“If 2016 was the Year of Bullshit, then the Garden Bridge could be its monument”

That bloody bridge again. Image: Heatherwick Studios.

There have been many articles dedicated purely to criticising the Garden Bridge.  This is not one of them. This piece is also about bullshit.

Back in February 2016, I wrote an article that the editors at CityMetric boldly titled, “On Bullshit and the Garden Bridge”.  In critiquing the project’s business case, the article borrowed liberally from philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s 1986 essay, On Bullshit. Frankfurt’s essay was reprinted as a bestselling book in 2005 and was followed in 2006 by its companion piece, On Truth.  Both works warned of the creeping danger of a society that could no longer distinguish between fact and fiction, and which was rapidly losing its traditional respect for truth and accuracy. 

Shortly after that article was posted, the Brexit campaign gathered steam.  Soon, we were buried in an avalanche of bullshit from both sides. Next, we could only watch in stunned disbelief as the United States elected  a President whose whole campaign was built on a platform of unapologetic bullshit.  Bullshit became so pervasive in 2016 that it had to be re-badged and normalised as “post-truth politics”. For all the dead celebrities and political cataclysms, I will remember 2016 as the year in which Frankfurt’s horrifying prophesy became a daily reality.

And if 2016 was the Year of Bullshit, then the Garden Bridge could be its monument.  

Now, look, I’m not suggesting that you can draw a line from Joanna Lumley through Boris Johnson to Donald Trump.  I’m not so foaming-at-the-mouth opposed to the Garden Bridge to think that these are issues of comparable importance.  To suggest any equivalency between a Garden Bridge and a Trump presidency is like comparing a minor aggravation with Armageddon. 

But to consider the concept of bullshit in the context of Brexit or Trump you’d have to dive headfirst down a rabbit-hole of nuance and complexity.  By comparison, the Garden Bridge is nice and simple.  It’s a bridge with a garden on it.  There is nothing remotely complex about it.  The bullshit is there for all to see.

If the Garden Bridge was, at the beginning of 2016, a signal of the almighty monsoon of bullshit that was about to rain down on us, then it is entirely fitting that the project should provide, by year’s end, a textbook example of the stuff.  An instructive bookend to a bullshit year.

A conflict of interest

That’s what happened on 20 December 2016, when the Architects’ Journal published the allegation of a huge conflict of interest at the heart of the project.  Through the intrepid sleuthing of editor Will Hurst, the AJ obtained correspondence between the Garden Bridge Trust, Transport for London (TfL), and the Department for Transport (DfT) during that critical period between January and February 2016 when the Trust chose to sign a construction contract for the Bridge.  The execution of that contract released a further £7m of public funding and would eventually expose the taxpayer to another £9m of cancellation costs.

Central to the story was Richard de Cani, who was TfL’s managing director of planning at the time.  The correspondence shows De Cani assertively trying to persuade a hesitant official at the DfT that the Trust had satisfied the conditions needed to trigger the next tranche of funding.  The conflict of interest stems from the fact that De Cani was simultaneously serving his notice period, having already informed TfL that he was leaving to take a senior role at Arup – the engineering firm that is also a major contractor for the Garden Bridge.

The most sinister aspect of Hurst’s article, however, was not the revelation itself, but the resulting response from Transport for London.  Here is TfL’s full comment:

“Richard de Cani, as managing director of planning at TfL, led our involvement in the Garden Bridge and was required to continue doing so during his notice period. Any suggestion of improper involvement in relation to the Garden Bridge is completely unfounded.

“The bridge’s construction contract is a matter between the Garden Bridge Trust and Bouygues TP Cimolai.

“Our funding agreement with the Trust requires us to make grant payments once certain milestones have been reached, one of which was the signing of the construction contract. We have kept the DfT informed of these payments because of their financial contribution to the project.”

Right there.  That’s bullshit.

And you have to call it that because it is technically not a lie. It’s actually 100 per cent accurate.  It’s also completely misleading.  It’s a clever bit of misdirection – a robust, unequivocal answer to a question that nobody asked.  It’s a terrific example of what Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post famously described as the “non-denial denial” – a carefully crafted statement that sounds like a clearcut denial, but really isn’t. 

The TfL statement alludes to a clause on page 38 of the Funding Agreement with the Garden Bridge Trust that reads as follows:

“Sums to be paid by TfL to the Trust for construction activities will be paid in yearly instalments as set out in the payment profile.  Payments will commence upon award of the main construction contract…”

On the face of it, TfL’s response to the AJ article is technically true.  Execution of the construction contract for the Garden Bridge did trigger the automatic release of the next tranche of public funding.  The impression created by the statement is that, irrespective of any perceived conflict of interest, De Cani could not have acted improperly because his actions were determined by the terms of an existing agreement. Once the Trust took the critical decision to sign the construction contract, TfL was bound to honour the terms of the agreement and De Cani’s employment status was therefore irrelevant.

The trouble with TfL’s statement – what makes it dishonest even if it is technically accurate – is not in what was said, but in what was judiciously left unsaid.  Because the quoted excerpt above – the bit that TfL wants us to focus on – is not the complete wording of the relevant clause in the Deed of Grant. 

This is how that section reads in full:

“Sums to be paid by TfL to the Trust for construction activities will be paid in yearly instalments as set out in the payment profile.  Payments will commence upon award of the main construction contract subject to the following Conditions of Payment:

  • The Trust has demonstrated to TfL’s satisfaction that it has secured, or is able to secure, a sufficient level of funding, including the Grant from TfL, to cover the costs of construction of the Garden Bridge;
  • The Trust has demonstrated to TfL’s satisfaction that it has secured, or is able to secure, all the necessary consents needed to deliver the Project;
  • The Trust has demonstrated to TfL’s satisfaction that an appropriate project ‘go/no go’ gateway review has been passed, including proper assessment and management of risks;
  • The Trust has demonstrated to TfL’s satisfaction that it has appropriate plans in place for the operation and maintenance of the Garden Bridge;
  • The Trust has demonstrated to TfL’s satisfaction that it has secured a satisfactory level of funding to operate and maintain the Garden Bridge once it is built for at least the first 5 (five) years of operation; and
  • The Trust has demonstrated that these funds will only be used in respect of the construction of the Garden Bridge.”

These conditions discredit the idea that the decision to release another £7m of public funding was a merely procedural action that was beyond manipulation by an official that may have been in a conflicted position.  Repeated use of the phrase “to TfL’s satisfaction” gave TfL the authority and the responsibility to make subjective judgements as to whether or not the Garden Bridge Trust had done enough to de-risk any further investment in the project.

The conditions were there to protect the taxpayer. They were meant to ensure that the taxpayer's exposure to potentially abortive pre-construction costs was limited. Indeed, their intent was to avoid precisely the type of public spending debacle that we are now witnessing.

Under the circumstances, it is perfectly legitimate to query whether individuals at TfL were acting in the best interests of the taxpayer or in the interests of the project and its contractors.  That’s the nub of the issue that Transport for London dodged with its bullshit statement.


A New Year’s Resolution

I could write a whole other article explaining how the Garden Bridge Trust was not even close to meeting all its funding conditions and why it should never have signed that fateful construction contract in the first place.  But my New Year’s resolution is to stop being so mouthy about the Garden Bridge.  I’m pretty sure the project is all but doomed already and all the criticism is starting to feel a little bit churlish.  Like I said: this article isn’t really about the Garden Bridge. 

It is the practiced fluency with which Transport for London tried to bullshit its way out of an embarrassing corner that is the real cause for concern at this point.  The allegations made by the Architects’ Journal are serious and damning and TfL’s response was wholly inadequate.  Although technically truthful, career journalist Dan Froomkin of The Intercept still describes the non-denial denial as “fundamentally an act of deception”.

It is symptomatic of an organisation that trivialises public trust and fails to take responsibility for its actions.  A government agency that controls such large budgets and oversees such an important aspect of London’s economy should be held to the highest standards of honesty, transparency and accountability.  It should not be allowed to skate through any crisis with a hollow and misleading statement that goes unchallenged.

If we can salvage anything from the political wreckage of 2016 it should be a better nose for bullshit – and a zero-tolerance policy for those who deal it.

Dan Anderson is an economist and a director at destination consultants Fourth Street.

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On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.