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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High streets and shopping malls face a ‘domino effect’ from major store closures

Another one bites the dust: House of Fraser plans to close the majority of its stores. Image: Getty.

Traditional retail is in the centre of a storm – and British department store chain House of Fraser is the latest to succumb to the tempest. The company plans to close 31 of its 59 shops – including its flagship store in Oxford Street, London – by the beginning of 2019. The closures come as part of a company voluntary arrangement, which is an insolvency deal designed to keep the chain running while it renegotiates terms with landlords. The deal will be voted on by creditors within the month.

Meanwhile in the US, the world’s largest retail market, Sears has just announced that it will be closing more than 70 of its stores in the near future.

This trend of major retailers closing multiple outlets exists in several Western countries – and its magnitude seems to be unrelated to the fundamentals of the economy. The US, for example, has recently experienced a clear decoupling of store closures from overall economic growth. While the US economy grew a healthy 2.3 per cent in 2017, the year ended with a record number of store closings, nearly 9,000 while 50 major chains filed for bankruptcy.

Most analysts and industry experts agree that this is largely due to the growth of e-commerce – and this is not expected to diminish anytime soon. A further 12,000 stores are expected to close in the US before the end of 2018. Similar trends are being seen in markets such as the UK and Canada.

Pushing down profits

Perhaps the most obvious impact of store closures is on the revenues and profitability of established brick-and-mortar retailers, with bankruptcies in the US up by nearly a third in 2017. The cost to investors in the retail sector has been severe – stocks of firms such as Sears have lost upwards of 90 per cent of their market value in the last ten years. By contrast, Amazon’s stock price is up over 2,000 per cent in the same period – more than 49,000 per cent when considering the last 20 years. This is a trend that the market does not expect to change, as the ratio of price to earnings for Amazon stands at ten times that of the best brick-and-mortar retailers.

Although unemployment levels reached a 17-year low in 2017, the retail sector in the US shed a net 66,500 jobs. Landlords are losing longstanding tenants. The expectation is that roughly 25 per cent of shopping malls in the US are at high risk of closing one of their anchor tenants such as a Macy’s, which could set off a series of store closures and challenge the very viability of the mall. One out of every five malls is expected to close by 2022 – a prospect which has put downward pressure on retail real estate prices and on the finances of the firms that own and manage these venues.

In the UK, high streets are struggling through similar issues. And given that high streets have historically been the heart of any UK town or city, there appears to be a fundamental need for businesses and local councils to adapt to the radical changes affecting the retail sector to preserve their high streets’ vitality and financial viability.


The costs to society

While attention is focused on the direct impacts on company finances, employment and landlord rents, store closures can set off a “domino effect” on local governments and businesses, which come at a significant cost to society. For instance, closures can have a knock-on effect for nearby businesses – when large stores close, the foot traffic to neighbouring establishments is also reduced, which endangers the viability of other local businesses. For instance, Starbucks has recently announced plans to close all its 379 Teavana stores. Primarily located inside shopping malls, they have harshly suffered from declining mall traffic in recent years.

Store closures can also spell trouble for local authorities. When retailers and neighbouring businesses close, they reduce the taxable revenue base that many municipalities depend on in order to fund local services. Add to this the reduction in property taxes stemming from bankrupt landlords and the effect on municipal funding can be substantial. Unfortunately, until e-commerce tax laws are adapted, municipalities will continue to face financial challenges as more and more stores close.

It’s not just local councils, but local development which suffers when stores close. For decades, many cities in the US and the UK, for exmaple Detroit and Liverpool, have heavily invested in efforts to rejuvenate their urban cores after years of decay in the 1970s and 1980s. Bringing shops, bars and other businesses back to once derelict areas has been key to this redevelopment. But today, with businesses closing, cities could once again face the prospect of seeing their efforts unravel as their key urban areas become less attractive and populations move elsewhere.

Commercial ecosystems featuring everything from large chain stores to small independent businesses are fragile and sensitive to change. When a store closes it doesn’t just affect employees or shareholders – it can have widespread and lasting impacts on the local community, and beyond. Controlling this “domino effect” is going to be a major challenge for local governments and businesses for years to come.

Omar Toulan, Professor in Strategy and International Management, IMD Business School and Niccolò Pisani, Assistant Professor of International Management, University of Amsterdam.

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