On the naked entitlement of Thomas Heatherwick

That bloody bridge. Image: Heatherwick/Arup.

Oh lord, grant me the self-confidence of an entitled designer throwing a tantrum because the taxpayer won’t pay for his toys any more.

Last week, London mayor Sadiq Khan finally announced that no more public funding would be forthcoming for the city’s controversial Garden Bridge project. In theory the bridge can still happen; in practice, with the promised private backing in short supply and planning permission due to run out by the end of the year, it’s probably dead.

The response of Thomas Heatherwick, the visionary behind the scheme, was to write a whiny article for the Evening Standard under the headline, “One day I hope London gets its garden bridge”. In it, he praises his own “extraordinary design”, and complains of how sad the decision had made him. We’ve all had dreams dashed and projects that go nowhere; very few of us then get to pen newspaper columns complaining about the fact.

And the column in question is absolutely dripping with entitlement. Some extracts, with commentary:

I first got excited about the idea of a garden bridge when it was pointed out to me that despite having the best views in the whole city, the human experience of our river crossings tends to be of pavements attached to the side of dual carriageways.

Things Thomas Heatherwick is seemingly unaware of: the Millennium Bridge, the Golden Jubilee Bridges, the Emirates airline, the existence of boats.

And when you ask people if they have ever been asked to meet someone on one of London’s bridges, the answer is always “never”.

This is flatly untrue. One of the most significant meetings of my life happened on Waterloo Bridge; we’d agreed to meet there, because it had the best views of the city you can get from ground level.

When I tweeted as much, a fair few people replied with their own experiences of dates and rendezvous that had begun on one of London’s bridges. One person replied with the story of a dinner they had organised on one.

What Heatherwick means is that he would never consider meeting someone on one of the existing bridges. And that’s a reasonable opinion and all, but it’s not one it’s worth spending millions of pounds of public money to change.

Anyone who has experienced the magic stitching of New York’s dislocated West Side by the raised High Line Park created on a disused railway line (whose creators have been advising the Garden Bridge Trust) can envisage what this can do.

Two things strike me about this line. One is that the big achievement of the High Line was to cap the regeneration of Manhattan’s West Side, and while there are areas of London that could do with such care and attention, “the stretch of the Thames between the Oxo Tower and the Temple” is really not one of them. You might as well try to regenerate Belgravia.

The other is that London already has a number of things that could – indeed, sometimes are – be described as its High Line: the Parkland Walk, a disused railway line between Finsbury Park and Highgate, say, or the Jubilee Greenway, from Hackney Wick down to Beckton (which is a lovely walk, if you can get past the vague smell of the sewer you’re walking on top of).

Anyway: London doesn’t need a High Line, this area doesn’t need regenerating, and there are loads of other bridges within a 10 minute walk, so what point is he making exactly?

But a bridge of 366 metres, free to use, open every day, holding a garden created by amazing plantsman Dan Pearson, that you don’t get whooshed along by cars but lets you dawdle and gaze; that sounded to me like a completely new type of space that Londoners could get something from.

Well, no, it sounds like a park, we already have some of those.

What’s more, one of the Londoners who would get something from this design is presumably the one who designed it. Funny Heatherwick doesn’t mention this.

Much of the funding has been in place for some time. 

Not enough, given how much it’ll cost.

Large sums of public and philanthropic money have been pledged and spent.

Too much, given how little has been achieved.

But endless political wrangling has now brought it to a standstill. 

No, the complete absence of a credible financial plan from its backers has brought it to a standstill.

Whatever the politics, to me as a Londoner this is saddening; for a project so close to reality to be abandoned is such a missed opportunity and waste of resources.

The project wasn’t remotely close to reality – that was half the problem – but that’s not even the biggest deception in this sentence. The biggest one is the way Heatherwick is adopting the persona of a member of the public. He is saddened “as a Londoner”. There is nothing in this line, and precious little elsewhere in the article, to tell us that he has any skin in the game.

But – he does, doesn’t he? His firm designed the bridge; its original estimate of the cost of doing so was three times higher than those of one rival bidder, and 11 times higher than another. According to Margaret Hodges’ investigation of the project, the amount the Heatherwick practice earned from the project stood at over £2.6m:

Section 37, page 10. Thanks to Dan Anderson for digging this out.

In other words, Heatherwick has a financial interest, as well as an artistic one, here.


Oddly, he doesn’t see fit to mention this, either. He is just a disappointed Londoner, saddened that something beautiful won’t happen, because the taxpayer cannot recognise his vision.

As I suggested at the top of this thing, there’s one word which sums up this mess: “entitlement”. This wouldn’t normally be that big a deal – people who write newspaper columns are generally a pretty entitled breed (hi) – except it’s that entitlement that has doomed the project.

Heatherwick felt entitled to accompany former mayor Boris Johnson to meetings with sponsors, before his firm had even won the contract to build the bridge. Heatherwick Studios felt entitled to design the bridge, despite not having built a bridge over water before.

And when the project failed to raise the necessary private cash, the bridge’s backers felt entitled to public money to plug the gap.

There’s nothing in Heatherwick’s column about any of this. He simply feels entitled to his bridge, because he wants it, whatever the practical problems that have prevented it from coming into existence.

Instead, he blames the bridge’s demise on “political wrangling”. It’s a funny way of saying “we failed”.

This story was updated at 2pm to incorporate extra information about the project's finances.

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.