Ordinary Londoners mourn the loss of the Garden Bridge
Less than a month ago, on 8 April  Mayor of London Sadiq Khan published the long awaited review of the procurement of the London Garden Bridge authored by Dame Margaret Hodge and the Garden Bridge Trust were not happy. By 28 April the Trust was even less happy as Mayor Khan announced that, as the review recommended, he would not sign the financial guarantees offered by his predecessor, effectively killing the project. As the architect of the dodgy procurement of the Garden Bridge, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, fights his seat in the General Election thePipeLine brings you up to date on the story of the brainchild of the former London Mayor’s babysitter Joanna Lumley and her man with a plan, designer Thomas Heatherwick.
To its proponents, and not least its two principal cheerleaders, former Mayor of London and his former baby sitter and national treasure, actor Joanna Lumley, the London Garden Bridge was meant to be a copper clad, bucolic oasis of calm in central London. In the former Mayor, and current Foreign Secretary’s words, it was to be the perfect place for a romantic assignation, or to sneak a crafty cigarette. However, to its opponents the bridge is a giant corporate cuckoo, in the guise of a charitable trust. To take a cinematic metaphor, the Garden Bridge is Megatron, the evil foe of the Transformers film franchise, a giant metallic monster, spewing out crowds of tourists who are capable of devouring the atmosphere of what is currently a quiet tree lined area of the South Bank of the Thames. An area which also offers the same majestic view of the river, St Paul’s Cathedral and the City of London which was so memorably painted by Venetian master Canaletto. Worse it is a Megatron deliberately put in place by a cabal of Decepticons in the former Mayor’s office and at Transport for London. Decepticons with faulty memories and an apparent inability to keep the minutes of important meetings at which the spending of ten of millions of pounds of tax payers money are decided.
However, every noisy Transformers epic has its hero, an Optimus Prime, coming to the rescue in the final reel and in what campaigners against the project hope may be the final twist in the saga of the of actor Joanna Lumley and designer Thomas Heatherwick’s corporatised, public cash devouring, love child, that role is taken not by Historic England, nor any of the other official bodies which are supposed to guard the environment of London and supply the checks and balances in the planning process. Instead the peace, trees, views and buskers on the South Bank are safer because of the good old fashioned investigative journalism of Will Hurst of the Architect’s Journal and the tenacious campaigning of a loose consortium individuals and community groups, all of whom believed that the proposed Garden Bridge linking Temple Tube station with Waterloo was a bridge too far. A campaign which has led to the publication of a damning Review of the Garden Bridge Project by respected Labour MP and incisive former Chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, Dame Margaret Hodge.
The review, which was commissioned by current London Mayor Sadiq Khan, is a scrupulously fair, but utterly damning catalogue of faulty processes, poor to non-existent documentation of formal meetings and the equally faulty memories on the part of a number of senior members of former London Mayor Boris Johnson’s staff. As a result Mrs Hodge recommended that Mayor Khan declined to sign financial guarantees which would underwrite the ongoing running and maintenance costs of the Garden Bridge. It is this recommendation, coupled with Mayor Khan’s promise that no more public money will be committed to the project, and the running down of the clock before planning permission for the Garden Bridge expires at the end of this year , which led most commentators to conclude that the Garden Bridge project is effectively dead even before Mayor Khan announced that he would indeed refuse to sign the financial guarantees for the ongoing running costs of the Garden Bridge which had been put in place by his predecessor Boris Johnson.
Even if the business case for the Garden Bridge had not been cobbled together after designer Thomas Heatherwick and consulting engineers Arup’s had already been appointed, and the Mayor and Chancellor had announced £60 million in funding, as the Hodge Review has shown beyond any doubt, the financial case for the Garden Bridge was always highly suspect. Not least the claims that the bridge would be funded by the kind of donors who Joanna Lumley described and kind and generous rich people, a number of whom were so shy in their generosity that they chose to remain anonymous [Thus circumventing any investigations regarding potential conflicts of interest or other ethical issues; not that anyone connected with the Garden Bridge Project has anything to hide of course].
Now, as Margaret Hodge states, the Garden Bridge Trust’s own figures prove, costs are rising rapidly and could end up with the project costing “north of £200 million”. To compound the potential disaster the Garden Bridge Trust has added no new donors since the Autumn of 2016 and has indeed lost two significant donors who had pledged around £16 million which has not been replaced. Not only that, the miasma of scandal surrounding the project is now even more toxic than central London’s polluted air, so the chances of attracting the largesse of yet uncommitted extremely kind and generous rich people are about as good as you selling your 2007 diesel Volkswagen for anything other than razor blades once Mayor Khan has instituted his planned Ultra Low Emission Zone.
Neither did Mrs Hodge fall into the trap of swallowing the so called “sunk costs fallacy” which Mayor Khan appeared to have taken on board in the early months of his mayoralty. That is the concept that so much money has already been spent that it would be better for the tax payer to continue to underwrite the project. This idea is dismissed with this curtly pragmatic statement,
“In my judgement it is better for the taxpayer to accept the loss than to risk the additional demands if the project proceeds. In the present climate, with continuing pressures on public spending, it is difficult to justify further public investment in the Garden Bridge.”
In reaching this conclusion the Hodge review lays out a string of well sourced accusations, but at the root of the review of whole disaster is the subtext that it all came about because one person, Mayor Boris Johnson, treated London as his private fiefdom and chose to indulge his friends and pet designer with commissions like a Borgia Prince. However, one of the more minor bastard Borgia Princes with little taste and even less shame.
At least Cesare Borgia was able to employ Leonardo Da Vinci. The best Boris Johnson could manage was Thomas Heatherwick, a designer who, whatever his talents, nobody had suggested is possessed of a superhuman creativity for the Ages, but who does have a talent for designing giant installations which have to be demolished because they try to harpoon passers by. Less the B of the Bang than the A of the Hab.
Boris de Medici then involved and was in turn indulged by his political and university chums, including Chancellor George Osborne who bought into the greenwashed business case for the bridge and committed a further £30 million of tax payers money, strong armed against civil servant’s advice from the Department for Transport.
The essential chumocratic nature of the project is summed up in a comment from Richard de Cani, the TfL official in charge, quoted by Mrs Hodge,
“There was pressure from the political side at City Hall and from the Government for this to carry on.”
The political side at City Hall reached directly back to the big boys on the political side of the river in Whitehall.
An example of the consequences of this style of political governance by chums and their appointees is provided by the saga of the contract for the building of the Garden Bridge which the Garden Bridge trust signed with construction giant the Bouygues Travaux Publics and its partner in a joint venture Cimolai S.P.A . In spite of then Mayor Johnson writing to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne in reassuring him that ,
“We have agreed the requirements that the Garden Bridge Trust will need to meet before TfL and Government funding for construction can be released, which include demonstrating that they have secured the balance of funds necessary for construction from other sources.”
the Garden Bridge Trust was still allowed to front load the costs of construction, signing the construction contract in January 2016, while still tens of millions short of raising the full costs. An action on the part of the Garden Bridge Trust which Margaret Hodge finds remarkable, but not in a good way. She writes,
“I am shocked that the Trust entered into this financial commitment with so many issues unresolved and it is astonishing that the Mayor, TfL or the Department for Transport did not stop the Trust from signing this contract.”
Many suspect that this was a deliberate strategy put in place with a view to making it more difficult for anyone, such as Boris Johnson’s successor, to cancel the copper clad gravy train. Mrs Hodge says so explicitly,
“In my view based on the evidence I have seen, the decision was both risky and premature. It seems that there was an incentive to get the project to the point of no return.”
The review also revealed that even if, as is now almost certain, the Garden Bridge is cancelled the principle players have already trousered a substantial cash bung to sooth their disappointment. By April 2015 Consulting engineers Arup’s had been paid £8.4 million for not building the bridge, while by November 2016 the Heatherwick Studio had banked a cool £2.6 million, all courtesy of the tax payer and all perfectly legal and correct.
Mrs Hodge concludes,
“Others at TfL to whom I talked accepted that they knew what was happening, that regular meetings between the Trust and TfL were taking place and noted that the Government was consulted and City Hall regularly briefed on the letting of the construction contract. They were all responsible, informally or formally, for taking substantial risks by allowing the contract to be signed, for taking an over-optimistic view on the ability to raise further private finance and secure the necessary permissions and therefore for putting the public funding at greater risk.”
In response to the publication of the review London Mayor Sadiq Khan issued a holding statement in the form of a letter to Mrs Hodge, in which the Mayor apparently decided to run down the clock on the Garden Bridge yet further as he took the time to look at the “extremely serious questions” the review raised and at the same time he re-iterated his commitment not to spend any more public money on the project. A promise he put into effect formally on 28 April, writing in a letter to Trust Chair Lord Mervyn Davies,
“The funding gap is now at over £70 million and it appears unlikely that the Trust will succeed in raising the private funds required for the project. I am simply not prepared to risk a situation where the taxpayer has to step in and contribute significant additional amounts to ensure the project is completed.”
It is now clear to campaigners that a project which began almost twenty years ago as a £60 million tribute to a People’s Princess, Diana Princess of Wales, the memory of whom is rapidly fading into history, has now transformed itself into a bloated Megatron of a political vanity project. Worse it is a project where the decepticons in the Mayors Office and at Transport for London played fast and loose with the norms of project procurement and is likely to end up costing well north of £200 million. It follows that all but the most die hard of the project’s supporters are likely to accept, and even demand, that it was high time that Mayor Sadiq Khan turned off the project’s intravenous drip of public cash and allowed Thomas Heatherwick and the great and the good of the Garden Bridge Trust to move on to their next visionary venture. Preferably one well away from the South Bank and self serving politicians with too ready access to tens of millions public money.
However, there remains the issue of how to deal with those elected and appointed officials directly responsible for waiving through the Decepticon cuckoo and then even as their responsibility was being exposed for all to see, stuffing its maw with yet more taxpayers cash?
In spite of Margaret Hodge’s demolition of Boris Johnson’s conduct of the Garden Bridge procurement it remains to be seen whether the questions raised are powerful enough to result in Mr Johnson and his former staff at City Hall and TfL facing further investigations and possible charges.
There will be many, not least the campaigners against Joanna Lumley’s copperclad decepticon, who will ask, if the throwing away of almost £50 million of public money at a time of austerity, food banks and cut backs, not least in London’s parks including the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, is not enough to see those responsible in Court facing charges of malfeasance in public office and potential surcharges to repay the cash, then what is?
Responding to the initial publication of the Hodge Review, the Garden Bridge Trust issued the following statement,
“Commenting on the publication of the report by Dame Margaret Hodge MP into the Garden Bridge, Lord Mervyn Davies, Chairman of the Garden Bridge Trust, said:
“We are pleased that Dame Margaret has finally published her report after six months of uncertainty. We will be studying the report in detail and seeking a meeting with the Mayor to discuss next steps. The Trust remains as determined as ever to make the Garden Bridge happen which will bring huge benefits to London and the UK.”
A spokesperson for the Garden Bridge Trust confirmed initially to thePipeLine that “…the Trust has no further comment to make at this time.”
However, after a few days increasingly bloody headlines, the Trust decided to go Full Trump and rather than respond to the criticism, attack the probity of the Hodge Review directly. Former Labour minister and Chair of the Garden Bridge Trust. Lord Mervyn Davies, was weaponised in an open letter and was then deployed on the Today Programme and other news outlets.
However, the final paragraph in the Davies letter exposes the real concern Garden Bridge Trust,
“..I found your approach to publication of the report discourteous, particularly as the Trust was a willing participant in your review. I understand that some interested parties, including journalists, had early insight into publication, while those with responsibility for delivery of the project were not offered the same courtesy, having no warning of either the publication of your report or your decision to alter the scope of your recommendations. This put the Trust in a position by which we were unable to provide timely briefing of our funders and key stakeholders.You will understand the importance of our relationships with such critical supporters of the project and, for someone with your extensive experience in the public sphere, I find the lack of respect and disregard for the impact of your findings unacceptable.”
Translated into human, the Garden Bridge Trust was saying,
“We are really, really, pissed off because you showed the whole Garden Project is nothing but financial smoke and mirrors, built on foundations of dodgy procurement in Boris Johnson’s chumocracy, of the kind which could have our funders heading for the hills and you did not allow us the chance to try to spin our way out of this PR disaster of our own making.”
Saved, the historic view down river towards St Paul’s Cathedral and the City of London
Meanwhile visitors to the South Bank can continue to enjoy the trees and the views painted by Canaletto, while Boris Johnson represents Great Britain on the World Stage as Foreign Secretary, for the time being at least.
In another twist to the shameless tale, former Chancellor and Garden Bridge bagman, George Osborne, has been appointed editor of London’s evening newspaper the Standard. That is the same Standard whose previous editor Sarah Sands, is a personal friend of Boris Johnson and whose owner was closely involved with the Garden Bridge Trust so that, as Margaret Hodge observed,
“Throughout my review, the only people to express support for the Garden Bridge were the Trust itself, the Evening Standard and Boris Johnson who wrote that “I remain a fervent believer in the Garden Bridge”.
And surprise surprise, in George Osborne’s first edition of the freesheet as editor, Thomas Heatherwick was given an oped column opposite the main editorial to bemoan the fate of his Megatronic cuckoo and offer the touchy freely conclusion that,
“Public projects are always difficult and need leadership. It is always easier to stop an unusual new idea than to make it happen.
I firmly believe it will happen one day. I just hope we don’t have to wait too long.”
But wait for what?
In perhaps the most damning comment in a report which is full of any number of potentially career ending comments, Margaret Hodge records that this glittering assembly of the great and the good at the top of London’s political, social, governmental and cultural heap and the people who worked for them, could not even agree on what the Garden Bridge was for. As she records,
“It is my view that there was no agreement among those to whom I talked about the purpose of the Garden Bridge.”
In other words indulging the former mayors “fervent belief” in the vision of his babysitter has almost certainly cost the tax payer £46.4 million and Boris Johnson and his team could not even be bothered to work out what the Garden Bridge was for.