“There’s more”: the case for scrapping London’s Garden Bridge

The bridge in question. Image: Heatherwick Studio.

Congratulations to Sadiq Khan, the new mayor of London. That he prevailed so convincingly in the face of a despicable campaign by Zac Goldsmith has temporarily renewed my faith in democracy. I still don’t think that the right person won; but the wrong person didn’t. Good enough.

The mayor’s in-tray is overflowing with issues left unresolved by his predecessor. Housing, transport and the environment are surely at the top of the agenda – all intractable problems that won’t be solved overnight.

But there is one decision that needs to be made quickly, and it will immediately signal the type of Mayor that Sadiq Khan intends to be: the Garden Bridge.

Boris Johnson famously ignored the fine detail of any issue, always opting for expediency over process. It’s a quality that produced a lot of media-friendly soundbites, and a great 15-minute spot on the Letterman show. It also lies at the heart that of all that has gone wrong with this troubled project.

So, what can we expect from Sadiq? Will it be four more years of hollow rhetoric and throwaway quips? Or will Khan be the kind of mayor that learns the facts and does the maths? Who exactly did we elect: Jed Bartlett or Bingo Bob? How Sadiq Khan approaches the vexed issue of the Garden Bridge will be a good indication.

The project has been a thorn in Sadiq’s side since Day One. Shortly after launching his campaign, he came out unambiguously against the Bridge, calling it a “white elephant” and claiming he’d scrap it because:

“...it no longer represents value for money. This was supposed to be an entirely privately funded project costing £60m, but the overall cost has tripled, and £60m is being paid for out of the public purse.”

There followed some savage criticism by the Evening Standard that portrayed Sadiq Khan as a sour puss killjoy who hates flowers.He promptly went into a huddle with Transport for London and The Garden Bridge Trust and emerged as the project’s apologist-in-chief.

The face-saving device that allowed this dramatic u-turn was a new financing deal through which part of the TfL grant would be converted into a soft loan. It allowed Khan to duck every subsequent question with the phrase: “The money has all been spent”.

But that isn’t true.

So here is another memo for the mayor’s in-tray. These are the facts. Will they inform his first big decision? Or can we expect another eight years of superficial bullshit masquerading as policy?

 

SUBJECT:The Garden Bridge

Mr mayor:

When you refer to all of the money having been spent, you mean just that part of the funding over which the Mayor’s Office has direct control – namely, the grant from TFL.

Some £10m of that really has been spent – on design, engineering, planning, and professional fees, as well as a comically biased poll to fool the public and a costly VR gimmick to fool Nick Clegg.

The next £20m from TFL was converted from a grant into your peace-in-our-time repayment plan.Let’s leave aside the fact that a 50-year low-interest loan deal is not what any reasonable observer could describe as either “a loan” or “a deal”. It is also undermined by the fact that the GLA, through TfL, has guaranteed the operating costs of The Garden Bridge, including the repayment of its own loan.

It’s like taking a loan from one branch of Barclays that is insured by the Barclays branch across the street. Admittedly, that sounds like something that Barclays might do, but I’d like the mayor of London to be a little smarter than that.

That’s £20m right off the bat that can be put to better use.

There’s more.

Your predecessor loved to crow about the fact that “the public funding element of the project is being used to secure considerable private sector investment”.The only thing that mattered to Johnson was that every pound of public funding was matched by two pounds of private investment. To Boris, the cow goes moo, that cat goes meow, and private investment is A Good Thing.

That is, however, a misleading interpretation of the facts. The Garden Bridge is not so much levering new private investment as it is cannibalising funds that would have been spent anyway.

The Garden Bridge Trust has, to date, been notoriously secretive about its funding. Fortunately, in their inevitable correction to an earlier version of this article, the Trust provided the most revealing breakdown to date of where all the money is coming from. 

This is what we now know:

Sources of capital funding for the Garden Bridge. Source: The Garden Bridge Trust.

This shows just how little additional investment is actually being leveraged by the £60m of public funding. 

First, much of the private funding comes from Trusts and Foundations that exist only to fund good causes. That isn’t “new” money: without The Garden Bridge, the £20m pledge from The Monument Trust and the £2m grant from the Garfield Weston Foundation would be available to other charities.

Much the same could be said about corporate sponsorship. Most sponsorship comes out of designated funds within an organisation’s marketing budget. Glencore might struggle to shift 240 metric tonnes of cupranickel, but it stands to reason that Citi would have likely found some other cause to support with its £3m.

Put simply, the Bridge is tying up some £60m that has not “already been spent” and that could be released to fund other, better projects.

There’s more.

Boris has committed the GLA to guaranteeing the Bridge’s operating costs. That’s the little poisoned pill that he approved just days before he left office.

According to Transport for London’s Strategic Outline Business Case:

“The estimated cost of ongoing operation and maintenance for the Garden Bridge is estimated to be around £2.5m per year from 2018 onwards. Over a 60-year period this equates to £150m (2014 prices).”

As taxpayers, we are on the hook for that £150m. Yet nobody outside the Garden Bridge Trust or Transport for London has seen the business plan that describes how these operating costs will be covered. 


What we do know isn’t encouraging. In order to secure a deal with the planning authority and the landowner in Lambeth, the Trust gave away most of the income from the South Bank landing. That is some valuable real estate, but the rent will be split between Coin Street Community Builders and Lambeth Council. Most of the sponsorship inventory has been capitalised to pay for the build, and there can’t be much of it left to pay for operations. The Trust insists that it has no intention to ticket or charge and it is limited to 12 closures per annum for private hire.

Just how much does the Trust think it can charge for cocktail parties on the Thames? You can hire the whole of Kensington Roof Gardens for £5,000. If this is the Trust’s main source of income, then it would need to be priced higher than one day’s exclusive use of a Formula One track. That’s not going to happen.

It begs the question that Johnson never cared to ask: where is the rest of the money going to come from?

Most councils would not approve this kind of guarantee without poring over the business plan and having it independently challenged. To endorse the Garden Bridge guarantee without similar scrutiny is irresponsible beyond measure. You must do better, Mr Mayor. That is a lot of future bail-out money that has not “already been spent” and can still be saved.

There’s more.

We are careering towards the start of construction, and the Trust still has a £30m gap to close. In the context of The Garden Bridge – with its exorbitant £175m budget – that may seem trivial. By comparison to almost any other project, that is still a mountain to climb. You could get change back from a whole other bridge in Pimlico for £30m.

And this is just the gap that the Trust itself has acknowledged: it may actually be larger than that. Another revealing nugget from the background information usefully provided by the Trust is this:

“Some organisations are anonymous at the moment because we are in the process of finalising contracts with them, and several major announcements are planned soon.”

In other words, some deals haven’t actually closed yet.

So what happens if the Trust fails to close the gap?According to the funding agreement with TfL, payments are subject to the Trust’s demonstration that it has secured “or is able to secure” the necessary funding. In the event that a shortfall remains, this puts the decision to start at TfL’s discretion.

In light of the Greater London Assembly’s damning critique of TfL’s procedural failures in procurement, can it really be trusted to provide robust oversight of the project’s funding and finance?

There is at least £30m more at stake and TfL is, by now, more politically than financially invested in the project. That is more money that hasn’t “already been spent” – but it’s a burden that looks increasingly likely to fall on the public sector.

There’s more.

A large proportion of the private investment is still unaccounted for. Try as you like, it is impossible to fully reconcile the list of donors on the website with the funding breakdown provided by the Trust. There must be a few very large givers in the mix who are as yet unidentified.

There are any number of legitimate reasons – fiscal, personal or spiritual – why some givers would want to remain anonymous. Some aren’t interested in the praise and plaudits. Others are anxious about opening themselves up to endless requests from other charities. They may not want to be drawn into any surrounding controversy. In most cases, the anonymity of donors is not a cause for concern.

But most projects are not so closely associated with senior politicians. Thew hole air of mystery surrounding the Trust’s fundraising is therefore disturbing. Caroline Pigeon AM wrote to the Trust asking for a detailed breakdown of donors and was fobbed off by a letter saying, “a list of contributors who are content that their commitment be publicly acknowledged is publicly available on our website”.

Johnson was worse. In response to an official question from the London Assembly, he wrote:

“The Garden Bridge Trust’s accounts and details of its fundraising are commercially sensitive and these are not routinely shared with TfL or the GLA.”

Huh? This is an organisation that is spending £60m of taxpayers’ money and is ultimately underwritten by the public sector. How can its financial details be too “commercially sensitive” for the GLA?

Mr Mayor, you should be deeply concerned that your predecessor worked so hard to shield this project from the prying eyes of Freedom of Information laws. When projects are known to be the personal favourites of particular politicians, they can become fertile ground for “tactical” giving. Remember the Hinduja Foundation and its £1m donation to the Millennium Dome? That cost Peter Mandelson his job.

I’m sure that nothing anything like so sinister is happening here – but for the avoidance of doubt, it’s in TfL’s interest to prove it. I’m not a conspiracy theorist by nature, but I’d be a little bit fidgety about “anonymous” donors to The Garden Bridge.

Yesterday, it was announced in The Observer that you’ve already initiated a review of the project “looking in more detail at some of the issues raised about the procurement”. It’s a good start, but you will hopefully look beyond the narrow procedural issue of a faulty procurement process. That the procurement process was so badly handled is but the symptom of a much more malignant disease that has infected every aspect of this project, including its funding and finance.

This whole project is a hospital pass that went from Joanna Lumley to Thomas Heatherwick to Boris Johnson. The ball is now waiting for you at City Hall. Will you simply pass it off as “Johnson’s folly, not my fault”; or will you get stuck into the gory details?

We all hope it’s the latter. The details are important. Whatever you think you know about The Garden Bridge –

There’s more.

Dan Anderson is an economist and a director at destination consultants Fourth Street.

 
 
 
 

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.