Will it really cost the taxpayer twice as much to cancel London's Garden Bridge as to build it?

Yes it's that bloody artist's impression all over again. Image: Heatherwick Studios.

Our leader has spoken: London’s ridiculous Garden Bridge project is going ahead.

At his first mayor’s question time this morning, Sadiq Khan confirmed the plan, claiming that it would cost the taxpayer twice as much to cancel the project – or “horticultural oasis”, as the ever balanced Evening Standard puts it – as it would to complete it.

Here are the key paragraphs from the paper's report:

Transport for London (TfL) and the government have previously committed £30m each to the Garden Bridge, with the remainder raised through private donations.

Of the £30m pledged by TfL, £20m is in the form of a loan to be repaid in full.

Mr Khan revealed that of the £60m total of taxpayers’ money, £37.7m had already been spent. If the project was scrapped now, this would be lost in full with no benefit at all for Londoners or taxpayers.

The Mayor said if the Garden Bridge is completed, the loan would be repaid, and the Trust behind it would also pay £22m in VAT to the Treasury.

The final cost to the public purse would then be just £18m – less than half the cost of cancelling.

Hmmm. As so often with anything Garden Bridge-related, all this smells slightly odd to me – and for a couple of different reasons.

For one thing, that £20m is indeed a loan – but it’s not one that’s going to be repaid any time soon. It’s a 50 year loan, which is an insanely long time to be repaying anything: mortgages and US government bonds don’t have terms that long.

So, yes, technically, the taxpayer should get that share of its money back. But there’s a strong chance than Sadiq Khan, Joanna Lumley, Thomas Heatherwick and I will all be dead by the time that it does. Short-termism is not a good quality in a politician, but this is nonetheless not the comfort Khan seems to imagine.

The second reason I’m cynical about the mayor’s support for the garden bridge is that word “should”. Yes, the Garden Bridge Trust should repay its loan. No, it is not guaranteed that it will.

While we’re at it the Greater London Authority, very kindly, agreed to guarantee the Bridge’s operating costs (thanks for that, Boris). Those, we’re told are £2.5m a year – which, TfL’s strategic outline business case notes helpfully, is £150m over 60 years.

The problem is that, for reasons Dan Anderson outlined here, it’s not clear how it’s going to make the money to do any of that. There are few sponsorship opportunities that haven’t already been sold. The Garden Bridge Trust has said the Bridge won’t be ticketed, and will only be closed for private hire a maximum of 12 times a year. And the mayor just said that the bridge should be “more accessible and open to all Londoners”, which is very noble, but seems to restrict the pile of options for increasing revenues yet further.

Yet somehow, the GBT has to make enough money to cover £2.5m in operating costs, plus loan repayments, every year. It’s not entirely obvious that the sums add up – and if they don’t, it’s the taxpayer who’s on the hook.

So – cancelling the Bridge would mean losing the £37.7m the taxpayer has already spent; if the Bridge goes ahead, the taxpayer contribution will be just £18m. But that latter figure will only be accurate if the GBT can recoup £2.5m in operating costs (plus loan repayments!) every year through sources we’re still not entirely clear about, and even then we have to wait 50 years for the loan to be paid off.

I’m not saying the mayor is wrong. But as a taxpayer, I’d quite like to see the business plan that proves that he’s right.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.

At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

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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