Is Sadiq Khan cancelling the Garden Bridge by stealth? Part 2 in a continuing series

Dream on, lads. Image: Heatherwick.

Back in July, I asked whether Sadiq Khan could be cancelling the Garden Bridge by stealth.

He hasn't scrapped the project: in fact, he once said it should definitely go ahead, on the grounds it would cost more to cancel than to proceed. But he had made very clear that it would not be receiving any more public money after the rather generous contributions it had already received.

The result, I suggested, was that...

...either the Garden Bridge happens, without Sadiq Khan committing another penny, and he’ll be able to take the credit (just as Boris Johnson took the credit for Ken Livingstone’s cycle hire scheme); or the Garden Bridge doesn’t happen, and it’ll be because the previous administration mucked up the finances.

Either way, Khan wins, and he doesn’t have to be the mean-spirited mayor who cancelled something beautiful.

Anyway. Today comes a sort of sequel. From the Guardian:

The fate of London’s proposed garden bridge has been placed in jeopardy after the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, announced a formal inquiry into whether the controversial project is worth the £60m of public money pledged to it.

Dame Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP who spent five years grilling chief executives and senior civil servants as head of parliament’s public accounts committee, will lead a review into the planned £185m structure across the Thames, from Temple to the South Bank.

While Hodge’s inquiry is not explicitly tasked with considering whether the project should be built, it piles further pressure on a troubled and delayed scheme that has yet to raise the private donations needed, or to clear all the necessary planning hurdles.

Maybe I'm suffering from confirmation bias here, but... this has not really shaken my earlier conclusions.

Imagine that Hodge's enquiry finds that the Garden Bridge provides value for public money. Brilliant! The naysayers will have to stop muttering darkly about the uncomfortably close relationship between former mayor Boris Johnson and design-o-naut Thomas Heatherwick, the bridge can be built, and we can all enjoy a new landmark guilt-free.


Alternatively, imagine that the enquiry finds that the lack of transparency around the project’s finances is hiding something nasty: Sadiq Khan would be sadly obligated to cancel the thing.

But – the project’s boosters could hardly blame him for that, could they? Instead, blame would land on those who mucked up the procurement and funding of the scheme in the first place.

I don't think Sadiq Khan is specifically trying to cancel the Garden Bridge. I do think he's trying to create the political space to make it possible to do so without everyone calling him a killjoy.

And at the moment, cancelling the bridge remains entirely plausible. Construction work has yet to begin – in fact, the Garden Bridge Trust, which is working on the project, has yet to even acquire the land on which the bridge's southern landing will sit. Some of the project's top secret private sponsors have dropped out, too, leaving a £22m hole in the budget.

Perhaps the project will overcome all this. But if I worked for the Garden Bridge Trust, I would be very, very worried right about now.

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

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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.