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US Presidents can sign “Presidential Pardons” as they prepare to leave office. President Bill Clinton signed 140 on his last day including one for his brother who had been imprisoned for drug offences and another for a former congressman accused of bank fraud, 12 counts of sexual assault, and obstruction of justice. London Mayors do not enjoy such exotic powers, but they do have powers of influence and patronage which they too can continue to exercise until their last day at City Hall. One area in which such powers can be displayed is planning, and in what many critics will see as a last ditch attempt to ensure that the controversial Garden Bridge in central London is a done deal before he leaves office in two weeks time, it emerged this afternoon that London Mayor Boris Johnson has removed the condition that the Garden Bridge Trust must raise five years worth of running costs before the Greater London Authority [GLA] would act as guarantor of the bridge’s upkeep. The Trust is now required merely to demonstrate a “satisfactory funding strategy”. This is no mere administrative fix. Boris Johnson’s move will be seen as both reneging on a previous commitment not to let the running costs of the Garden Bridge project become a drain on the public purse, and as a challenge to Labour Mayoral Candidate Sadiq Khan, who will almost certainly come under pressure from campaigners to say he would reverse the Mayor’s decision in order to prevent a further drain on resources at a time when the Government’s austerity programme is biting deeply into London’s services, including its parks and open spaces.
In the past Mayor Johnson went on the record as saying that the;
“…maintenance costs [of the Garden Bridge] will not be borne by the public sector”
However, a City Hall report which paved the way for the Mayor’s decision admits that removing the stipulation that the Garden Bridge Trust should obtain a;
“…satisfactory level of funding to operate and maintain the Garden Bridge for at least the first five years from its completion.”
was an action which would almost certainly;
“…increases the risk that the guarantees will be called upon during the first five years after the bridge is completed.”
In a worst case scenario, the financial collapse of the project, which has so far failed to reach its funding target of £175 million in spite of an injection of £60 million in loans and grants from the Transport for London via the GLA, and the Treasury, would see the Garden Bridge taken over by the Greater London Authority with all its costs falling to the Council Tax payers of London.
Critics of the controversial Garden Bridge plan, which has been promoted by actor Joanna Lumley and designer Thomas Heatherwick, will see the Mayors move as just the latest in a series of sweetheart deals and examples of preferential treatment granted to the project. However, this new risk to the public purse also poses a particular dilemma for Labour Mayoral Candidate Sadiq Khan who initially opposed the Garden Bridge on grounds of cost to the public purse, only to reverse his stance, ostensibly after those costs were reduced by converting a £30 million grant from Transport for London to the Garden Bridge Trust, into a repayable loan.
Indeed, whoever wins the mayoral election on May 5, Mayor Johnson has effectively handed the next Mayor less a Garden Bridge than a poison chalice, or bottomless money pit.
Mayor Johnson’s decision will also embarrass Labour Leader of Lambeth Council, Lib Peck, who had backed Mr Khan’s position.
When the agreement to limit the contribution to funding the Garden Bridge from Transport for London was announced in November 2015 Ms Peck said:
“I’m pleased we’ve successfully agreed a deal that will cut London taxpayers’ contribution towards the Garden Bridge by two-thirds.”
While just last week Lambeth Council’s scrutiny and oversight committee voted narrowly, five to four, to endorse a change of use for public land on the South Bank which will enable the south landing of the Garden Bridge to be built.
However, causing that embarrassment may be the point, at least in part. While Mr Johnson is no doubt keen to secure the Garden Bridge Project which he has championed as part of his “legacy” as Mayor, Mr Khan is currently maintaining a healthy lead over Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith in the opinion polls. It follows that the Conservative campaign team would probably also welcome any issue which might put Mr Khan and the Labour Party on the defensive and in supporting the Garden Bridge they could probably also count on support in the pages of the London Evening Standard, the owner of which, Evgeny Lebedev, is recorded as a “Governor” of the Garden Bridge project.