On the naked entitlement of Thomas Heatherwick

That bloody bridge. Image: Heatherwick/Arup.

Oh lord, grant me the self-confidence of an entitled designer throwing a tantrum because the taxpayer won’t pay for his toys any more.

Last week, London mayor Sadiq Khan finally announced that no more public funding would be forthcoming for the city’s controversial Garden Bridge project. In theory the bridge can still happen; in practice, with the promised private backing in short supply and planning permission due to run out by the end of the year, it’s probably dead.

The response of Thomas Heatherwick, the visionary behind the scheme, was to write a whiny article for the Evening Standard under the headline, “One day I hope London gets its garden bridge”. In it, he praises his own “extraordinary design”, and complains of how sad the decision had made him. We’ve all had dreams dashed and projects that go nowhere; very few of us then get to pen newspaper columns complaining about the fact.

And the column in question is absolutely dripping with entitlement. Some extracts, with commentary:

I first got excited about the idea of a garden bridge when it was pointed out to me that despite having the best views in the whole city, the human experience of our river crossings tends to be of pavements attached to the side of dual carriageways.

Things Thomas Heatherwick is seemingly unaware of: the Millennium Bridge, the Golden Jubilee Bridges, the Emirates airline, the existence of boats.

And when you ask people if they have ever been asked to meet someone on one of London’s bridges, the answer is always “never”.

This is flatly untrue. One of the most significant meetings of my life happened on Waterloo Bridge; we’d agreed to meet there, because it had the best views of the city you can get from ground level.

When I tweeted as much, a fair few people replied with their own experiences of dates and rendezvous that had begun on one of London’s bridges. One person replied with the story of a dinner they had organised on one.

What Heatherwick means is that he would never consider meeting someone on one of the existing bridges. And that’s a reasonable opinion and all, but it’s not one it’s worth spending millions of pounds of public money to change.

Anyone who has experienced the magic stitching of New York’s dislocated West Side by the raised High Line Park created on a disused railway line (whose creators have been advising the Garden Bridge Trust) can envisage what this can do.

Two things strike me about this line. One is that the big achievement of the High Line was to cap the regeneration of Manhattan’s West Side, and while there are areas of London that could do with such care and attention, “the stretch of the Thames between the Oxo Tower and the Temple” is really not one of them. You might as well try to regenerate Belgravia.

The other is that London already has a number of things that could – indeed, sometimes are – be described as its High Line: the Parkland Walk, a disused railway line between Finsbury Park and Highgate, say, or the Jubilee Greenway, from Hackney Wick down to Beckton (which is a lovely walk, if you can get past the vague smell of the sewer you’re walking on top of).

Anyway: London doesn’t need a High Line, this area doesn’t need regenerating, and there are loads of other bridges within a 10 minute walk, so what point is he making exactly?

But a bridge of 366 metres, free to use, open every day, holding a garden created by amazing plantsman Dan Pearson, that you don’t get whooshed along by cars but lets you dawdle and gaze; that sounded to me like a completely new type of space that Londoners could get something from.

Well, no, it sounds like a park, we already have some of those.

What’s more, one of the Londoners who would get something from this design is presumably the one who designed it. Funny Heatherwick doesn’t mention this.

Much of the funding has been in place for some time. 

Not enough, given how much it’ll cost.

Large sums of public and philanthropic money have been pledged and spent.

Too much, given how little has been achieved.

But endless political wrangling has now brought it to a standstill. 

No, the complete absence of a credible financial plan from its backers has brought it to a standstill.

Whatever the politics, to me as a Londoner this is saddening; for a project so close to reality to be abandoned is such a missed opportunity and waste of resources.

The project wasn’t remotely close to reality – that was half the problem – but that’s not even the biggest deception in this sentence. The biggest one is the way Heatherwick is adopting the persona of a member of the public. He is saddened “as a Londoner”. There is nothing in this line, and precious little elsewhere in the article, to tell us that he has any skin in the game.

But – he does, doesn’t he? His firm designed the bridge; its original estimate of the cost of doing so was three times higher than those of one rival bidder, and 11 times higher than another. According to Margaret Hodges’ investigation of the project, the amount the Heatherwick practice earned from the project stood at over £2.6m:

Section 37, page 10. Thanks to Dan Anderson for digging this out.

In other words, Heatherwick has a financial interest, as well as an artistic one, here.


Oddly, he doesn’t see fit to mention this, either. He is just a disappointed Londoner, saddened that something beautiful won’t happen, because the taxpayer cannot recognise his vision.

As I suggested at the top of this thing, there’s one word which sums up this mess: “entitlement”. This wouldn’t normally be that big a deal – people who write newspaper columns are generally a pretty entitled breed (hi) – except it’s that entitlement that has doomed the project.

Heatherwick felt entitled to accompany former mayor Boris Johnson to meetings with sponsors, before his firm had even won the contract to build the bridge. Heatherwick Studios felt entitled to design the bridge, despite not having built a bridge over water before.

And when the project failed to raise the necessary private cash, the bridge’s backers felt entitled to public money to plug the gap.

There’s nothing in Heatherwick’s column about any of this. He simply feels entitled to his bridge, because he wants it, whatever the practical problems that have prevented it from coming into existence.

Instead, he blames the bridge’s demise on “political wrangling”. It’s a funny way of saying “we failed”.

This story was updated at 2pm to incorporate extra information about the project's finances.

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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