“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.

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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