“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.

 
 
 
 

Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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