Courtesy Thames Central Open Spaces after the Garden Bridge Trust [Fair Use for News Reporting]
The threats to our historic environment don’t just come from rapacious developers and unscrupulous treasure hunters. Neither are Government cutbacks and the indifference to the past of many politicians with an eye on the future always to blame. Sometimes all you need to do the damage is a group of, apparently well meaning, amateurs. Amateurs who might be dismissed if they did not have the knack, luck, or connections to find the ear of the media, politicians and people with more money than taste or sense. The origins and conduct of the bidding process which has led to the controversial grant of planning permission for the £175 million so called “Garden Bridge” over the River Thames at Waterloo, is a case in point. Indeed so many are the questions surrounding Joanna Lumley and designer Thomas Hetherwick’s brainchild that the project was taken to Judicial Review by local resident Michael Ball of the pressure group Thames Open Spaces. Earlier this week the threat of the Judicial Review was withdrawn, thanks to the Garden Bridge Trust apparently offering a legally binding guarantee to Lambeth Council that the Trust would provide a guarantee of the Bridge’s running costs for the lifetime of the project. However, many questions still surround the process by which the bridge scheme was allegedly fast tracked through the planning process, oiled by the support of London Mayor Boris Johnson, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and £60 million of public money found somewhere down the back of the austerity sofa in No 11 Downing Street. Meanwhile this weekend confusion surrounds the decision, signed by Mayor Johnson on Thursday [4 June], which apparently commits the Greater London Authority to guaranteeing the running costs of the bridge, rather than the Garden Bridge Trust itself. A decision which was met with fury and the promise to investigate the possibility of further legal action by Mr Ball.
The public face and apparent driving force, of the Garden Bridge project has been actor and since her performance as vodka and champagne pickled fashionista Patsy in “Absolutely Fabulous” tabloid national treasure, Joanna Lumley. Now it must be said, talented and committed to good causes such as Gurkha rights as she is, Ms Lumley is not well known for her expertise in civic planning, transport, architecture, construction, conservation and the historic environment. Neither is her designer Thomas Hetherwick. Of course that does not actually matter. Everyone is entitled to come up with a bright idea and to try to convince other people of its viability. There are experienced professionals in the various agencies, local and national, which service developments, whose remit includes protecting that environment from inappropriate and unsustainable development [and perhaps those who propose such developments from themselves]. The problem comes when the politicians at the top of the food chain who you approach to green light your master plan show all the signs of not needing that much convincing and occupy positions of power which control the budgets and even the jobs, of the professionals who should provide the checks and balances which are designed to protect the public purse and our shared historic and natural environment.
“…it is doubtful that a pair of giant copper clad planters linked by a pavement were at the top of Transport for London’s infrastructure wish list”
By her own account Joanna Lumley’s brainchild of a garden bridge for London dates back to the late 1990’s, but it was finally given shape by artist Thomas Hetherwick and the bridge scheme was first presented as a private sector gift to the people of London [and perhaps more particularly the tourists, millions of whom, it was argued, would flock to use it and presumably buy the souvenir tee shirt and overpriced ice cream]. Of course there was the small obstacle of planning permission and funding. Modern London does need bridges and river crossings both east and west of the City of London, but such schemes should justify themselves as part of an integrated transport policy, in a climate of fiscal austerity. In that context it is doubtful that a pair of giant copper clad planters linked by a pavement were at the top of Transport for London’s infrastructure wish list. However, soon after his reelection in 2012, Ms Lumley picked up the phone to London mayor Boris Johnson. In placing the call she probably did not have to go through the switchboard and get past the Mayor’s gatekeepers because, as she told Alan Yentob of the BBC “I’ve known Boris since he was four so he’s largely quite amenable” and so Mr Johnson proved. [ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01df5ym ].
Transport for London [TfL] then carried out, what critics argued, was a cursory procurement process where only two other potential contractors were approached for a new [but previously unannounced] pedestrian river crossing between Temple underground station and the South Bank; Marks Barfield Architects and Wilkinson Eyre, designers of the Stirling Prize winning Millennium Bridge at Gateshead. Of course neither of the potential rival bidders had available the fully fledged scheme for just that location which Lumley/Hetherwick were able to submit to TfL. Thus, while both rival practices, were more experienced in building bridges than Mr Hetherwick’s design studio, neither of them got the gig. Next, Westminster and Lambeth Council’s pushed through the planning application when the Garden Bridge Trust, of which Joanna Lumley is also a member, said construction had to be completed by 2018 to avoid problems with the barge traffic carrying spoil from tunneling for Thames Water’s massive and equally controversial, 15-mile Thames Tideway Tunnel project.
No bikes and no sandwiches
However, as the scheme progressed and the planning process coupled with Freedom of Information requests forced increasing amounts of background material into the public domain, it became clear that significant amounts of public subsidy would be required, to the tune of £60 million of the construction costs. The Garden Bridge Trust also obtained the commitment of Mayor Johnson to secure the cost of running the bridge from the public purse if the Garden Bridge Trust did not manage to raise the annual running costs, estimated to be in the region of at least £3.5 million per year. That was the subject at the core of the Judicial Review. It has also emerged that, in return for that subsidy, the public would not only have no right of way across the bridge, as they do over every other bridge across the river Thames, the bridge will also be closed overnight between midnight and 06.00 and at various other times for “corporate events”. The garden bridge effectively sets a precedent for privatising the crossing of the river and the view of the City of London skyline, including St Paul’s cathedral. The bridge blocks the current view of the City from upstream.
Anyone hoping to cross will also find they are not even be allowed to stop for a picnic as they would be able to in any of London’s other Parks, nor will they be allowed to cross in a party of more than eight without registering in advance and forget Mayor Johnson’s dream of a cycling London, there is no cycle lane so it is get off and push time amid garden designer Dan Pearson’s bijou woodland glades. It is not known if the Garden Bridge trust are afraid that cyclists might run over some of the Garden Gnomes.
Osborne’s Choice: MacGardening jobs on the Garden Bridge over Real Scientific Jobs at Kew Gardens
Of course Mr Pearson is a fine and award winning garden designer, he has just won best in Show at the 2015 RHS Chelsea Flower Show, so he probably would not use gnomes as part of his design anyway, but here the critics argue he has just 2,700 sq m of growing space to play with. That is around half a football pitch for the birds, bees and windswept mid river planting. Also not helping the bridge’s green credentials are the thirty mature trees on the South Bank which will be felled to make way for a “…flexible structure to accommodate a number of uses,” or as it would probably become, the souvenir shop and cafe. Trees which stand on and adjacent to one of the few remaining green spaces on that part of the South Bank
Meanwhile a genuine, internationally important, scientific and heritage asset and hugely popular tourist attraction, the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, currently faces a £5.5 million deficit in its budget thanks to the Osborne cuts programme. Kew Gardens has already lost 47 core science posts belonging to people doing genuine research. Effectively Chancellor Osborne has chosen to promote a handful of MacGardening jobs at the Garden Bridge rather than the support the kind of research which can repay the relatively small investment it requires many times over.
This string of restrictions, the backdoor subsidies from both the Mayor’s office and Chancellor Osborne, the fudged environmental case [or alleged lack of it], and the sense that the whole thing would not have got further than the pretty CAD images, from, it is alleged, highly selective angles, on Mr Hetherwick’s computer, had it not been for the allegedly inappropriate level of support from old family friend of Ms Lumley, Boris Johnson himself; all lead to allegations of the project’s increasing number of critics that the Garden Bridge is nothing more than the twenty first century version of an eighteenth century folly. In this narrative the Garden Bridge is an unnecessary, ungreen, vanity project and corporate toy, promoted by the privileged and well connected while the taxpayer and London council tax payer, supplies the safety net. A folly which has, critics argue, such a flakey business plan and budget that Mr Hetherwick’s design could soon find itself reshaped, given tusks and a trunk and painted white. Probably also at the public expense
Joanna Lumley has also been an outspoken campaigner for the rights of the Gurkha people of Nepal. Given the recent serious earthquakes which killed over eight thousand people and did so much damage to Nepal’s fragile environment, infrastructure and internationally important Buddhist heritage, some might also think there are more important things to campaign about and raise cash for at the moment than an unnecessary, corporate bauble. A bauble where you won’t even be allowed to stop and eat a sandwich with a few friends while enjoying a majestic view of the looping River Thames and City of London skyline including the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. A majestic view which the structure you are standing on has denied everyone else enjoying a walk upstream of the new bridge next to London’s wonderful river.
“A blot on the beautiful river, Canaletto would be horrified.”
The title of the BBC Culture Show package which discussed the Garden Bridge was called “The Unstoppable Thomas Hetherwick” and Mr Heatherwick’s achievements are many, including the Olympics Cauldron and the styling of another of Mayor Boris Johnson’s controversial projects, the re-boot of the iconic Routemaster bus. Even so, with the legal agreement on running costs enforceable in the Courts, campaigners had hoped that the Garden Bridge Trust would be forced to raise the additional funding required to guarantee the estimated £90 million of maintenance costs over the life of the bridge. Indeed, Richard Stein of solicitors Leigh Day, who acted for Michael Ball in bringing the Judicial Review, explained the implications of the agreement between the Garden Bridge Trust and Lambeth Council which ended the initial threat of Judicial Review saying
“Without this guarantee which the Garden Bridge Trust will now be required to provide, this burden for what was supposed to be a private project would have fallen on the public purse.”
However, the ink was scarcely dry on the agreement with Lambeth Council when on 4 June Mayor Johnson executed a sidestep worthy of Lionel Messi and signed “Request for Mayoral Decision MD1472”, which approved the Greater London Authority’s provision of a guarantee “…to secure the ongoing maintenance of the Garden Bridge” to both Westminster and Lambeth Councils.
A furious Mr Ball told the Observer
“A few weeks ago, the mayor categorically stated that no more public money should go into the garden bridge. Then on a Friday afternoon he quietly slips out a ‘guarantee’, which could cost Londoners £90m or more to pay for the exorbitant running costs of this private vanity project long after he has gone…We will carefully study the reasoning and legality of this decision, with the intention of returning to the high court if necessary to challenge it.”
Campaigners against the bridge remain hopeful that even with Mayor Johnson and the Chancellor’s support, sourcing further funding will prove difficult, as they allege that, even with all that public subsidy, the Trust already has a shortfall of £50 million on its initial target. They also point out that such was the strength of the case in the Judicial Review, that Lambeth Council agreed to pay all Mr Ball’s legal costs.
However, the Garden Bridge Trust is about to hold a fund raising gala dinner in the Georgian Restaurant at Harrods which will be turned into “…an enchanting secret garden…” for the event. The venue has led to speculation, voiced in the Observer, that the Garden Bridge trust might be seeking funding from the Middle East, perhaps even from Qatar Holding, the investment branch of the Qatar Sovereign Wealth Fund, the owners of the famous Knightsbridge store.
There are two problems here. Firstly Mayor Johnson is already facing severe criticism for what his critics see as his sometimes overly close relationship with mega rich foreign investors from the Middle East and China and the number of tower block developments along the course of the Thames which their cash has built and which many local people and amenity groups regard as overbearing, anti-social and intrusive ramparts cutting off Londoners from their river and historic and much loved, views. Second there is the growing shadow of the FIFA scandal and the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, with its accusations, denied by Qatar, that the process was corrupt and has now led to the reported ill treatment of thousands of foreign workers, including many Nepali’s and the deaths of dozens, building the World Cup stadia.
Given that the Garden Bridge trust is already in public relations trouble over the the supply of copper cladding by the mining conglomerate Glencore, which has been accused of and denies, a catalogue of environmental and human rights abuses including the dumping of raw acid and the use of child labour [http://www.theguardian.com/business/2012/apr/14/glencore-child-labour-acid-dumping-row] , the idea that the Garden Bridge can only be completed with what many would regard as tainted money might be too much even for some of the Bridge’s supporters, let alone the public. It could even make the Bridge yet another magnet for anti-corporate protest.
There is a further problem. Even if the Trust manages to overcome these obstacles and perceptions to obtain the full funding required to complete the project, a second, unrelated, move could yet scupper the Bridge, or at least severely effect the Trust’s timetable. Lambeth Council have designated the area of grass and trees on the South Bank where the Bridge would land an “Asset of Community Value”. This blocks the simple leasing or sale of the site and allows community campaigners to mount a rival bid if the Garden Bridge Trust does attempt to buy the site later this year. Of course, no landing place no bridge- unless the Garden Bridge Trust decides to adopt Plan B and build a pier of planters sprung from the North Bank instead.
People will make their own minds up as to whether the right word to describe the Garden Bridge is Picturesque, or, as critics would argue, Grotesque?
Unless the latest actions of the Garden Bridge Trust and Boris Johnson, force Mr Ball, or others, to return to the Courts, we may never know if a Judge would have agreed with a comment left on the website asking for donations towards the cost of the Judicial Review which argued that the legacy of a genuinely world class artist would be tarnished because the bridge was
“A blot on the beautiful river, Canaletto would be horrified.
However, Mr Oliver Caroe, the Surveyor of the Fabric of St Paul’s Cathedral was horrified and wrote to Westminster Council during the planning process regarding the damage the bridge would do to the existing protected views stating
“Your own report spells out the harms, not just to the protected views from Waterloo Bridge and the South Bank but also to incidental views (both at day and at night) that London currently freely enjoys,” He also noted that the authorities at St Paul’s had not even been consulted.
However, English Heritage, [now Historic England] were more sanguine. The Independent newspaper reported Mr Tim Jones, the Principal Inspector of Historic Buildings and Areas for London, as stating
“We believe that the introduction of this bridge… will change but not cause harm.” adding “The bridge… would be a picturesque addition to the riverscape.”
People will make their own minds up as to whether the right word to describe the Garden Bridge is “picturesque”, or, as critics would argue, “grotesque”?
Even if they were wrong nobody at English Heritage/Historic England wanted to pick a fight with the two Conservative Party heavyweights .
There is a deeper concern at the stance taken by English Heritage/Historic England. That is that after a series of bruising encounters over other planning applications dating back to the failed attempt to list the Broadgate Development next to Liverpool Street station, when then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt conspicuously ignored English Heritage’s advice to list the site and Chancellor George Osborne ostentatiously donned his Hi Vi to attend the subsequent breaking of ground of the replacement building, stating London was open for business, English Heritage/Historic England has become risk averse. Critics argue that, even if they were wrong, nobody at English Heritage/Historic England wanted to pick a fight with the two Conservative Party heavyweights, Heavyweights who are in charge of planning policy in London and the purse strings of the new Historic England at a national level, Mayor Johnson and Chancellor Osborne. The timing was especially sensitive as at the time when the Garden Bridge was being steered through the planning process English Heritage and its staff were in a state of transformation and flux and the budgets and remit for the new Historic England were still under negotiation with the Exchequer and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It is also pointed out that Historic England has been given a specific remit by the Government to “promote sustainable development,” rather than promote the conservation of the nation’s heritage.
Given all this there is no question that the Garden Bridge Project is now highly politicised and both Bridge watchers, and Boris watchers, will follow with interest the efforts of the London Assembly to scrutinise the project as well as Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake’s ongoing series of Parliamentary questions seeking to find out more about precisely how much contact there was between Joanna Lumley and her two principle political cash cows, Mayor Johnson and Chancellor Osborne and their officials. As David Cameron once said, lobbying will be the next big scandal and as the full story of the Garden Bridge emerges, as it undoubtedly will, not least thanks to the efforts of of Mr Ball and his supporters, the actions of Mr Cameron’s would be successor and fellow Bullingdon Club member at City Hall may well show he was right.
Sometimes you just have to say no
Meanwhile an earlier incarnation of Ms Lumley’s big idea, a Princess Diana memorial bridge, was brilliantly parodied by the arts and architecture collective FAT [Fashion, Architecture, Taste].
In that version a garden bridge recreating the family home of the People’s Princess at Althorp Park undulated across the Thames from bankside to St Paul’s Cathedral, with the lyrics of Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind” bathetically inscribed on the balustrades.
There will be many who would suggest that had Ms Lumley had phoned him up to pitch FAT’s idea, the Mayor would probably have given that piece of satire his uncritical support too and George Osborne would still have bunged it the odd £30 million of public money.
After all, you don’t argue with a National Treasure, as Labour ministers found when Ms Lumley took up the case of the Gurkhas. Even though sometimes, logic, fiscal common sense, the environment and a sense of the common good all argue that you should.
After all, as anyone who has ever visited that other London institution, and corporate cash generator, Hamley’s toy shop on Regent Street, knows; sometimes when a child points at a big expensive toy and says “I want”, you just have to say “No.”