“An eye-watering waste of public funds”: so what went wrong with London’s garden bridge?

Awwww. Image: Arup/Heatherwick.

With one swift blow, London mayor Sadiq Khan confounded plans to construct a leafy walkway above the River Thames. By refusing to guarantee further public funds, the mayor leaves the Garden Bridge project with a funding gap of some £70m, and a countdown of just eight months until planning permission expires. The Conversation

The Thames Garden Bridge project has already used £37.4m of public money, and the government’s agreement to underwrite cancellation costs could bring the taxpayers’ bill up to £46.4m. But while these are staggering sums, they are small compared with the risks – and the losses – which could have been incurred had Khan not pulled the public purse strings tightly shut. In doing so, the mayor drew a line under a saga which has given rise to series of allegations of imperfect processes and conflicts of interest, which risked soiling the integrity of the public service.

The project was first conceived by British actor Joanna Lumley who – together with product designer Thomas Heatherwick – sought support from her friend and then-mayor Boris Johnson, in May 2012. Initially, the project was to be privately funded, with the design and location to be developed over the months to February 2013 with engineering firm Arup. When fundraising efforts failed to procure financial support, Johnson made a commitment to kickstart the project with public money.

Not your typical public tender

It was not until much later that it was officially recorded that the board of Transport for London (TfL) - the statutory corporation responsible for London’s transport network – was made aware of the full cost, scope, risk or remit of this proposal. There had been no real business case made, no policy need identified and no groundswell of public support for any such proposal. Nevertheless, the project was ostensibly put out to public tender in February 2013.

Although the procurement had only invited parties to analyse, appraise and consult on a need and location for a pedestrian and cycle crossing, the submission from Heatherwick Studios provided a polished vision of the Garden Bridge and its location, primed for public consumption. Heatherwick’s team won the bid, under the authority of then-TfL director of planning Richard de Cani. In a theatre of revolving doors, he subsequently resigned and was later appointed by Arup. TfL and the Department for Transport denied suggestions that de Cani had a conflict of interest.

The business case was eventually completed in May 2014 – long after the project went to public consultation in November 2013 and appeared, with Treasury support, in the December 2013 National Infrastructure Plan. In a clear departure from accepted protocols, central government (by using ministerial directions) and TfL agreed to fund the project, to the tune of £30m each, on the understanding that forthcoming private donations would make up the shortfall. A charity called the Garden Bridge Trust was established to oversee the project’s execution.


Ballooning costs

By mid-2014, the project’s costs had escalated from £60m to £175m – over seven times the cost of the £24m Millennium Footbridge, which links St Paul’s Cathedral to the South Bank. Questions and concerns were repeatedly raised by London Assembly Member Caroline Pidgeon, Will Hurst of The Architects’ Journal and myself from Project Compass CIC (a procurement intelligence service). These, alongside community opposition from Thames Central Open Space, protests by London artist Will Jennings and critiques of the business case by Dan Anderson of Fourth Street Studios were repeatedly dismissed by the mayor.

Finally, following a request for an internal TfL audit, the Greater London Assembly (GLA) oversight committee took evidence. This clarified the many inappropriate issues with the procedures and procurement process, and resulted in a cascade of revelations, leading to the most recent inquiry. Commissioned by current mayor Khan and undertaken by MP Margaret Hodge. The vanity project was roundly condemned on all fronts, and the mayor called upon to cancel any further support.

What started life as a project costing an estimated £60m is now projected to cost over £200m. The Garden Bridge Trust only secured £69m in private funding pledges, leaving the gap of at least £70m. No new pledges had been obtained since August 2016. Now, with Khan’s announcement, it is to be hoped that this shocking waste of public money will come to an end. The allegations which have dogged the project must now be investigated and brought to account, so that trust in public service may be restored once more.

Walter Menteth is senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.


Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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