“If 2016 was the Year of Bullshit, then the Garden Bridge could be its monument”

That bloody bridge again. Image: Heatherwick Studios.

There have been many articles dedicated purely to criticising the Garden Bridge.  This is not one of them. This piece is also about bullshit.

Back in February 2016, I wrote an article that the editors at CityMetric boldly titled, “On Bullshit and the Garden Bridge”.  In critiquing the project’s business case, the article borrowed liberally from philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s 1986 essay, On Bullshit. Frankfurt’s essay was reprinted as a bestselling book in 2005 and was followed in 2006 by its companion piece, On Truth.  Both works warned of the creeping danger of a society that could no longer distinguish between fact and fiction, and which was rapidly losing its traditional respect for truth and accuracy. 

Shortly after that article was posted, the Brexit campaign gathered steam.  Soon, we were buried in an avalanche of bullshit from both sides. Next, we could only watch in stunned disbelief as the United States elected  a President whose whole campaign was built on a platform of unapologetic bullshit.  Bullshit became so pervasive in 2016 that it had to be re-badged and normalised as “post-truth politics”. For all the dead celebrities and political cataclysms, I will remember 2016 as the year in which Frankfurt’s horrifying prophesy became a daily reality.

And if 2016 was the Year of Bullshit, then the Garden Bridge could be its monument.  

Now, look, I’m not suggesting that you can draw a line from Joanna Lumley through Boris Johnson to Donald Trump.  I’m not so foaming-at-the-mouth opposed to the Garden Bridge to think that these are issues of comparable importance.  To suggest any equivalency between a Garden Bridge and a Trump presidency is like comparing a minor aggravation with Armageddon. 

But to consider the concept of bullshit in the context of Brexit or Trump you’d have to dive headfirst down a rabbit-hole of nuance and complexity.  By comparison, the Garden Bridge is nice and simple.  It’s a bridge with a garden on it.  There is nothing remotely complex about it.  The bullshit is there for all to see.

If the Garden Bridge was, at the beginning of 2016, a signal of the almighty monsoon of bullshit that was about to rain down on us, then it is entirely fitting that the project should provide, by year’s end, a textbook example of the stuff.  An instructive bookend to a bullshit year.

A conflict of interest

That’s what happened on 20 December 2016, when the Architects’ Journal published the allegation of a huge conflict of interest at the heart of the project.  Through the intrepid sleuthing of editor Will Hurst, the AJ obtained correspondence between the Garden Bridge Trust, Transport for London (TfL), and the Department for Transport (DfT) during that critical period between January and February 2016 when the Trust chose to sign a construction contract for the Bridge.  The execution of that contract released a further £7m of public funding and would eventually expose the taxpayer to another £9m of cancellation costs.

Central to the story was Richard de Cani, who was TfL’s managing director of planning at the time.  The correspondence shows De Cani assertively trying to persuade a hesitant official at the DfT that the Trust had satisfied the conditions needed to trigger the next tranche of funding.  The conflict of interest stems from the fact that De Cani was simultaneously serving his notice period, having already informed TfL that he was leaving to take a senior role at Arup – the engineering firm that is also a major contractor for the Garden Bridge.

The most sinister aspect of Hurst’s article, however, was not the revelation itself, but the resulting response from Transport for London.  Here is TfL’s full comment:

“Richard de Cani, as managing director of planning at TfL, led our involvement in the Garden Bridge and was required to continue doing so during his notice period. Any suggestion of improper involvement in relation to the Garden Bridge is completely unfounded.

“The bridge’s construction contract is a matter between the Garden Bridge Trust and Bouygues TP Cimolai.

“Our funding agreement with the Trust requires us to make grant payments once certain milestones have been reached, one of which was the signing of the construction contract. We have kept the DfT informed of these payments because of their financial contribution to the project.”

Right there.  That’s bullshit.

And you have to call it that because it is technically not a lie. It’s actually 100 per cent accurate.  It’s also completely misleading.  It’s a clever bit of misdirection – a robust, unequivocal answer to a question that nobody asked.  It’s a terrific example of what Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post famously described as the “non-denial denial” – a carefully crafted statement that sounds like a clearcut denial, but really isn’t. 

The TfL statement alludes to a clause on page 38 of the Funding Agreement with the Garden Bridge Trust that reads as follows:

“Sums to be paid by TfL to the Trust for construction activities will be paid in yearly instalments as set out in the payment profile.  Payments will commence upon award of the main construction contract…”

On the face of it, TfL’s response to the AJ article is technically true.  Execution of the construction contract for the Garden Bridge did trigger the automatic release of the next tranche of public funding.  The impression created by the statement is that, irrespective of any perceived conflict of interest, De Cani could not have acted improperly because his actions were determined by the terms of an existing agreement. Once the Trust took the critical decision to sign the construction contract, TfL was bound to honour the terms of the agreement and De Cani’s employment status was therefore irrelevant.

The trouble with TfL’s statement – what makes it dishonest even if it is technically accurate – is not in what was said, but in what was judiciously left unsaid.  Because the quoted excerpt above – the bit that TfL wants us to focus on – is not the complete wording of the relevant clause in the Deed of Grant. 

This is how that section reads in full:

“Sums to be paid by TfL to the Trust for construction activities will be paid in yearly instalments as set out in the payment profile.  Payments will commence upon award of the main construction contract subject to the following Conditions of Payment:

  • The Trust has demonstrated to TfL’s satisfaction that it has secured, or is able to secure, a sufficient level of funding, including the Grant from TfL, to cover the costs of construction of the Garden Bridge;
  • The Trust has demonstrated to TfL’s satisfaction that it has secured, or is able to secure, all the necessary consents needed to deliver the Project;
  • The Trust has demonstrated to TfL’s satisfaction that an appropriate project ‘go/no go’ gateway review has been passed, including proper assessment and management of risks;
  • The Trust has demonstrated to TfL’s satisfaction that it has appropriate plans in place for the operation and maintenance of the Garden Bridge;
  • The Trust has demonstrated to TfL’s satisfaction that it has secured a satisfactory level of funding to operate and maintain the Garden Bridge once it is built for at least the first 5 (five) years of operation; and
  • The Trust has demonstrated that these funds will only be used in respect of the construction of the Garden Bridge.”

These conditions discredit the idea that the decision to release another £7m of public funding was a merely procedural action that was beyond manipulation by an official that may have been in a conflicted position.  Repeated use of the phrase “to TfL’s satisfaction” gave TfL the authority and the responsibility to make subjective judgements as to whether or not the Garden Bridge Trust had done enough to de-risk any further investment in the project.

The conditions were there to protect the taxpayer. They were meant to ensure that the taxpayer's exposure to potentially abortive pre-construction costs was limited. Indeed, their intent was to avoid precisely the type of public spending debacle that we are now witnessing.

Under the circumstances, it is perfectly legitimate to query whether individuals at TfL were acting in the best interests of the taxpayer or in the interests of the project and its contractors.  That’s the nub of the issue that Transport for London dodged with its bullshit statement.


A New Year’s Resolution

I could write a whole other article explaining how the Garden Bridge Trust was not even close to meeting all its funding conditions and why it should never have signed that fateful construction contract in the first place.  But my New Year’s resolution is to stop being so mouthy about the Garden Bridge.  I’m pretty sure the project is all but doomed already and all the criticism is starting to feel a little bit churlish.  Like I said: this article isn’t really about the Garden Bridge. 

It is the practiced fluency with which Transport for London tried to bullshit its way out of an embarrassing corner that is the real cause for concern at this point.  The allegations made by the Architects’ Journal are serious and damning and TfL’s response was wholly inadequate.  Although technically truthful, career journalist Dan Froomkin of The Intercept still describes the non-denial denial as “fundamentally an act of deception”.

It is symptomatic of an organisation that trivialises public trust and fails to take responsibility for its actions.  A government agency that controls such large budgets and oversees such an important aspect of London’s economy should be held to the highest standards of honesty, transparency and accountability.  It should not be allowed to skate through any crisis with a hollow and misleading statement that goes unchallenged.

If we can salvage anything from the political wreckage of 2016 it should be a better nose for bullshit – and a zero-tolerance policy for those who deal it.

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

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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.