6 questions we still have about London's Garden Bridge

The Garden Bridge: monster or marvel?

London’s proposed Garden Bridge is a bit like the Rorschach inkblot test. To some, it looks like a new piece of public space and infrastructure in central London, littered with delightful greenery. To others, it looks a bit like a suspect waste of money probably motivated by, basically, pure evil.

These different perspectives are possible largely because of the substantial number of unanswered questions still surrounding the plans for the bridge, construction of which is due to begin at the end of 2015. Here are six – plus any answers we’ve been able to unearth so far.  

1. Just how much public money will be spent on it?

Until recently, everyone has been under the impression that the £175m cost of the bridge's construction will split into £60 worth of public investment and £115m of private money. Earlier this month, mayor Boris Johnson assured LBC listeners  that “the maintenance cost will not be borne by the public sector, I’ve made that clear.”

But last week, Architects’ Journal got hold of a letter in which the Greater London Authority appears to agree to underwrite the bridge’s £3.5m maintenance cost. 

We asked the Garden Bridge Trust (GBT) about this, and a spokesperson told us that the GLA had only underwritten the costs because the GBT could promise a “robust business plan” which should cover all maintenance: 

The Garden Bridge Trust fully intends and expects to raise the money required for both the construction of the Garden Bridge and the ongoing maintenance and operations. More than £120m has been pledged so far and we have a clear business plan in place to raise the estimated £3.5m per annum needed to cover the on-going costs.

Answer: Probably only that initial £60m. Probably.

2. Will you have to pay to cross it?

Rumours about the bridge's funding and its closure for private events led some to think passerby would have to pay to cross the bridge. This, however, isn't the case: private events would presumably be ticketed, but anyone crossing during normal hours could do so for free. 

Answer: No. 

3. Does it even count as a bridge?

Back in November, reports emerged that the bridge would not be open to cyclists, would close at night and for private events, and would only be open to groups of eight or more if they let staff know in advance. Also, that picnics (read: joy) would be banned. 

These regulations would hugely negate the usefulness of the bridge as a pedestrian walkway – you wouldn't be able to rely on crossing it whenever you needed to, so it'd be unlikely to form part of anyone's regular journeys. The rules on large groups and eating sandwiches would also make it less of a park or public space. 

On this, the GBT spokesperson said that the regulations on use are still under discussion. On the groups of eight issue, they said: 

Most public spaces have ways of managing large groups to ensure the safety and comfort of visitors. The Trust had to include this in the planning application and put forward an initial figure of more than 8 people... this was a starting point only and we are talking to stakeholders and the local planning authority to confirm our agreed numbers. 

And on the picnics?

The bridge is a place for people to linger and admire new views of the city, but it will also provide an efficient route for commuters... We will ask users to be considerate to others when using the bridge.

So, not massively clear then.

Answer: Yes, if enough of the limitations on its use are taken away. 

4. Is it in the right place?

Even if you do consider a walkway that's shut half the time and closed to cyclists a "bridge", it hasn't been planned for an area that particularly needs one. The proposed site is between Blackfriars Bridge and Waterloo Bridge, to link Temple with the Southbank:

This location only strengthens the impression that this is more tourist attraction than infrastructure project, however. There are already three bridges within 1km of the proposed crossing.

To the east, meanwhile, there's a long stretch of the river which is effectively uncrossable, where a bridge – even a limited one – would have genuinely come in handy. 

Answer: For maximum footfall from West End audiences and Southbank visitors, yes. For actual Londoners, no. 

5. Was Thomas Heatherwick the right designer for the job?

In another exclusive, Architects’ Journal revealed a couple of weeks ago that the bridge's chosen designer, Thomas Heatherwick, was scored more highly for bridge experience by TfL than the other two firms, despite the fact that both have designed far more bridges than him. 

Wilkinson Eyre, one of the firms turned down for the contract, lists 27 bridge projects on its website. Heatherwick, meanwhile, has reportedly only designed one. 

6. Is it a secret Diana memorial?

When Joanna Lumley first dreamt up the idea of a garden bridge back in 1997, she envisioned it as a memorial for the recently deceased Lady Di. We thought it was worth checking whether this was still the case.

According to the GBT spokesman, at least, the project is no longer linked to the people's princess in any way.

Answer: No, thank goodness. She's stuck with that fountain in Hyde Park and Kensington's Diana Memorial Playground. Sorry, Express readers.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.