Garden Bridge unlikely to raise enough private funding to protect the taxpayer, says official review

This bloody thing again. Image: Heatherwick.

Another month, another nail in the coffin of Boris Johnson’s last vanity project for London.

This week it’s Dame Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking and former chair of the Public Accounts Committee, who is calling for the Garden Bridge to be stopped. Dame Margaret was asked to review the scheme by Bozza’s replacement as London mayor, Sadiq Khan, last September, in which looked suspiciously like a step towards the long grass.

And would you believe it? Her report has found that n large but uncertain share of the cost looks likely to fall on the taxpayer, rather than the private backers we’d all been promised. She concludes that the whole thing should be halted until the promised finance materialises.

Here’s are some extracts from her report, annotated with my headlines.

The taxpayer contribution keeps on creeping upwards...

The original ambition to fund the Garden Bridge solely through private finance has been abandoned. Furthermore the goalposts have moved several times and each time the risks to the taxpayer have intensified.

As does the price...

Looking to the future, the costs of construction have escalated and are likely to increase further. What started life as a project costing an estimated £60 million is likely to end up costing over £200 million.

Those private investors are nowhere to be seen...

At the same time the Garden Bridge Trust has lost two major donors and has only secured £69 million in private funding pledges, leaving a gap of at least £70 million that needs to be raised for the capital investment. No new pledges have been obtained since August 2016.

And that ain’t likely to change....

At the same time I am sceptical that the Garden Bridge Trust will succeed in raising all the private capital monies required and I am firmly of the view that more public money will be needed to complete the construction....

...because not everyone in London is Joanna bloody Lumley...

The project has become very controversial with the public. If the Garden Bridge is not treasured by the public in the same way that it is by its creators, then the business model, based on raising private finance is far less likely to succeed. Philanthropists will be cautious about associating themselves with the project.

Last but not least...

I do not believe the Trust will secure the philanthropic support it needs to fund the ongoing management and maintenance of the Garden Bridge.

This last bit sounds dull but is, in some ways, the real kicker. Raising investment to build the thing is in some ways the easy bit: rich people like being able to point to a thing and think “I did that”. Persuading people to stump up so that someone can clean it and stop bits falling off is rather harder.

While we’re at it, there’s a moral hazard problem with getting private interests to fund the bridge now the state is involved. If the bridge isn’t happening unless investors stump up, and investors really want it to happen, then, well, they’ll have to stump up. But if it becomes clear that the state will plug the shortfall, what incentive is there for investors to get involved at all?

Dame Margaret’s conclusion is, basically, the whole thing should stop, until the private investment arrives:

“It would be better for the taxpayer to accept the financial loss of cancelling the project than to risk the potential uncertain additional costs to the public purse if the project proceeds.... I would urge the Mayor not to sign any guarantees until it is confirmed that the private capital and revenue monies have been secured by the Garden Bridge Trust.”

In other words, it’s better to accept that the £60m the taxpayer has already spent on the bridge was a total waste of money than to keep chucking money at it indefinitely.

The Garden Bridge Trust, quite naturally, disagrees. It replied with the following, pleasingly bitchy statement:

“We are pleased that Dame Margaret has finally published her report after six months of uncertainty.” 

“We will be studying the report in detail and seeking a meeting with the Mayor of London to discuss next steps.  The Trust remains as determined as ever to make the Garden Bridge happen which will bring huge benefits to London and the UK.”

See that? They’re as “determined as ever”. Well, for my part, I remain determined as ever to become a handsome billionnaire.


So is it dead? Is it finally, actually dead? Well, no, not yet. But it’s not looking very well.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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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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