It was supposed to bring a breath of fresh air to the Big Smoke. But the foundations for the proposed new walkway over the Thames are looking shaky. Simon Wilson reports.
The plan was to build a pedestrian “garden bridge” across the Thames in the centre of London, linking the South Bank (at a point close to the ITV building, about 250 metres east of Waterloo Bridge) to Temple tube station on the north side of the river. It would be 366 metres long, and 30 metres wide at its widest point, and – while privately owned by a trust established with public money – it would be a new green space in the heart of London, planted with trees and shrubs, hedging plants and climbers, perennials, ferns, grasses and bulbs.
In short, it would be a rather lovely addition to the life of the city – albeit an expensive one that wouldn’t do much to improve cross-river links in a part of London already well served by bridges. Unlike, say, the whole of east London and the suburban southwest of the city.
Will it ever be built?
It’s looking ever more unlikely. Until last spring, things appeared to be progressing nicely for the project. Planning permission had been granted by both Lambeth (on the south side) and the City of Westminster, and the trust had attracted £60m in public funds and £70m in pledges of private money (according to Mervyn Davies, chairman of the Garden Bridge Trust). Contractors had been appointed.
The then prime minister, David Cameron, and chancellor, George Osborne, both backed the project, and the then London mayor, Boris Johnson, had thrown his weight behind it, even promising (after repeatedly fudging the issue for months) that the Greater London Authority would meet the estimated ongoing running costs of about £3m. Since then, however, all of its political sponsors have moved on, and question marks over the bridge’s financing and value for money have grown to a point where the project’s foundations are looking very shaky indeed.
What question marks?
Last July preparatory work for the bridge was halted to allow for a financial review by the new mayor, Sadiq Khan, and due to worries over the fact that the trust had signed a construction contract before securing an agreement to land the bridge at its southern end with the owners of the land (on a long leasehold from Lambeth), Coin Street Community Builders.
In September, Khan announced a formal review by Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking best known in recent years as the chair of the influential Public Accounts Committee between 2010 and 2015, into the bridge’s procurement processes, contracts and value for public money. And then in January the Garden Bridge Trust filed rather ominous annual accounts.
In what way ominous?
They showed the trust still hadn’t secured the land it needs for the bridge’s southern landing, that there’s a shortfall of £56m on the estimated £185m they now say is needed to build it (three times the initial projected spend, and ten times the cost of the Millennium Bridge, a few hundred yards downstream), and the trust may need additional funding in the first half of this year that would not be repayable “if the project is unable to proceed”.
The accounts also show that – despite the trust’s claims that the bridge remains wildly popular with Londoners – it only managed to raise £13m from private sources last year. And the chairman warned that “due to 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”.
So does Hodge want it scrapped?
Pretty much. Hodge makes clear in her report, published earlier this month, that she has nothing in principle against building an iconic new garden bridge over the Thames. She even argues that this kind of grand building project is a perfectly legitimate means by which a London mayor might want to add lustre and glory to the city’s offer as a global destination. And nor does she actually call for the whole thing to be junked (addressing that question was not part of her remit).
What she does say, however, is that there is no chance of the Garden Bridge delivering decent value for money in terms of public investment; that there should be no further public investment in it; that the investment to date (of £46m, including projected cancellation costs) should be written off if the project can’t be financed privately.
What are the chances of that?
Hodge doesn’t believe the trust in charge is in fact capable of attracting enough money to get it built, and there is little evidence of public enthusiasm for it. The trust needs, she told The Guardian, to “take a grown-up decision”. Hodge concludes that every step away from the initial pitch – that this was a project to be financed privately – has intensified the risk to the public purse, and gives Khan plenty of ammunition if he now chooses to scrap it. Which is quite possibly what he was hoping for all along. On the other hand, if he can give it one more kick into the long grass, the project might collapse without him having to kill it: planning permission will lapse if they don’t start building work this year.
It’s not just about the money
The Hodge report doesn’t just raise questions about the financing of the project, but about how it was conceived and managed. She criticises the opaque process by which the fashionable designer Thomas Heatherwick, one of the people who conceived the idea of the bridge (along with the actress Joanna Lumley), was selected by the trust as its chosen designer. She says the whole purpose of the bridge is unclear even to its proponents. She slams the lack of transparency over costs, questions why the Cameron government put pressure on civil servants to back the scheme, and criticises Boris Johnson’s sloppy oversight of the whole project. Unlike all the other key parties involved, Johnson declined to speak to Hodge on the grounds that he was too busy.