This is why the Garden Bridge may never actually happen

Be honest, you're going to miss this artist's impression when we stop using it. Image: bloody Heatherwick again.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article originally incorrectly stated that the new bridge had yet to gain planning permission on the South Bank of the river. We are happy to make this correction.

One of the great mysteries of contemporary London is how the Garden Bridge project came to be so hated. Gardens are nice. Bridges are nice. Even Joanna Lumley, if you’re into such things, is nice.

And yet, at least among the sort of people inclined to bang on about municipal politics on social media, the Garden Bridge seems to have become an icon of everything that is wrong with contemporary London: money thrown at functionless nicknacks for tourists and the rich corporations, and designed by the authorities’ mates, even while the city’s real problems go unsolved. It takes impressive PR skills to turn what is essentially just a park into the infrastructure equivalent of the Masque of the Red Death, but somehow the Garden Bridge’s backers have done it.

Anyway, for the reason, the publication of the Garden Bridge Trust’s accounts yesterday caused rather more excitement than some numbers from a charity normally would. The Trust has tended to respond to all stories about them with bland assurances that everything is just peachy (honestly, they once asked me to add a clarification to what was very obviously a joke story), so you might expect the news to be good.

The news is not good. The accounts, which cover the 17 months to March 2016, and are put together by the charity’s trustees – effectively, its board, rather than its management – conclude that the project is in serious trouble. The key line in the introduction by the trust’s chairman, Lord Mervyn Davies, is this:

“Due to the material uncertainties in existence ahead of finalising these accounts, trustees are unable to conclude that the trust is a going concern, and feel it only appropriate to flag these risks in this report.”

“Not a going concern” is exactly the phrase you want people reading just before you ask them to donate to your infrastructure project.

So what’s gone wrong?

The costs have soared

The project was expected to cost £185m. Its actual costs are now likely to “substantially exceed” that.

The project still needs more public support

One of the hurdles still to be overcome, Davies notes, will be to get mayor Sadiq Khan to promise to honour the pledge made by his predecessor that the London city authorities will guarantee the bridge’s future maintenance costs. It’s unclear, to say the least, that Khan has any intention of doing this. More likely, in fact, he’s trying to cancel it by stealth.


Donations are down

Even to cover the £185m, the Trust would need to raise another £56m. Yet in the 17 month period covered in the accounts, the trust raised just £13m in new private donations for the bridge. At that rate, it’s going to take years.

The clock is ticking

And the project doesn’t have years. The planning consent the bridge has on the north bank of the river, from Westminster council, expires in December 2017. (It also requires a deal to be in place to guarantee maintenance costs, hence the pressure on Sadiq Khan to do what Boris Johnson promised.)

So – the Garden Bridge Trust needs to find substantially more than £56m, get more planning consent, and persuade the mayor the project is worth throwing more money at, all in the next few months – otherwise, the whole thing is dead. Good luck with that.

It’s a shame, in its way. The Garden Bridge should be lovely: a new park, in a part of London that’s short of them. But it probably isn’t going to happen – and the project’s chequered history mean that many won’t mourn when it doesn’t.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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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.