“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.”

 
 
 
 

More than 830 cities have brought essential services back under public control. Others should follow

A power station near Nottingham: not one owned by Robin Hood Energy, alas, but we couldn't find anything better. Image: Getty.

The wave of cities worldwide rejecting privatization is far bigger and more successful than anyone thought, according to a new report from the Transnational Institute, Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation. Some 835 cities in 45 countries have brought essential services like water, energy and health care back under public control.

The persistent myth that public services are by nature more expensive and less efficient is losing its momentum. Citizens and users do not necessarily have to resign to paying increasingly higher tariffs for lower standard services. The decline of working conditions in public services is not an inevitability.

And the ever larger role private companies have played in public service delivery may at last be waning. The remunicipalisation movement – cities or local authorities reclaiming privatised services or developing new options – demonstrates that cities and citizens are working to protect and reinvent essential services.

The failure of austerity and privatisation to deliver promised improvements and investments is part of the reason this movement has advanced. But the real driver has been a desire to meet goals such as addressing climate change or increasing democratic participation in service provision. Lower costs and tariffs, improved conditions for workers and better service quality are frequently reported following remunicipalisation.  Meanwhile transparency and accountability have also improved.

Where remunicipalisation succeeds, it also tends to inspire other local authorities to make similar moves. Examples are plentiful. Municipalities have joined forces to push for renewable, climate-friendly energy initiatives in countries like Germany. Public water operators in France and Catalonia are sharing resources and expertise, and working together to overcome the challenges they meet.

Outside Europe, experiments in public services are gaining ground too. Delhi set up 1,000 Mohalla (community) clinics across the city in 2015 as a first step to delivering affordable primary health care. Some 110 clinics were working in some of the poorest areas of Delhi as of February 2017. The Delhi government claims that more than 2.6m of its poorest residents have received free quality health care since the clinics were set up.


Local authorities and the public are benefiting from savings too. When the Nottingham City Council found out that many low-income families in the city were struggling to pay their energy bills, they set up a new supply company. The company, Robin Hood Energy, which offers the lowest prices in the UK, has the motto: “No private shareholders. No director bonuses. Just clear transparent pricing.”

Robin Hood Energy has also formed partnerships with other major cities. In 2016, the city of Leeds set up the White Rose Energy municipal company to promote simple no-profit tariffs throughout the Yorkshire and Humberside regions. In 2017, the cities of Bradford and Doncaster agreed to join the White Rose/Robin Hood partnership.

Meanwhile, campaigners with Switched on London are pushing their city to set up a not-for-profit energy company with genuine citizen participation. The motivations in these diverse cities are similar: young municipal companies can simultaneously beat energy poverty and play a key role in achieving a just and renewable energy transition.

Remunicipalised public services often involve new forms of participation for workers and citizens. Remunicipalisation is often a first step towards creating the public services of the future: sustainable and grounded in the local economy. Inspiration can be found in the European towns and villages aiming for 'zero waste' with their remunicipalised waste service, or providing 100 per cent locally-sourced organic food in their remunicipalised school restaurants.

Public services are not good simply because they are not private. Public services must also continuously renew themselves, grow, innovate and recommit to the public they serve.

The push for remunicipalisation in Catalonia, for example, has come from a movement of citizen platforms. For them, a return to public management is not just an end in itself, but a first step towards the democratic management of public services based on ongoing civil participation.

Evidence is building that people are able to reclaim public services and usher in a new generation of public ownership. The momentum is building, as diverse movements and actors join forces to bring positive change in communities around the world.

You can read the Transnational Institute report, “Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation”, on its website.