiming a ‘whitewash’ had taken place.
The document, he said, raised serious questions about the process and suggested that TfL’s own rules had been ‘repeatedly broken’.
He concluded: ‘Boris Johnson urgently needs to explain why this report was whitewashed and by whom. And the project needs to be shelved until we have a proper investigation into this mess.’
As MP Kate Hoey said last week, we are talking here about a project that has set a ‘dangerous precedent’
He made a further call for ‘full transparency’ a month before his election, and shortly after it made yet another promise in an attempt to distance himself from the murky behaviour of his predecessor, saying ‘the early days of this project clearly fell short of our expectations on transparency’, and pledging to ‘let the sunshine in’.
At that stage, Khan did publish the previously undisclosed business plan for the Garden Bridge alongside a list of its funders but – four months on from his grand announcement – not even the merest glimmer of mayoral sunshine has illuminated its shadowy political gestation.
And as MP Kate Hoey said last week during the Commons debate she instigated on the Garden Bridge, we are talking here about a project that has set a ‘dangerous precedent’ by evading the normal scrutiny reserved for publicly funded projects because it is being delivered by a charity and is thus outside the purview of the National Audit Office.
Thanks to this, as well as the mayor’s broken promises, it now falls to TfL’s external auditor, Ernst & Young, to investigate. The same Ernst & Young that is a founding donor of the Garden Bridge Trust. So where exactly is the sunshine, Sadiq?