London Mayor Sadiq Khan blames everyone except Transport for London’s boss Mike Brown for the Thames Garden Bridge fiasco, writes Dan Anderson
If Boris Johnson, as London Mayor, tended to freewheel and improvise whenever confronted, we have – in Sadiq Khan – his opposite. Ever the lawyer, Khan has a talent for taking any question and deflecting it toward a carefully scripted answer.
On the thorny subject of the Garden Bridge, he has been consistent. When asked about this troubled project, he will always find a way to make the same points, viz:
1. No additional money was committed to the project since I became Mayor
2. I appointed Dame Margaret Hodge to conduct a thorough review of the project
3. TfL has obtained a legal opinion which confirms there is no basis to withhold any payments to the Garden Bridge Trust
And, of course, his favourite:
4. Boris Johnson did it.
So when the AJ’s Will Hurst had the opportunity to quiz the Mayor on the James O’Brien show on LBC radio last Friday, I wasn’t expecting to hear anything new.
But a funny thing happened.
The final spending report had just been released by Transport for London. It included a jaw-dropping £21.4 million for the contractor, Bouygues/Cimolai, because of a construction contract that was signed prematurely in February 2016, when the Trust did not own the land, did not have a full planning consent, and hadn’t raised enough money to build – let alone operate – the bridge.
Hurst started by acknowledging that none of the major spending decisions had anything to do with Sadiq Khan. They were all overseen by the previous administration. And he described it as ‘simply inexcusable for the previous administration to allow this contract to be signed’.
With such an invitation to lay into Boris Johnson, Khan could not resist departing from his script. He piled on with uncharacteristic candour:
‘I’d go further than that,’ he said. ‘Boris Johnson knew he would no longer be the Mayor in May 2016 and he rushed things through. He got things signed off, hoping it would reach the point of no return. That’s one of the reasons the timeline … leads to questions being asked and suspicions being raised. Why did he suddenly rush things through and break his own conditions?’
That acknowledgement from the Mayor that processes were rushed and conditions breached is new.
Yet, in a punchy exchange, Khan refused to be drawn into any criticism of the TfL officials whose fingerprints are all over that one bewildering decision that – all by itself – cost the taxpayer more than £20 million.
O’Brien neatly summed up the whole exchange with a single question: ‘Why is [TfL Commissioner] Mike Brown still in post?’
If that seems harsh on an unelected official, consider that Mike Brown is the one who sat shoulder-to-shoulder with the former Mayor in front of the London Assembly and volunteered – in response to no particular question – the opinion that, ‘I am convinced that there is a very legitimate and valid transport imperative around this project.’
When later interviewed by Margaret Hodge, he said: ‘In terms of all the transport imperatives in London … this would not feature in my top 100.’
What’s more, when it became apparent that the signing of the construction contract was a major factor in the project’s extraordinary level of expenditure, Brown did everything he could to dissemble, dodge and evade the questions put to him by the London Assembly. For a long time, his principal strategy was to suggest that the signing of the contract was the Trust’s decision and that TfL was contractually bound to make payments as a result. That is to say, it was all procedural and out of his hands.
There’s not a single individual from TfL who has ever had the gumption to say this was a mistake
Even if this wasn’t patently ridiculous on its face, we now have transcripts from the Hodge Review, minutes of the Garden Bride Trust Board meetings, mountains of internal correspondence and – most recently – TfL’s own legal opinion, which all point to the fact that TfL knew well in advance that the Trust was considering this move and had every opportunity to stop it. And there’s not a single individual from TfL who has ever had the gumption to say this was a mistake and shouldn’t have happened.
For anyone that has followed the many twists and turns of this sorry tale, it was five minutes of riveting entertainment. It was also very revealing. In all his answers, Khan shows how every line of enquiry, however abstruse or puzzling, eventually winds its way back to just one place – Transport for London.
Dan Anderson is a tourist-attraction expert who works at consultancy Fourth Street