“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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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.