GARDEN BRIDGE INQUEST: GBT CHAIR LORD DAVIES MANSPLAINS THE HODGE REVIEW

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After Sadiq Khan pulls guarantee Garden Bridge Trust reports huge response to new fund raising drive.

[Image:  thePipeLine]

As London Mayor Sadiq Khan turns off the financial life support for the London Garden Bridge, thePipeLine deconstructs what might be the Garden Bridge Trusts latest, and perhaps most egregious, public relations own goal.  The attempt by Garden Bridge Trust chair, and former Labour minister, Lord Mervyn Davies, to tell Dame Margaret Hodge where she went wrong with the review which spurred Mayor Khan to take action.

The Garden Bridge Trust has always existed in a world of public relations generated smoke and mirrors where the procurement process for the bridge, facilitated by former London Mayor Boris Johnson and friends, was absolutely open and fair and grateful Londoners cannot wait to queue to negotiate the corporate security to cross the river on a pair of copper clad planters, while clutching a copy of the Evening Standard.  Therefore it was no surprise to Garden Bridge watchers that, following the publication of what many journalists and independent observers described as a damning review of the project by senior Labour MP and former chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, Dame Margaret Hodge, Lord Mervyn Davies, the chair of the Garden Bridge Trust, published an angry response in the form of an open letter which you can read here.

However, in a misstep, which critics would argue is typical of the Garden Bridge Trusts frequently cloth eared public relations effort, the letter comes across as nothing less than an aggressive attempt to “mansplain” to Dame Margaret Hodge where she had gone wrong.  In the process Lord Davies missed out some crucial background information and commentary which thePipeLine adds to the GBT’s copy as part of our public service remit.

To avoid confusion our comments are in RED

And remember, under the terms of reference published by the Mayor’s Office Dame Margaret Hodge was commissioned to,

  • look in detail at whether value for money has been achieved from taxpayers’ contributions
  • investigate the work of TfL, the GLA and other relevant authorities on the Garden Bridge, going back to when it was first proposed.

 That’s all.

STARTS

Dear Dame Margaret

Garden Bridge review

I am writing to clarify a number of inaccuracies in your review of the Garden Bridge, published on 7 April 2017, and to query the validity of some of your conclusions, particularly where based substantially on your personal opinion or judgement and relying only on selective use of evidence. I am also copying this letter to the Mayor directly, so that he is aware of our concerns.

This is because your review of the Garden Bridge is dynamite and we need to discredit you PDQ.  That means we are going “Full Trump” and getting personal from the get go.   We accuse you of being incompetent and making it all up as you went along.  Oh and by the way;  we [and our political friends] know where Sadiq Khan lives…

I have highlighted below our main concerns about your conclusions, focusing only on matters relating to the work of the Trust.

We are only talking about the work of the Garden Bridge Trust because, as your review demonstrates so clearly, most of the distinctly putrid smell surrounding the Garden Bridge project itself actually comes from the former Mayor Mr Johnson’s office, Downing Street and Transport for London, all we at the GBT have done is take advantage of our friends in high places and splash the cash.

Public support and consultation
You say you “found a lack of connection to the local community south of the river”, citing the opinion of Kate Hoey MP to support your assertion that the Trust did not engage properly with the local community and that local views were treated with disdain.

It is unfortunate that you chose to ignore my letter of 1 December 2016, which set out the many and varied community engagement activities we have undertaken. Similarly, it would have been useful if you had asked us about our extensive consultation when we met. I would happily have taken you through the detail of the more than 50 occasions where local communities had the opportunity to engage in shaping the project. It is also worth noting that Ms Hoey was involved in consultation on the Bridge, specifically, chairing a major meeting with the Trust and CSCB tenants in September 2015. It is unfortunate that her involvement wasn’t viewed as providing a useful channel to local people, although of course she has refused offers to meet with the Trust on behalf of her constituents to gain a full understanding of the project and the details upon which we were consulting.

Without having conducted – and published – a valid survey exercise in coming to your conclusions on this point, we must reject your conclusions here in the face of the evidence of work done by ComRes in July 2015 which shows over three quarters of Londoners support the Bridge being built. It is worth noting that this work complies with the guidance and standards set by the British Polling Council and the Market Research Society for survey exercises.

Obviously you were not actually asked to look at our public engagement by the Mayor, just the financial and management aspects of the project, but we are going to try to move the goal posts and try to suggest that, even if the financial case for the Garden Bridge is a load of bollocks which TfL cobbled together after the event and the management of the project is a car crash, people have bought into the whole bucolic place to loiter Garden Bridge schtick, so that makes it all right.

On the subject on consultation, glossing over the fact that you were not asked about it, we will also ignore the fact that the Comres Poll, which we always quote because there are not any others which are so favourable to us, asked what might be seen as a leading question and did not mention the gifting of £60 million of public cash, the corporate security and overnight closures the destruction of trees and historic river views, or the fact the whole thing was cobbled together on the back of an envelope by some friends of the then Mayor Boris Johnson.  These omissions led one contributor to the Standard website to write,

“I’m a Lambeth resident, though not one of the few lucky ones selected to get a telephone interview on this project; and I’d far rather TfL spent the money on something practical and useful. How about repairing some of the neglected and horrendously cratered/potholed roads in central London which are both a danger to cyclists and damaging to motor vehicles? How about some air-con on the tube, which in this day and age it’s unbelievable they haven’t installed yet?”

 

If you had in fact intended to conduct your own informal polling exercise through this review, I question your decision to focus almost entirely on speaking to known opponents of the project. You did not meet with any of the project’s supporters nor did you meet with any of the project’s funders who plainly support the project. [Of course you want to speak to the anonymous supporters of the Garden Bridge Trust, but I am afraid you can’t?  They are anonymous you see.] In addition, you fail to explain that planning permission has been obtained, through democratic process, from both Lambeth and Westminster Councils. [Who we are absolutely sure were not in the slightest bit scared of the then Mayor Boris Johnson and the Chancellor George Osborne punishing them financially if they said no, or of possible legal challenges and judicial reviews from us at the Garden Bridge Trust].  We would have been very willing to put you in touch with local supporters of the project – residents, local employers, charities and others – if only you had sought to take a balanced approach to your informal survey.

But give us a bit of notice as both of our supporters are very busy.  One of them has a seat to win at the General Election and the other one has a new job editing our in house magazine, the London Standard newspaper.

By the way…Vroom!  Look at those goalposts shift again.  The terms of reference of the review was about the procurement and management of the Garden Bridge project and its use of public money.

Construction contract
When we met, we explained to you the basis of the Trustees’ decision to enter into the construction contract with the Bouygues Travaux Publics/Cimolai S.P.A Joint Venture.

So it is not our fault that you clearly did not believe a word we were saying.  Anyway, let me mansplain it again VERY SLOWLY.

Our contractor was working under a pre-construction services agreement, which is quite usual in the industry, in order to clear the conditions of planning and prepare for construction. The Trust entered into a fixed price (in GBP) contract with the Joint Venture, with the contractors committed to constructing the Bridge within budget and before the required completion date. Signing the contract allowed the contractor to engage a larger workforce to ensure all planning conditions were met in the timescale, thereby reducing the risk of cost escalation.

We will also ignore the fact that, as you point out, by entering into this contract when we did we might also have been trying to frontload the costs and make it more difficult for Boris Johnson’s successor as Mayor to kill our wonderful gravy train, project. 

We have always ensured that we had the necessary resources to meet our obligations and that there were exit points throughout. [Which is why we currently have a shortfall on the funds to complete the project of over £60 million and are nowhere near having the running costs of £3 million per annum covered either] Given that it is a highly specialist area, I am not clear how you came to your conclusion about this being a “risky and premature” decision without seeking expert advice or input, particularly as you said yourself during the meeting, “I’m not an expert on this”.

So as I said, let me mansplain the project REALLY REALLY SLOWLY AND VERY LOUDLY.

Related to the contract, you also cite Brexit and its impact on the exchange rate as a likely contributor to cost increase. This is incorrect and irrelevant. The contract is a fixed cost, lumpsum value, design and build contract in GBP, which means the risk of exchange fluctuation – whatever the cause – is with the contractor.

Not that we are suggesting that you are a bloody remoaner talking down the Country’s most imaginative transport infrastructure project!

Fundraising
You express scepticism over whether the Trust will be successful in finding donors willing to fund the project, though there is no evidence in your report to support this conclusion. As we explained when we met, we simply cannot approach funders when we are coping with the uncertainties created by third party delays, including your own review.

But you bastard!  You have suggested, with copious documentary and personal evidence, that the Garden Bridge Project has been a farrago of dodgy procurement and the perhaps cynical mismanagement of public money by a bunch of priviliged chancers, their pals, their hangers on and their appointees, which has seen potential donors heading for the hills now that it has been exposed.

At no point in your work did you seek to investigate the Trust’s fundraising activities further, or indeed meet with any of the Directors of our Fundraising Committee. You did not take the opportunity to receive a presentation of the project, its design, its rationale and its potential to provide sources of income. You report that the Trust has obtained no new pledges since August 2016, but fail to acknowledge that it was the following month that your review of the project was announced, which had a direct impact on fundraising activity.

[See above]

While you repeat your claims about philanthropists being unlikely to associate themselves with the project, you also fail to consider that the uniqueness and prominence of the Garden Bridge in central London makes it very attractive to corporate donors. It is disappointing that you did not choose to meet any of our existing funders – philanthropic or corporate – to understand their reasons for supporting this project and more broadly, what drives them to become involved in projects such as this.

But then it is not a surprise that you haven’t met our corporate doners and philanthropic funders as their lobbyists probably don’t lobby you as because you can’t dish out lucrative consultancy and construction contracts from opposition and you probably don’t get invited to dinner parties at the Johnson’s or the Lumley’s.

Your suggestion that the fact certain pledges are anonymous “significantly contributes to the fragility of the commitments” is unsubstantiated and incorrect. In fact, one of our most loyal supporters, who has underwritten our operational costs, is anonymous and wishes to remain so indefinitely. It is perfectly normal in the philanthropy and charity sectors for funders to stipulate anonymity for a variety of different reasons, including the desire to support a project away from the spotlight.

So the idea that our supporters might want to remain anonymous to avoid loss of face when the whole farrago collapses, to avoid scrutiny relating to possible conflicts of interest, or might be using their donations to offset tax, or indirectly to buy favours from leading politicians is utterly scurrilous, unfair and wrong, believe me, cross my heart…

Operations & Maintenance Business Plan
When we met, you had been provided with an outdated version of the Trust’s Operations and Maintenance Business Plan. We explained that the Business Plan is a live document going through various iterations and receiving input from external experts. I am unclear as to why none of this is acknowledged in your report.

Of course we admit that means you would have to update all the figures virtually every day as the gap between the sum we have actually  raised and the projected costs of the Garden Bridge grow change.

You make sweeping statements about the philanthropic sector. As noted above, it might have been useful if – prior to coming to such unfounded conclusions about their likely intentions and drivers – you had taken the opportunity to speak to some of our funders, particularly the one who has already contributed a £2m pledge to the Trust’s endowment fund.

£2 million, which is of course just enough to maintain the Garden Bridge for eight months at current prices.

You suggest the assumptions in the Business Plan are “ambitious to say the least when compared to the rest of the market” but provide little evidence of anything comparable to the Garden Bridge. The Business Plan has been put together following discussions with several institutions on the South Bank and surrounding areas. It includes a broad range of income streams and is
based on conservative estimates. It is also in line with the Mayor’s request to keep the Bridge open to the public as long as possible and keep the number of closures to 10 afternoons/evenings per year. It is a robust plan which we are confident will successfully cover the Bridge’s maintenance costs.

As this is a letter you can’t see me crossing my fingers behind my back as I write this and of course, the possibility that once the bridge is a done deal we would ask for additional closures on financial grounds has never crossed our mind.

Selection of Trustees
You claim that the choice of Trustees led to a lack of confidence and support in the Trust and the project but fail to provide any evidence of this. We explained when we met that in putting together the Board we developed a skills matrix and selected Trustees based on the skills and experience required on a Board with responsibility for delivering such a complex, high profile project.

This included recruiting in the owner of London’s only evening paper, The Standard, which just happened to be edited by a close friend of former Mayor Boris Johnson, Sarah Sands.  This provided the project with much needed journalistic nous and eliminated the need for us to publish an in-house promotional magazine and brochure, thus saving money to spend on the bedding plants.

You say it is unclear to you why a Trustee with involvement in a Business Improvement District is not conflicted by being on the Board, but having a trustee from Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB) would create a conflict. You did not accept our explanation but do not explain why.

The south landing point of the Garden Bridge is on land currently on a long lease to CSCB, which provides it with an income source (through, for example, pop-up events) which will be affected by both construction and operation of the Bridge.

A Business Improvement District is a defined area in which a levy is charged on all business rate payers in addition to the business rates bill. This levy is used to develop projects for the benefit of the local area. Northbank works with partners to deliver a range of projects to improve area-wide safety, sustainability and vibrancy. Investment has enabled daily activity to focus on, for example, reducing antisocial behaviour, support and advice for rough sleepers, and enhanced street cleaning.

All of which we need because would be very embarrassing for visitors to our high end corporate events to trip over piles of burger boxes, let alone poor homeless people, as they arrive.

I hope this makes the distinction clear, but for the removal of any doubt: a Trustee from CSCB would be conflicted as a Board member as we have been in detailed commercial negotiations to build on their land for over three years and the organisation will see a direct benefit from the Bridge. [Especially if TfL have to pick up the tab when we at the GBT cannot] There is a clear and obvious difference between this and having a Trustee who is also involved in the work of the Northbank Business Improvement District some of whose members are simply to be affected by the Bridge.

Like Trustee Alastair Subba Row, who chairs the Northbank Business Improvement District Freeholders Group.  As you say “This group promotes the regeneration of the area north of the river. According to the business case the North Bank is expected to benefit most from the creation of the Garden Bridge.”  and, oh shit…

Scope and methodology
The terms of reference for your review asked you “to assess the public sector contribution to the Garden Bridge project and whether value for money has been achieved; to investigate the conduct of Transport for London (TfL), the Greater London Authority (GLA) and other relevant authorities; and to set out any lessons that should be learnt in order to improve the conduct of potential and approved projects in the future”.

The terms of reference did not, as you asserted both in the report and in the media, include offering a recommendation on “whether building a Garden Bridge over the River Thames is a good idea” or whether the project should go ahead. But your report does of course make a clear recommendation. You also state that you worked alone with the part time support of a GLA official. There is no suggestion that you drew on any other expertise on any of the topics that the report covers. [In fact it is absolutely scandalous that Mayor Sadiq Khan appointed the MP with perhaps the most experience in interrogating how public money has been spent and mis-spent to review the Garden Bridge project] It is a great shame that, upon changing your position on offering a recommendation about the future of the project, your methodology was not also strengthened to offer a more appropriate level of technical expertise to provide a robust evidence base upon which to ground your conclusions. Because of this, we simply cannot accept your recommendation. Rather, as the Mayor has said consistently, “the taxpayer will be better off if the bridge is built” and the many benefits of the project delivered, which would of course also mean that the £20m loan is repaid.

You still can’t see my fingers crossed behind my back.

A report of this type would typically set out the reasons for selecting the people you have consulted. This is absent from your report and it is clear from your published list that you have engaged with a very selective – largely opponent – audience. I would like to offer a single, but significant, example of where your work might have benefited from additional technical advice. [So let me mansplain it again really, REALLY REALLY SLOWLY, VERY VERY LOUDLY and UNDERLINE IT WITH BIG PEN] Value for money is a technical concept with specific methodologies for making relevant assessments that generally involve a detailed exercise with large teams of experts from a variety of disciplines. TfL’s Strategic Outline Business Case considered the upfront commitment of £30m each from DfT (via HM Treasury) and TfL and was prepared using the agreed standards and format for business cases, as set out in HM Treasury’s Green Book, which provides guidance for public sector bodies on how to appraise proposals before committing funds to a policy, programme or project.

[Which is why the senior civil servants at the Department for Transport in Whitehall insisted on Garden Bridge funding guarantees being subject to a written Ministerial Direction from transport secretary  Sir Patrick McLoughlin after “Officials from the department advised ministers against increasing the department’s exposure…”.]

Since the May 2014 business case was considered and published there has not been another Green Book business case commissioned, so I am unclear about the evidence upon which your finding is based. To put it bluntly, it does in fact appear to be based almost entirely on your own opinion and the word of others who have expressed a view, rather than on the word of those with technical expertise in this field.

Following our meeting it was clear to me, as I wrote in my letter of 1 December 2016, that this was a huge and complicated task for one person and that you needed additional technical and other resource to master the complexity and scale of the project. It is regrettable that no such resource was sought.

Which once again is why I have been forced to mansplain these issues to you at such length.

Report publication
Finally, 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.

As I said we are going Full Trump in an attempt to attack and discredit you personally.  In fact, what we are most pissed off about is that you chose to publish this in a way which prevented us having a word with Yevgeny and Sarah over at the Standard which would have allowed us to get our PR retaliation in first.

Yours sincerely
Lord Davies of Abersoch
Chairman, Garden Bridge Trust
Cc. The Mayor of London