London's Garden Bridge: Boris Johnson's biggest mistake?

The garden bridge. Image: Heatherwick Studio.

John Biggs AM is Labour’s London Assembly budget spokesperson.

Boondoggle (noun): a folly of epic proportions and an aptly poetic, yet accurate, description of Boris’ latest vanity project.

For something which was initially only meant to cost taxpayers £4m, Boris Johnson’s Garden Bridge is certainly breaking records – though for all the wrong reasons. Already the public cost has rocketed to over £60m with another £3.5m of taxpayer money being set aside to underwrite the substantial running costs every year of its operation. All of this before a single brick, or the bridge equivalent, has even been laid. (Editor's note: The Garden Bridge Trust says the maintenance and operational cost of the bridge will be £2m a year.)

There’s no doubt the bridge is an architectural oddity which captures the imagination. As far as tourist attractions go it’s a winner. As a transport project, it’s totally useless.

The idea of a Garden Bridge is nothing new and in theory it sounds great. It’s when we get into the details that things get a bit murkier. Not only will the bridge cost taxpayers tens of millions to build, it will be closed at night, won’t have space for bicycles and could even require tolling to stop overcrowding. (Editor's note: The Garden Bridge Trust has denied the bridge will be tolled.)

Against this backdrop, it is hard to understand why we would be spending so much public transport money on the project. If it’s a worthy tourist attraction then we should treat it as such and explore other, more appropriate, funding streams. Investing taxpayers’ money, which is there to keep their tubes and buses moving, is a poor decision on Boris’ part, a sort of reverse Robin Hood economics – taking from the poor to prop up extravagant vanity projects.

When you look at Boris’ record as mayor he has form, dipping into public coffers for no end of pet projects, and telling porkies about how they would be funded. In the competition for Boris’ biggest boondoggle, there are many contenders.


Take the cycle hire scheme, the brainchild of the previous mayor and inherited by Boris. A great piece of modern infrastructure to be sure, but one which Boris pledged would operate at zero cost to the taxpayer.

In reality, thanks to the mayor’s failure to get good value from the original sponsorship contract with Barclays, it became the most heavily subsidised form of public transport in London. That’s not to say we shouldn’t support the cycle hire scheme, just that it could have been done more effectively and provided better value.

The Cable Car crossing linking North Greenwich to the Royal Docks is another contender for the title. Originally promised to be cost-neutral for taxpayers, it eventually meant the public purse stumping up £46m for construction costs. Now it has only four regular passengers and is in the main used by, you guessed it, tourists.

We won’t even go into the multi-million pound bounceway (a bizarre giant trampoline road once planned for the Southbank) – one even Boris Johnson was forced to accept was a step, or bounce, too far.

It was a similar story with Boris’ aborted Estuary Airport, a widely discredited project the Mayor spent over £5m on before it was finally put out to pasture.

The similarities in each of Boris’ pet projects are staggering; grand visions, promises of zero public investment and plentiful private sector sponsorship; all giving way to spiralling costs, public bail outs and serious questions about the benefits to real Londoners.

The consistent theme across all of these projects is the mayor’s idleness, announcing them to much fanfare then failing on the detail and fading into the background as they slowly unravel at taxpayer expense. He is,without a doubt, the rightful successor to Macavity, T.S. Eliot’s famous cat, who whenever something went wrong, wasn’t there.

But the Garden Bridge must ultimately scoop the prize for Boris’ biggest boondoggle, a folly of epic proportions.Construction alone will cost £60m of public money, £30m of which will come from TfL and £30m from the Treasury.

Having pledged “the maintenance cost will not be borne by the public sector” it was revealed earlier this year that the mayor has secretly agreed to underwrite the bridge’s £3.5m maintenance costs after Westminster Council threw doubt on the Garden Bridge Trust’s ability to raise the money.

People have rightly asked whether we could better spend the £60m public contribution on something else – the police, housing, bringing fares down – all the things Londoners consistently call for, all things Boris has cut – or in the case of fares put up 40% since becoming mayor.

Whilst there may be a place for a floral footbridge, the case for the Garden Bridge as a transport project is lost. By consistently trying to misdirect and muddle his way through Boris risks making the bridge his biggest boondoggle to date, even against all the other competition.

 John Biggs AM is Labour’s London Assembly budget spokesperson.

This article originally appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

 
 
 
 

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.