“On Bullshit” and the Garden Bridge: why TfL’s business case isn’t worth a penny

The bridge in question. Image: Heatherwick Studio.

It has been a difficult few weeks for the Garden Bridge. Through the dogged investigation of Will Hurst at the Architects’ Journal, more details emerged to cast doubt on the integrity of the procurement process through which Heatherwick Studio and Arup landed an £8.4m design contract.

The revelation that Thomas Heatherwick joined Boris Johnson at a San Francisco meeting with Apple to pitch the “Garden Bridge” – days before the official procurement for a bridge even began – triggered a flurry of accusations.

Jane Duncan, president of the Royal Institute for British Architects, called for the project to be halted pending an independent inquiry. This was echoed by long-time Garden Bridge critic, Kate Hoey MP, who called for fresh investigations and a parliamentary debate. On 10 February, the London Assembly passed a motion proposed by Caroline Pidgeon that concludes:

...there is no case for any TfL funding to be allocated to the Garden Bridge Trust and... existing public money allocated to the project [should be] fully recovered as quickly as possible.

With assembly members hurling accusations at the mayor, the media could no longer ignore the story. In the Financial Times, Edwin Heathcote regrets that objectors have been forced into challenging the legality of the process when, in principle, “The Garden Bridge represents a fundamental misconception about what public space is.”

For the Guardian’s Ian Jack, the whole project is symbolic of a growing North-South divide. Rachel Holdsworth at Londonist wrote an admirably balanced article on 11 February; three days later, she followed that up with another, suggesting that we “stop playing and put this thing back in its box”.


The most interesting take so far though comes from the Observer’s Rowan Moore. He bemoans the whole crony culture of backroom dealing and media spin through which reasoned debate “is deflected and numbed” and which is “no way to make major decisions in a democracy.”

What I like about this piece is the way Moore has started to articulate the wider, uglier implications of the Bridge. This is a scandal about a design competition in the way that Watergate was a story about a burglary. 

Knowing what we now know about the extent to which Osborne and Johnson were willing to twist and bend the rules, it is time to reconsider some of the other key milestones on the slippery road to the Garden Bridge. This includes questioning the credibility of an internal TfL audit that somehow failed to uncover that now infamous San Francisco trip. The absurd but oft-repeated assertion that “80 per cent of Londoners” support the Garden Bridge also needs to be debunked as the product of an intentionally biased survey.

Most of all, we need to challenge the business case for the Garden Bridge. It is time for the London Assembly, in particular, to go beyond the box-ticking process of asking whether a Business Case exists: it also matters whether that Business Case is up to the standard expected of our public officials. This one clearly is not.

Re-opening the case

The importance of this document cannot be overstated. We know from correspondence between George Osborne and Boris Johnson that the taxpayer contribution to the project was “subject to” the Business Case.

But the timing of the Business Case is both problematic and revealing of the highly unorthodox progression of this project. What should have been done first, was done last – and done badly. When the National Audit Office says diplomatically that “a high degree of uncertainty” hangs over the scheme, one has to assume that this is what they’re talking about.

A Business Case is effectively an Options Appraisal, or what we used to call an Economic Appraisal. Yet all of the key spending decisions were obviously taken long before the Business Case was ever produced.

It all rings a very loud bell. Back in 2003, irritated at what I perceived to be a rash of cosmetic appraisals for ill-conceived Lottery projects, I wrote an article for Locum Destination Review called “The Economic Appraisal Trap”. In it, I described the difference between real and cosmetic appraisals:

The difference between the two is subtle, but crucial and is all about timing. A real economic appraisal… is done when all of the options are on equal footing and the question – “Where do we go from here?” – is still a valid one... If you don’t do the appraisal when all options are open to you, if you wait too long and work up one solution more than the others, then forget it. It won’t help you.

In fairness, it is not all that uncommon for a design process to outpace its economic appraisal. Half the appraisals that we do start in reverse gear – which is to say that we have to backtrack the whole process because the client has started to design something before providing a rationale for what they are doing and why. If the appraisal then endorses that original concept, then life is grand and we all proceed with confidence. Just as often, the appraisal will recommend a different solution which may require a re-design. It happens all the time. It’s not a big deal.

There is a difference, however, between leaving an appraisal too late and leaving it laughably, ludicrously late, which is what Transport for London did with the Garden Bridge. How much water was under the proverbial bridge by the time the Business Case was completed in May 2014?

  • The initial design contract was commissioned and completed by Heatherwick Studio;
  • An £8.4m detailed design contract was let to Arup;
  • More than £4m of that was already spent or committed;
  • Planning applications for Westminster and Lambeth were completed and ready for submission;
  • The project was publicly announced, including the £60m public sector contribution towards it;
  • The project was featured in the National Infrastructure Plan 2013;
  • The special purpose vehicle established to oversee delivery and management of the bridge – i.e. The Garden Bridge Trust – had been constituted and registered with the Charity Commission.

There was simply no way that an economic appraisal produced in May 2014 could be allowed to frustrate a process that had advanced that far. To quote my own, prophetic 2003 article:

By then it’s too late. Too many people will be signed up to a single idea. Reputations are at stake. Too much financial and political capital has been invested to allow a real economic appraisal to upset the apple cart. By then only a cosmetic appraisal will do.

At the time, I even provided a facetious guide for fiddling an appraisal: “structure your objectives and assumptions so that the option you like is bound to come out on top. If there is an alternative that is more efficient (but not as exciting) you can just assume it away or claim that it doesn’t deliver your objectives.”

This is exactly what TfL did. It conjured a set of “objectives” that only a Garden Bridge could meet. It also ignored (or “assumed away”) a whole raft of alternatives that could have been considered. There are any number of different ways to encourage walking in Central London or reduce congestion at Waterloo Station. But TfL made the heroic leap from these “macro” objectives to the narrowly “micro” solution of a bridge from the South Bank to Temple.

Considering four different permutations of a footbridge, as TfL did, is not a robust appraisal of options for creating a more walkable London. It is nonsense. To put it in the simple, folksy terms that Boris Johnson seems to prefer: a legitimate economic appraisal is meant to compare an apple, an orange, a pear and a banana; TfL compared four different types of grapefruit.

“On bullshit” and the Garden Bridge

You may think that this is all just bureaucratic overkill. Isn’t this all just food for consultants or the pedantry of jobsworth economists? Doesn’t this lead to the “analysis paralysis” that stifles creativity and prevents the delivery of visionary projects? Johnson certainly seems to make a virtue out of his contempt for due process.

But that is to misunderstand what a business case is for. A business case is not a substitute for decision-making. It is a tool to aid decision-making and to ensure that decision-making is informed and transparent.

Indeed, a well done appraisal almost never produces an unambiguous recommendation. It can’t. Life is full of trade-offs. Tough choices have to be made, and we expect our elected representatives to make those difficult decisions for us. We simply ask that those decisions be transparent and based on the best available evidence (This is all spelled out in HM Treasury’s guidance on the “five case model” that TfL purports to have followed.)

With its shoot-first-and-aim-later approach to the Garden Bridge, Transport for London failed to protect the public interest. Because it was left so late, the Business Case became – by necessity – a textbook example of what Mark Henderson describes as “sprayed-on” evidence:

Advice from scientists [or economists] with relevant expertise should be sought and considered in good faith before decisions are made, rather than sprayed-on afterwards… If ministers [or mayors] decide to overrule expert advice, as they are entitled to do and often will, they should explain their reasons. When they choose to go with instincts that point one way, over evidence that points another, they should say so.

Above all, politicians and civil servants should not be allowed to get away with laying claim to evidence-based policy when decisions have actually been taken by other means.

Mark Henderson, The Geek Manifesto, 2012

What Henderson describes so contemptuously as “policy-based evidence” is akin to the layering of “half-truths, deceptions and evasions” that so irked Rowan Moore. It could also, more simply, be described as “bullshit”.

Be assured that I don't use that word lightly. I use it in its strictest philosophical and academic sense, as set out in Harry Frankfurt's bestselling essay, On Bullshit. As Frankfurt points out, the problem with bullshit is that it is so much more pernicious and harder to debunk than lies.

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false.

For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all … except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. … He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit, 1986

If it seems extreme to tag the mayor of London, the chancellor and their Transport for London stooges as bullshitters, then it bears repeating that the whole of the taxpayer’s contribution to the Garden Bridge rests on a fundamentally dishonest Business Case.

It is a £60m document; and it isn’t worth a penny. Who is going to investigate that?

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

 


Editor's note: We put these allegations to TfL. A spokesperson provided the following statement:

A TfL spokesperson said: “All major projects are subject to a continuous process of business case development and the Garden Bridge is no different.  Early work on the project in 2013 included initial development of the business case for the project. The final business case for public sector investment in this project was subject to all of the normal approvals.

“There is a strong business case for this bridge, which was prepared as part of the thorough work to develop the proposal and ensure it was the best scheme to support. The business case outlined a range of options for a new or improved river crossing in central London and demonstrated that a Garden Bridge in this location, largely financed through private funding, offered the best Benefit Cost Ratio. The business case was also reviewed and approved by the DfT in line with their normal procedure for transport projects.

“The Garden Bridge will support an increase in walking in central London, which will relieve pressure on the tube and bus network and support a healthier and greener central London. It will also support development of the North bank area, help facilitate an increase in new development and boost the local economy. The project has received planning permission on both sides of the river, and final arrangements are being put in place to allow construction to start later this year.  The public sector contribution of 60 million will secure twice as much investment from the private sector.”

 
 
 
 

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.