If we covered London like the media covers Africa...

Local strongman "Bambo" Johnson taunts his enemies with a traditional gesture. Image: Getty.

Veteran travellers who criss-cross London, Britain’s booming capital, have no shortage of tales of the extraordinary. A cable car, erected at vast expense to the taxpayer, which has few regular passengers. A custom-made bus, intended to symbolise the city’s bright future, which reaches dangerous levels of heat in the summer months. The city’s Olympic Stadium, which has been given over to West Ham, a football club from London’s shanty towns, for an annual rent of just £2.5m, against an estimated cost to the taxpayer of £700m.

It all comes back to “Bambo” Johnson, the eccentric strongman who is still beloved by the natives, now nearing the end of his term of office, but whose reputation for lavishing taxpayer funds on eye-catching projects has called into question the city’s governance.

The latest boondoggle is the soi-disant “Garden Bridge”, the brainchild of one of the region’s most popular performers, who, as the star of the show Absolutely Fabulous, has delighted the townsfolk for many decades. The bridge’s chief architect is not an architect but a designer, Thomas Heatherwick, who has been the preferred target of Bambo’s largesse. It was Heatherwick who designed the new Routemasters, a paean to the capital’s better days, and part of the atavist streak that has global finance increasingly concerned by the city’s turn away from 21st century thinking.


The cost of the Garden Bridge – intended as a memorial to the deceased Princess of Wales, who has something approaching god-like status among the city’s denizens – has skyrocketed over the years. The taxpayer will now end up paying out £60m into its construction, and close to an additional £4m towards its upkeep*.

International observers are pessimistic about the capital’s hopes of reform. The two candidates most likely to succeed Bambo are the leftist Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith, a languid aristocrat who favours an “Out” vote in the country’s coming referendum on its membership of the European Union, despite concerns that this will further disadvantage the locals. Both are committed to maintaining the Garden Bridge.

For those hoping for a city administration that blends innovation with genuine rigour, the 2016 election will bring little respite.

*UPDATE: The Garden Bridge Trust has now been in touch, and asked us to publish the following message for our readers:

“The Bridge will not cost the British taxpayer £60m. £30m of public money has been received from the Department for Transport and £30m from Transport for London but £20m of this will be repayable over a period of time. The public will not be paying for £4m a year for maintenance costs either. Maintenance costs are estimated at £2m a year and will be paid for by the Garden Bridge Trust who have a business plan to raise money through the hosting of private events for the costs.

“Also, just to point out that the Bridge is not dedicated to the memory of the late Princess Diana, this was Joanna Lumley’s original idea.  However this aspect was not really looked at again when the idea of the Bridge started to be looked at seriously in 2012. The idea of the Bridge is for people to be able to cross the bridge in their own time and pace and enjoy new views of London in a tranquil setting.”

Stephen Bush is the editor of our sister site, the Staggers

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As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.


The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.