Will it really cost the taxpayer twice as much to cancel London's Garden Bridge as to build it?

Yes it's that bloody artist's impression all over again. Image: Heatherwick Studios.

Our leader has spoken: London’s ridiculous Garden Bridge project is going ahead.

At his first mayor’s question time this morning, Sadiq Khan confirmed the plan, claiming that it would cost the taxpayer twice as much to cancel the project – or “horticultural oasis”, as the ever balanced Evening Standard puts it – as it would to complete it.

Here are the key paragraphs from the paper's report:

Transport for London (TfL) and the government have previously committed £30m each to the Garden Bridge, with the remainder raised through private donations.

Of the £30m pledged by TfL, £20m is in the form of a loan to be repaid in full.

Mr Khan revealed that of the £60m total of taxpayers’ money, £37.7m had already been spent. If the project was scrapped now, this would be lost in full with no benefit at all for Londoners or taxpayers.

The Mayor said if the Garden Bridge is completed, the loan would be repaid, and the Trust behind it would also pay £22m in VAT to the Treasury.

The final cost to the public purse would then be just £18m – less than half the cost of cancelling.

Hmmm. As so often with anything Garden Bridge-related, all this smells slightly odd to me – and for a couple of different reasons.

For one thing, that £20m is indeed a loan – but it’s not one that’s going to be repaid any time soon. It’s a 50 year loan, which is an insanely long time to be repaying anything: mortgages and US government bonds don’t have terms that long.

So, yes, technically, the taxpayer should get that share of its money back. But there’s a strong chance than Sadiq Khan, Joanna Lumley, Thomas Heatherwick and I will all be dead by the time that it does. Short-termism is not a good quality in a politician, but this is nonetheless not the comfort Khan seems to imagine.

The second reason I’m cynical about the mayor’s support for the garden bridge is that word “should”. Yes, the Garden Bridge Trust should repay its loan. No, it is not guaranteed that it will.

While we’re at it the Greater London Authority, very kindly, agreed to guarantee the Bridge’s operating costs (thanks for that, Boris). Those, we’re told are £2.5m a year – which, TfL’s strategic outline business case notes helpfully, is £150m over 60 years.

The problem is that, for reasons Dan Anderson outlined here, it’s not clear how it’s going to make the money to do any of that. There are few sponsorship opportunities that haven’t already been sold. The Garden Bridge Trust has said the Bridge won’t be ticketed, and will only be closed for private hire a maximum of 12 times a year. And the mayor just said that the bridge should be “more accessible and open to all Londoners”, which is very noble, but seems to restrict the pile of options for increasing revenues yet further.

Yet somehow, the GBT has to make enough money to cover £2.5m in operating costs, plus loan repayments, every year. It’s not entirely obvious that the sums add up – and if they don’t, it’s the taxpayer who’s on the hook.

So – cancelling the Bridge would mean losing the £37.7m the taxpayer has already spent; if the Bridge goes ahead, the taxpayer contribution will be just £18m. But that latter figure will only be accurate if the GBT can recoup £2.5m in operating costs (plus loan repayments!) every year through sources we’re still not entirely clear about, and even then we have to wait 50 years for the loan to be paid off.

I’m not saying the mayor is wrong. But as a taxpayer, I’d quite like to see the business plan that proves that he’s right.

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

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Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.

Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

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