“An eye-watering waste of public funds”: so what went wrong with London’s garden bridge?

Awwww. Image: Arup/Heatherwick.

With one swift blow, London mayor Sadiq Khan confounded plans to construct a leafy walkway above the River Thames. By refusing to guarantee further public funds, the mayor leaves the Garden Bridge project with a funding gap of some £70m, and a countdown of just eight months until planning permission expires. The Conversation

The Thames Garden Bridge project has already used £37.4m of public money, and the government’s agreement to underwrite cancellation costs could bring the taxpayers’ bill up to £46.4m. But while these are staggering sums, they are small compared with the risks – and the losses – which could have been incurred had Khan not pulled the public purse strings tightly shut. In doing so, the mayor drew a line under a saga which has given rise to series of allegations of imperfect processes and conflicts of interest, which risked soiling the integrity of the public service.

The project was first conceived by British actor Joanna Lumley who – together with product designer Thomas Heatherwick – sought support from her friend and then-mayor Boris Johnson, in May 2012. Initially, the project was to be privately funded, with the design and location to be developed over the months to February 2013 with engineering firm Arup. When fundraising efforts failed to procure financial support, Johnson made a commitment to kickstart the project with public money.

Not your typical public tender

It was not until much later that it was officially recorded that the board of Transport for London (TfL) - the statutory corporation responsible for London’s transport network – was made aware of the full cost, scope, risk or remit of this proposal. There had been no real business case made, no policy need identified and no groundswell of public support for any such proposal. Nevertheless, the project was ostensibly put out to public tender in February 2013.

Although the procurement had only invited parties to analyse, appraise and consult on a need and location for a pedestrian and cycle crossing, the submission from Heatherwick Studios provided a polished vision of the Garden Bridge and its location, primed for public consumption. Heatherwick’s team won the bid, under the authority of then-TfL director of planning Richard de Cani. In a theatre of revolving doors, he subsequently resigned and was later appointed by Arup. TfL and the Department for Transport denied suggestions that de Cani had a conflict of interest.

The business case was eventually completed in May 2014 – long after the project went to public consultation in November 2013 and appeared, with Treasury support, in the December 2013 National Infrastructure Plan. In a clear departure from accepted protocols, central government (by using ministerial directions) and TfL agreed to fund the project, to the tune of £30m each, on the understanding that forthcoming private donations would make up the shortfall. A charity called the Garden Bridge Trust was established to oversee the project’s execution.


Ballooning costs

By mid-2014, the project’s costs had escalated from £60m to £175m – over seven times the cost of the £24m Millennium Footbridge, which links St Paul’s Cathedral to the South Bank. Questions and concerns were repeatedly raised by London Assembly Member Caroline Pidgeon, Will Hurst of The Architects’ Journal and myself from Project Compass CIC (a procurement intelligence service). These, alongside community opposition from Thames Central Open Space, protests by London artist Will Jennings and critiques of the business case by Dan Anderson of Fourth Street Studios were repeatedly dismissed by the mayor.

Finally, following a request for an internal TfL audit, the Greater London Assembly (GLA) oversight committee took evidence. This clarified the many inappropriate issues with the procedures and procurement process, and resulted in a cascade of revelations, leading to the most recent inquiry. Commissioned by current mayor Khan and undertaken by MP Margaret Hodge. The vanity project was roundly condemned on all fronts, and the mayor called upon to cancel any further support.

What started life as a project costing an estimated £60m is now projected to cost over £200m. The Garden Bridge Trust only secured £69m in private funding pledges, leaving the gap of at least £70m. No new pledges had been obtained since August 2016. Now, with Khan’s announcement, it is to be hoped that this shocking waste of public money will come to an end. The allegations which have dogged the project must now be investigated and brought to account, so that trust in public service may be restored once more.

Walter Menteth is senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.