“There’s more”: the case for scrapping London’s Garden Bridge

The bridge in question. Image: Heatherwick Studio.

Congratulations to Sadiq Khan, the new mayor of London. That he prevailed so convincingly in the face of a despicable campaign by Zac Goldsmith has temporarily renewed my faith in democracy. I still don’t think that the right person won; but the wrong person didn’t. Good enough.

The mayor’s in-tray is overflowing with issues left unresolved by his predecessor. Housing, transport and the environment are surely at the top of the agenda – all intractable problems that won’t be solved overnight.

But there is one decision that needs to be made quickly, and it will immediately signal the type of Mayor that Sadiq Khan intends to be: the Garden Bridge.

Boris Johnson famously ignored the fine detail of any issue, always opting for expediency over process. It’s a quality that produced a lot of media-friendly soundbites, and a great 15-minute spot on the Letterman show. It also lies at the heart that of all that has gone wrong with this troubled project.

So, what can we expect from Sadiq? Will it be four more years of hollow rhetoric and throwaway quips? Or will Khan be the kind of mayor that learns the facts and does the maths? Who exactly did we elect: Jed Bartlett or Bingo Bob? How Sadiq Khan approaches the vexed issue of the Garden Bridge will be a good indication.

The project has been a thorn in Sadiq’s side since Day One. Shortly after launching his campaign, he came out unambiguously against the Bridge, calling it a “white elephant” and claiming he’d scrap it because:

“...it no longer represents value for money. This was supposed to be an entirely privately funded project costing £60m, but the overall cost has tripled, and £60m is being paid for out of the public purse.”

There followed some savage criticism by the Evening Standard that portrayed Sadiq Khan as a sour puss killjoy who hates flowers.He promptly went into a huddle with Transport for London and The Garden Bridge Trust and emerged as the project’s apologist-in-chief.

The face-saving device that allowed this dramatic u-turn was a new financing deal through which part of the TfL grant would be converted into a soft loan. It allowed Khan to duck every subsequent question with the phrase: “The money has all been spent”.

But that isn’t true.

So here is another memo for the mayor’s in-tray. These are the facts. Will they inform his first big decision? Or can we expect another eight years of superficial bullshit masquerading as policy?

 

SUBJECT:The Garden Bridge

Mr mayor:

When you refer to all of the money having been spent, you mean just that part of the funding over which the Mayor’s Office has direct control – namely, the grant from TFL.

Some £10m of that really has been spent – on design, engineering, planning, and professional fees, as well as a comically biased poll to fool the public and a costly VR gimmick to fool Nick Clegg.

The next £20m from TFL was converted from a grant into your peace-in-our-time repayment plan.Let’s leave aside the fact that a 50-year low-interest loan deal is not what any reasonable observer could describe as either “a loan” or “a deal”. It is also undermined by the fact that the GLA, through TfL, has guaranteed the operating costs of The Garden Bridge, including the repayment of its own loan.

It’s like taking a loan from one branch of Barclays that is insured by the Barclays branch across the street. Admittedly, that sounds like something that Barclays might do, but I’d like the mayor of London to be a little smarter than that.

That’s £20m right off the bat that can be put to better use.

There’s more.

Your predecessor loved to crow about the fact that “the public funding element of the project is being used to secure considerable private sector investment”.The only thing that mattered to Johnson was that every pound of public funding was matched by two pounds of private investment. To Boris, the cow goes moo, that cat goes meow, and private investment is A Good Thing.

That is, however, a misleading interpretation of the facts. The Garden Bridge is not so much levering new private investment as it is cannibalising funds that would have been spent anyway.

The Garden Bridge Trust has, to date, been notoriously secretive about its funding. Fortunately, in their inevitable correction to an earlier version of this article, the Trust provided the most revealing breakdown to date of where all the money is coming from. 

This is what we now know:

Sources of capital funding for the Garden Bridge. Source: The Garden Bridge Trust.

This shows just how little additional investment is actually being leveraged by the £60m of public funding. 

First, much of the private funding comes from Trusts and Foundations that exist only to fund good causes. That isn’t “new” money: without The Garden Bridge, the £20m pledge from The Monument Trust and the £2m grant from the Garfield Weston Foundation would be available to other charities.

Much the same could be said about corporate sponsorship. Most sponsorship comes out of designated funds within an organisation’s marketing budget. Glencore might struggle to shift 240 metric tonnes of cupranickel, but it stands to reason that Citi would have likely found some other cause to support with its £3m.

Put simply, the Bridge is tying up some £60m that has not “already been spent” and that could be released to fund other, better projects.

There’s more.

Boris has committed the GLA to guaranteeing the Bridge’s operating costs. That’s the little poisoned pill that he approved just days before he left office.

According to Transport for London’s Strategic Outline Business Case:

“The estimated cost of ongoing operation and maintenance for the Garden Bridge is estimated to be around £2.5m per year from 2018 onwards. Over a 60-year period this equates to £150m (2014 prices).”

As taxpayers, we are on the hook for that £150m. Yet nobody outside the Garden Bridge Trust or Transport for London has seen the business plan that describes how these operating costs will be covered. 


What we do know isn’t encouraging. In order to secure a deal with the planning authority and the landowner in Lambeth, the Trust gave away most of the income from the South Bank landing. That is some valuable real estate, but the rent will be split between Coin Street Community Builders and Lambeth Council. Most of the sponsorship inventory has been capitalised to pay for the build, and there can’t be much of it left to pay for operations. The Trust insists that it has no intention to ticket or charge and it is limited to 12 closures per annum for private hire.

Just how much does the Trust think it can charge for cocktail parties on the Thames? You can hire the whole of Kensington Roof Gardens for £5,000. If this is the Trust’s main source of income, then it would need to be priced higher than one day’s exclusive use of a Formula One track. That’s not going to happen.

It begs the question that Johnson never cared to ask: where is the rest of the money going to come from?

Most councils would not approve this kind of guarantee without poring over the business plan and having it independently challenged. To endorse the Garden Bridge guarantee without similar scrutiny is irresponsible beyond measure. You must do better, Mr Mayor. That is a lot of future bail-out money that has not “already been spent” and can still be saved.

There’s more.

We are careering towards the start of construction, and the Trust still has a £30m gap to close. In the context of The Garden Bridge – with its exorbitant £175m budget – that may seem trivial. By comparison to almost any other project, that is still a mountain to climb. You could get change back from a whole other bridge in Pimlico for £30m.

And this is just the gap that the Trust itself has acknowledged: it may actually be larger than that. Another revealing nugget from the background information usefully provided by the Trust is this:

“Some organisations are anonymous at the moment because we are in the process of finalising contracts with them, and several major announcements are planned soon.”

In other words, some deals haven’t actually closed yet.

So what happens if the Trust fails to close the gap?According to the funding agreement with TfL, payments are subject to the Trust’s demonstration that it has secured “or is able to secure” the necessary funding. In the event that a shortfall remains, this puts the decision to start at TfL’s discretion.

In light of the Greater London Assembly’s damning critique of TfL’s procedural failures in procurement, can it really be trusted to provide robust oversight of the project’s funding and finance?

There is at least £30m more at stake and TfL is, by now, more politically than financially invested in the project. That is more money that hasn’t “already been spent” – but it’s a burden that looks increasingly likely to fall on the public sector.

There’s more.

A large proportion of the private investment is still unaccounted for. Try as you like, it is impossible to fully reconcile the list of donors on the website with the funding breakdown provided by the Trust. There must be a few very large givers in the mix who are as yet unidentified.

There are any number of legitimate reasons – fiscal, personal or spiritual – why some givers would want to remain anonymous. Some aren’t interested in the praise and plaudits. Others are anxious about opening themselves up to endless requests from other charities. They may not want to be drawn into any surrounding controversy. In most cases, the anonymity of donors is not a cause for concern.

But most projects are not so closely associated with senior politicians. Thew hole air of mystery surrounding the Trust’s fundraising is therefore disturbing. Caroline Pigeon AM wrote to the Trust asking for a detailed breakdown of donors and was fobbed off by a letter saying, “a list of contributors who are content that their commitment be publicly acknowledged is publicly available on our website”.

Johnson was worse. In response to an official question from the London Assembly, he wrote:

“The Garden Bridge Trust’s accounts and details of its fundraising are commercially sensitive and these are not routinely shared with TfL or the GLA.”

Huh? This is an organisation that is spending £60m of taxpayers’ money and is ultimately underwritten by the public sector. How can its financial details be too “commercially sensitive” for the GLA?

Mr Mayor, you should be deeply concerned that your predecessor worked so hard to shield this project from the prying eyes of Freedom of Information laws. When projects are known to be the personal favourites of particular politicians, they can become fertile ground for “tactical” giving. Remember the Hinduja Foundation and its £1m donation to the Millennium Dome? That cost Peter Mandelson his job.

I’m sure that nothing anything like so sinister is happening here – but for the avoidance of doubt, it’s in TfL’s interest to prove it. I’m not a conspiracy theorist by nature, but I’d be a little bit fidgety about “anonymous” donors to The Garden Bridge.

Yesterday, it was announced in The Observer that you’ve already initiated a review of the project “looking in more detail at some of the issues raised about the procurement”. It’s a good start, but you will hopefully look beyond the narrow procedural issue of a faulty procurement process. That the procurement process was so badly handled is but the symptom of a much more malignant disease that has infected every aspect of this project, including its funding and finance.

This whole project is a hospital pass that went from Joanna Lumley to Thomas Heatherwick to Boris Johnson. The ball is now waiting for you at City Hall. Will you simply pass it off as “Johnson’s folly, not my fault”; or will you get stuck into the gory details?

We all hope it’s the latter. The details are important. Whatever you think you know about The Garden Bridge –

There’s more.

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

 
 
 
 

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.