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.

 
 
 
 

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.