The Garden Bridge Trust issues new picture of its “Visitor Hosts” and Security Staff in training on a mock up of the Bridge.
Newly elected London Mayor Sadiq Khan, has promised to “let the sunshine in” on the controversial Garden Bridge Project, promoted by national treasure Joanna Lumley and designer Thomas Heatherwick. As part of that promise rays of sunshine are falling on the business plan of the Garden Bridge Trust, published along with numerous other documents relating to the project, by the Greater London Authority [GLA]. The plan sets out to demonstrate how the Garden Bridge project is financially viable and sustainable. However, close analysis of the published figures and tables reveals that the plan contains a number of questionable assumptions as regards income projections and also hints at potential future contingencies which includes developing the kind of modern contactless payment technology which would facilitate the easy imposition of a toll to cross the bridge at some point in the future.
In a document which , of its nature, is full of numbers, the first figure to note is one which the reader has to work out for themselves.
- That is that the largest donors to the private project are UK Tax payers and London Council Tax payers who have contributed £60 million between them, split 50:50 between the Treasury and Transport for London. For that investment Lambeth Council get paid an annual impact charge of £250k in return and TfL may get its “loan” back, after fifty years.
- There is also a shortfall of at least £30 million in the funds raised so far to service the overall budget of £175 million. This is concerning since major capital projects almost always suffer from cost overruns, and will lead to further fears that the project will have to be bailed out by the tax payer.
- The next hidden figure is that over a third of the major donors to the Garden Bridge Trust are anonymous, including one donation of £10 million from a “confidential company” and three other loans totaling £14 million also from “confidential” companies. Anonymous individual donors have contributed a further £7.75 million. Given that the Garden Bridge Trust is a charity, running a highly controversial project, using a minimum of £60 million of public money, this raises significant issues of transparency and is something the members of the London Assembly will almost certainly want to explore at Mayors Question Time.
The Garden Bridge Trust also confirms that it estimates that the Bridge will attract 7 million visitors per year. That is “visitors”, not commuters on a pedestrian river crossing which is what Transport for London originally asked candidates to tender for [although as is now known from a series Freedom of Information Act requests from the Architects Journal, Mayor Boris Johnson had wanted the Heatherwick/Lumley Garden Bridge all along, and fixed the process to procure it]. That same figure of 7 million potential visitors is mentioned again in the offer to would be caterers.
Those visitors will be assigned to four broad time periods. However, it does not take an expert in tourism and crowd behavior to realise that the bulk of those visits will take place during the Summer Peak period. It follows that, while if demand were even across the year the Garden Bridge would receive some 19,000 visitors per day, the actual numbers of visitors during the summer peak periods will be hugely in excess of that figure, all on a bridge with a capacity of 2500 people at any one time.
Of course it is also precisely the summer peak periods when corporate clients are also most likely to want to hire the Garden Bridge. Even with the reputation of the British summer for endless damp disappointment, it is still safer to schedule an outdoor event between June and August. As a result it is certainly possible to foresee a series of closures for events, coupled with periods of uncomfortable crowding and queuing during the summer peak.
Of course it all comes down to the Garden Bridge Trust needing to cover the running costs for the project. When it comes to generating income for this purpose the Garden Bridge Trust first proposes an endowment fund to cover running costs for the Bridge. The business plan released by City Hall states proudly that 10% of the £15 million fund has already been supplied by one donor. Of course that indicates that 90% of the fund has still to be raised. A fact which probably indicates why one of the last acts of Boris Johnson as Mayor of London was to agree what has been criticised as a sweetheart deal for the Garden Bridge Trust, reducing the amount of money the Trust had to raise in advance to cover costs and guaranteeing that the Greater London Authority would act as guarantor of these costs if the Trust failed to raise the cash. A report to the Mayor by the GLA’s head of governance and resilience Tom Middleton admitted that Boris Johnson’s decision: “increases the risk that the guarantees will be called upon during the first five years after the bridge is completed”.
There are other issues threatening the ability of the Garden Bride Trust to deliver corporate events capable of attracting a hire fee of as much as £60k.
The business plan talks about the opportunity for corporate clients to hire the Bridge for a “drinks reception” or “dinner”. However, for sixty grand your average corporate client wants more than just the opportunity to hand out a few glasses of fizz and canapes on a windswept platform- sorry the “south podium”. They demand atmosphere and entertainment. That in turn means technical support and complicated logistics. Something the Trust admits in the business plan;
“…the Trust acknowledges that all events will require a specific event plan to be agreed by the relevant licensing committees and safety advisory panels. This will include details of the event timings, number of guests, temporary infrastructure and a delivery schedule if required, and an emergency management plan (if different from standard operations). Deliveries will be subject to the agreed servicing and delivery arrangements and will consider local impacts to minimise disruption and maintain public safety.”
Anyone with experience of organising open air events will recognise that as almost certainly a description of at least one day of significant disruption on the South Bank per event on the Garden Bridge, and probably more, as events are prepared, secured, serviced and de-rigged.
By its nature the Garden Bridge has just two access points on the North and South Banks respectively and the infrastructure of a modern corporate event, high end catering, bars, and state of the art lighting sound and even pyrotechnics, take time to set up, rehearse, inspect and licence. Even with the use of existing infrastructure and pre-positioned power outlets and other services, it would be pushing staff very hard to create the kind of environment demanded of an up market, corporate event, including shelter from the elements, within one twenty four hour cycle, as the Garden Bridge Trust envisages, let alone in the course of an evening as the Garden Bridge “Mythbuster” states. Particularly as such tight schedules tend to push up costs because the organisers would be forced to throw money at the various challenges presented by the tight schedule.
The issue of costs is significant because, buried in Annex 2 of the Garden Bridge business plan, is a revealing set of tables comparing the various tariffs proposed by the Garden Bridge Trust with those of other iconic venues for corporate events. You can hold your corporate bun fight at the National Portrait Gallery for £22k, while the Natural History Museum will set you back £20-25k. You can have the Shard for less than that. Between £15 and £20k, depending on whether you book an off peak or peak time slot, buys you the most spectacular views in London, and you are in the warm and dry. The Garden Bridge however will set you back an eye watering £50-£60k. This leads to the obvious question; Is the Garden Bridge’s Unique Selling Point [USP], the fact that it is a garden, of sorts, on a bridge, enough to justify clients paying a £25k premium to see a view of St Pauls and the City of London which all Londoners currently get for free?
Cynics would say the choice is a no brainer because it essentially comes down to whether you prefer to take your champagne and vol aux vents surrounded by dinosaurs or white elephants. Perhaps with an added frisson of fin de Régime.
In a now notorious interview with the Guardian, Joanna Lumley described the Garden Bridge projects as a gift from:
“Tremendously kind and rich people to give a garden to people who maybe never had a garden.”
Leaving aside the fact that those people who maybe never had a garden are paying at least a third of the costs of their own “gift”, it is also the case that any such corporate event taking place on the Garden Bridge will be a brightly lit, securely guarded, advertisement for the combination of privilege and financial muscle,within a political chumocracy, which conceived the Bridge, and , as repeated reports have found, rigged its procurement.
As such the bridge represents a potential flash point for the political tensions which undoubtedly exist in the Capital. The published security arrangements for the Garden Bridge, in particular the stipulation that groups of more than eight people should pre-book, certainly suggest that the security risk assessments for the Garden Bridge Trust include the possibility of demonstrations, including the possibility of the bridge, and perhaps both ends of the bridge, being taken over or blockaded by demonstrators.
This is not a suggestion for direct action or law breaking, merely an observation that it is well known to anyone who studies military history that the preferred way to attack any long structure, a convoy of vehicles, or a bridge, is to take on both ends at once. However, running with that idea does conjure up the image of some sort of corporate Dunkirk with boats arriving to evacuate the besuited, bejeweled and ball gowned great and good from the Garden Bridge, as the sons and daughters of Swampy and Class War discuss Marxist dialectic with the CO20 Territorial Support Group of the Metropolitan Police.
“The trust wish to be at the forefront of any new digital technology options for ‘giving’ and is in discussion with leaders in this field.”
Perhaps this vulnerability of the income projections to the crowded market in high end venues, bad publicity [the rows over procurement have already tainted the project] and the weather, is why the business plan contains a potential fall back position which, were it to be put into action, would be highly controversial. The Garden Bridge Trust is committed to developing the kind of technology needed to impose a toll on users of the Garden Bridge, although for now it is dressed up as a system for voluntary donations.
The Garden Bridge Trust has observed that;
“Market trends are showing that the public are moving towards the ‘digital collection tin’. With the use of cash declining, a digital collection option offers an easy method for a visitor to make a small contribution by way of thanks for their visit.”
As a result;
“The trust is in conversation with several providers. The facility that we are proposing will enable visitors to make a £2 contactless donation with any bank card. This will offer an easy, accessible way for visitors to make a contribution to the charity.”
An indication of just how important this income stream is, according to the five year projection in Figure 26 of the Garden Bridge Trust business plan, income from “Contactless Public” is the largest single item, being projected at £700k per year for the first five years of the operation of the bridge.
Of course, with London’s transport infrastructure now fully contactless and Transport for London supposedly procuring the Garden Bridge as a pedestrian link between Temple Tube station and the South Bank, it does not take a genius to see that it would be an easy leap for a Garden Bridge Trust which was failing to meet its income targets to turn a £2 “donation” into a £2 toll to cross a bridge which is semi integrated into TfL’s charging system.
This is precisely what has happened to Boris Johnson’s other infrastructure love child, the Emirates Air Line cable car, running between the O2 Millennium Dome and the Excel Centre. A journey few people needed to make and which could be done more cheaply on the Tube, which is now promoted to tourists as a “Discovery Experience” by TfL, with the £3.50 single adult fare payable by contactless and Oyster card, but sitting outside the daily fare cap.
In the past, when challenged over the possibility of introducing a toll the Garden Bridge Trust has simply fallen back on the stock politician’s answer that;
“It is not the trust’s intention to introduce an admission charge.” [Our Italics]
Of course commuters crossing London’s river can always practice swiping in and swiping out on the other bridges over the Thames, in the existing Jubilee Gardens, Whitehall Gardens, Victoria Embankment Gardens and the Temple Gardens, and on the South Bank; except of course they can’t, those bridges, parks and walks, all close to the Garden Bridge site, are free.
In fact, if you are a Freeman of the City of London you can even drive your sheep across London Bridge, but oddly, there is no mention of sheep in the Garden Bridge Trusts list of the thirty activities which are banned. So perhaps that’s all right then?
“…no visible means of support”
Mayor Sadiq Khan has disappointed many people by not cancelling the Garden Bridge immediately upon taking office. Instead he has made various demands including that;
“I expect the Garden Bridge Trust to ensure that the bridge be closed fewer days each year for private fundraising events and fewer hours when they do.”
However, there may be a strategy behind the comment.
It is not so simple to kill a modern construction project where contracts and agreements already exist, certainly not without the risk of expensive and protracted legal action. It is certainly possible that by insisting on conditions which he can demand legally, but which the Garden Bridge Trust cannot meet easily, that Mayor Khan is creating the situation where the Trust is forced to kill its own project because it simply ceases to be economically viable. Of course that outcome depends on Mayor Khan sticking to his guns and the Garden Bridge Trust failing to come up with a credible business plan, or the hard cash to pay for the new conditions. A strong possibility given the financial case for the Garden Bridge is questionable and with an increasing risk that the Greater London Authority would be forced to bail out the project within five years, as Tom Middleton told Boris Johnson,. Certainly the Garden Bridge trust was less than pleased with the Mayors demand for fewer, shorter closures, with a spokesperson telling the Guardian;
“We share the mayor’s desire to have the bridge open to everyone for as long as possible. Balancing this and the need to raise the required private funds to operate the bridge is important.”
That was code for: force this on us and we cannot make the project work as an income generating tourist attraction.
Campaigners will also hope that Sadiq Khan understands something which Boris Johnson and Joanna Lumley forgot, or simply did not care about.
That is that ever since the days of the Bishop of Winchester’s notorious stews of Southwark, Elizabethan Theatreland and the Vauxhall Pleasure Garden, the South Bank of the Thames has been a place where Londoners go to eat, drink, have a good time and perhaps be a little bit naughty. This fixing of the South Bank place as a location for popular fun was cemented by the Festival of Britain, designed by the post war Labour Government to lift the spirits of a nation rendered depressed and grey by years of post war austerity. Now, it is becoming even more clear that the Garden Bridge Trust has badly misjudged the zeitgeist and is seeking to so organise the fun with its “visitor hosts” and private security who can demand your name and address for a boss who can track your mobile phone, that the fun ceases to be fun.
Certainly the publication of the business plan for the Garden Bridge has made it clear that, amid another of time of austerity, not only does the Garden Bridge Trust stand accused of attempting to privatise, corporatise and regulate the people’s pleasure alongside their own river; like the famously futuristic “Skylon” which once stood outside the Royal Festival Hall, it has no visible means of support.