Garden Bridge unlikely to raise enough private funding to protect the taxpayer, says official review

This bloody thing again. Image: Heatherwick.

Another month, another nail in the coffin of Boris Johnson’s last vanity project for London.

This week it’s Dame Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking and former chair of the Public Accounts Committee, who is calling for the Garden Bridge to be stopped. Dame Margaret was asked to review the scheme by Bozza’s replacement as London mayor, Sadiq Khan, last September, in which looked suspiciously like a step towards the long grass.

And would you believe it? Her report has found that n large but uncertain share of the cost looks likely to fall on the taxpayer, rather than the private backers we’d all been promised. She concludes that the whole thing should be halted until the promised finance materialises.

Here’s are some extracts from her report, annotated with my headlines.

The taxpayer contribution keeps on creeping upwards...

The original ambition to fund the Garden Bridge solely through private finance has been abandoned. Furthermore the goalposts have moved several times and each time the risks to the taxpayer have intensified.

As does the price...

Looking to the future, the costs of construction have escalated and are likely to increase further. What started life as a project costing an estimated £60 million is likely to end up costing over £200 million.

Those private investors are nowhere to be seen...

At the same time the Garden Bridge Trust has lost two major donors and has only secured £69 million in private funding pledges, leaving a gap of at least £70 million that needs to be raised for the capital investment. No new pledges have been obtained since August 2016.

And that ain’t likely to change....

At the same time I am sceptical that the Garden Bridge Trust will succeed in raising all the private capital monies required and I am firmly of the view that more public money will be needed to complete the construction....

...because not everyone in London is Joanna bloody Lumley...

The project has become very controversial with the public. If the Garden Bridge is not treasured by the public in the same way that it is by its creators, then the business model, based on raising private finance is far less likely to succeed. Philanthropists will be cautious about associating themselves with the project.

Last but not least...

I do not believe the Trust will secure the philanthropic support it needs to fund the ongoing management and maintenance of the Garden Bridge.

This last bit sounds dull but is, in some ways, the real kicker. Raising investment to build the thing is in some ways the easy bit: rich people like being able to point to a thing and think “I did that”. Persuading people to stump up so that someone can clean it and stop bits falling off is rather harder.

While we’re at it, there’s a moral hazard problem with getting private interests to fund the bridge now the state is involved. If the bridge isn’t happening unless investors stump up, and investors really want it to happen, then, well, they’ll have to stump up. But if it becomes clear that the state will plug the shortfall, what incentive is there for investors to get involved at all?

Dame Margaret’s conclusion is, basically, the whole thing should stop, until the private investment arrives:

“It would be better for the taxpayer to accept the financial loss of cancelling the project than to risk the potential uncertain additional costs to the public purse if the project proceeds.... I would urge the Mayor not to sign any guarantees until it is confirmed that the private capital and revenue monies have been secured by the Garden Bridge Trust.”

In other words, it’s better to accept that the £60m the taxpayer has already spent on the bridge was a total waste of money than to keep chucking money at it indefinitely.

The Garden Bridge Trust, quite naturally, disagrees. It replied with the following, pleasingly bitchy statement:

“We are pleased that Dame Margaret has finally published her report after six months of uncertainty.” 

“We will be studying the report in detail and seeking a meeting with the Mayor of London to discuss next steps.  The Trust remains as determined as ever to make the Garden Bridge happen which will bring huge benefits to London and the UK.”

See that? They’re as “determined as ever”. Well, for my part, I remain determined as ever to become a handsome billionnaire.


So is it dead? Is it finally, actually dead? Well, no, not yet. But it’s not looking very well.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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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.