Department of Transport boss warned ministers about risk Garden Bridge posed to taxpayer five months ago

Getting a bit sick of this artist's impression to be honest, lads. Image: Heatherwick.

Since April 2012, Philip Rutnam has been the permanent secretary – that is, the head – of the UK Department for Transport (DfT). In that capacity, he's also the “accounting officer”, responsible for ensuring that the department achieves good value for money.

If he's worried that a project will cost too much money, or provide too little benefit, he's entitled to write to his minister to request direction. In this way he can both formally set out his concerns, and – let's be honest about this – make sure it’s not his fault if it all goes tits up.

The reason I mention all this is because, last May, Philip Rutnam did just that. The letter in question concerns London's proposed Garden Bridge, which will be a much loved addition to the skyline or an embarrassing waste of time and money, depending on whose side you're on.

Rutnam begins his letter by explaining why he's writing it in the first place, and how the Garden Bridge came to be DfT's problem. Chancellor George Osborne promised to commit £30m to the project in December 2013, “subject to there being a satisfactory business case for the project".

Rutnam makes clear he was always cynical – “After examining the business case for the project in summer 2014, my judgment was that the transport benefits of the project were limited and came with a relatively high level of risk to value for money”. But, he adds “on the balance of probabilities I considered that this risk was acceptable”.

The problem is that the risk kept increasing, because the amount of money DfT had to make available before construction started – money that would, if the project collapsed, be lost – kept on increasing, too. Why? Because the Garden Bridge Trust (GBT), the charity running the scheme, asked for it. Here's the relevant passage:

One important control on the DfT's contribution is a cap on the amount that can be spent prior to construction. This was originally set at £8.2m, but it has since twice been agreed to increase the cap following requests from the Garden Bridge Trust, and it now stands at a little under £13.5m.

The Trust has now asked for a further increase in its permitted preconstruction spending of up to £15m (across DfT and Tfl combined). This is to underwrite the potential cancellation liabilities that it now will face if the project does not proceed. The Trustees have been advised that under charity law they could become personally liable for the Trust's unmet financial obligations if they have failed to manage risk prudently.

So – to protect the GBT’s trustees, the trust asked DfT and Transport for London (TfL) to underwrite their liabilities. Except that TfL then asked to be excused, too:

Following recent discussions with the Mayor of London, DfT has been asked to increase its pre-construction exposure by up to £15m to underwrite the potential cancellation liabilities.

And, Rutnam warned, for all sorts of reasons – GBT’s failure to acquire land on the South Bank, the need to raise another £40m in private donations – “the probability of these liabilities materialising is not negligible”.

The result:

If we increase our pre-construction commitment as requested and the bridge does not proceed, there would be cancellation costs to the public sector of up to £15m. This is in addition to sunk costs of around £13.5m committed by DfT and £22m by TfL. In this scenario, around 90% of the cost of the cancelled bridge would have been provided by the public sector funders, and DfT specifically would have provided up to a half of the total amount spent. In my judgment, this represents a disproportionate level of exposure for the Exchequer to the risk of failure on a charity-led project that was intended to be funded largely by private donations.

Look past the civil service jargon, and this is quietly damning. Rutnam is saying exactly what the Garden Bridge's critics have been saying since the project began: that, even though its transport benefits are limited, the cost of the project was  falling disproportionately on the taxpayer.


And yet, ministers decided the project would still go ahead. Go figure.

We approached the Garden Bridge Trust for comment. It said it couldn't comment on internal government communications.

This morning, the National Audit Office, a government spending watchdog, published its long-awaited report on the  project. It found that there is significant risk the bridge would never be built, and the DfT stood to lose as much as £22.5m if that happened.

And if the project isn't cancelled?

If the project continues, it is possible that the government will be approached for extra funding should the Trust face a funding shortfall. The project has faced cost increases and delays to the schedule. The pattern of behaviour outlined in this report is one in which the Trust has repeatedly approached the government to release more of its funding for pre-construction activities when it encounters challenges. The Department, in turn, has agreed to the Trust’s requests.

The Garden Bridge Trust is commenting on this one. Here’s the first paragraphs of its statement:

The Garden Bridge is a visionary project, connecting the South Bank with the North Bank, Covent Garden, the city and beyond.  It is the first of its kind, a pedestrian walkway through a garden of 270 trees, hedging, shrubs and plants.  It is an asset funded primarily by the private sector and bequeathed to London, enabling 9,000 commuters each weekday to cross the Thames without having to share a Bridge with traffic.  It will be a fantastic place for people to visit for free, 365 days a year.

It is right that there is scrutiny of the project because it involves public money and transparency is good for us at an uncertain time.

Draw your own conclusions.

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

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Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.