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The Garden Bridge project

Unity Legal Solutions exists to challenge the legal market, to disrupt anti-competitive practices and to ensure that the business community gets legal services which provide best value for money. However, Unity has been appalled by the huge waste of money involved in the aborted London Garden Bridge project and we have asked Dom Billins to provide the facts.

Joanna Lumley had initially proposed the idea of the Garden Bridge as a ‘Floating Paradise’- a verdant, tree-lined bridge crossing in the heart of London linking the South Bank with the Temple. Yet this vision never came to fruition and ended amid acrimony this summer with Mayor Sadiq Khan withdrawing support after £37m of public money had been spent on the project without a brick being laid. The project has been shrouded in controversy from the start and there are many in the capital asking questions as to why so much public money was being offered (and eventually wasted) in economically uncertain times for a vanity project in an already well connected and wealthy area of London.
When Sadiq Khan took over as Mayor from Boris Johnson he asked Margaret Hodge to conduct a formal review of the project to assess its value for money and whether proper procurement procedures were being upheld. What Hodge found was that the business case for the bridge was weak and the clarity of purpose confused, and therefore represented poor value for money. This raises important questions as to why the project could proceed unchecked for a sustained period, despite consistent warnings regarding the project’s value to the taxpayer.

On any major infrastructure project, but particularly one involving public money, it is essential that there is a strong clarity of purpose and a timely and robust business case is produced. A strategic business case was produced for the Garden Bridge, but this only occurred after contracts had been secured (Arup for Engineering, Heatherwick studios for design), pre-construction preparations were in place and a £50m package of Government funding had been announced. The business case presented a weak argument for public investment and was seriously lacking in any evidence to back up its claims. This ultimately derived from a confusion as to what the project was about and what it intended to achieve with Boris Johnson admitting ‘he wasn’t really sure what it was for’. It is therefore hardly surprising that The Garden Trust was unable to raise the private funds necessary when its proponents didn’t even know the Bridge’s major function and this lack of clarity severely undermined value for money and public support.

As the person largely responsible for overseeing its implementation, it appears that Boris Johnson pushed the project through the system with a flagrant disregard for due process. Despite opting to proceed with a competitive public procurement for the design of the bridge, there is no evidence to suggest procurement was open and fair with Heatherwick studios clearly pre-selected. Richard de Cani (London’s director of planning) and Isabel Dedring (Deputy major of Transport) ensured that Heatherwick won the right to the project with evidence of irregular point scoring, allowing Heatherwick to revise their bid and providing them with far more time for their proposal than their competitors. With Boris Johnson mid-way through his 2nd term as Major, it is evident the procurement process was manipulated to their preferred outcome and rushed through before the Major’s 2nd term was up.

Public support for the project dwindled over time due to escalating costs and the huge burden expected of the taxpayer. What was initially envisioned as a privately funded ‘gift’ managed and run by the Garden Bridge Trust, was now going to cost Londoners £60m with an additional £3.5m per year in maintenance costs. Once the project had collapsed, its proponents lay the blame at Mayor Sadiq Khan’s feet who refused to commit any more than the £60m committed by the government and TFL. The reality is that what began as a forecasted £60m project, had escalated to £200m, two major donors had pulled out that summer and £70m of private funds was still required to plug the gap. The Garden Bridge Trust had also failed to consult local people on the project who questioned why public funds were being spent on something that would be privately run and make its own rules for access. The evidence leads us to believe that public interest was not a priority, but rather to satisfy the interests of a close group of friends and associates. This is supported by the fact that Ben Emmott worked for Heatherwick Studios whilst executive director at the Garden Bridge Trust and that Joanna Lumley was both a Trustee for the Trust, along with an associate of Heatherwick Studio’s; not to mention being a childhood friend of Boris Johnson.

From the start of the project standard regulatory procedures were not followed and value for money not properly assessed which led to a huge amount of public money being squandered. Serious questions must be raised as to why the Garden Trust could sign construction and landscaping contracts when they didn’t yet own the rights to the land and hadn’t secured all the funding. £37m is a huge figure to spend on pre-construction and far exceeds the average for similarly large public infrastructure projects and, considering ARUP’s procurement process was highly questionable, why were they still able to walk away we a sum upwards of £8.5m? The Garden Trust were exempt from standard freedom of information laws and their published accounts seem intentionally vague, yet if they say that, for example, money was spent on “procuring and placing orders for materials”, where are these materials now? Considering the suspect nature in which contracts were secured and the unrestricted way public money was spent, a serious legal challenge could be one way of retrieving some of this money.

Despite serious concerns over value for money, funds were channelled to the Trust through TFL regardless and despite a cap on the use funds for pre-construction activity. The cap was relaxed on three separate occasions and twice against the advice of civil servants. Decisions on the Garden Bridge were informed by Mayoral Direction which allowed Boris to instruct TFL to allocate money for the Bridge. This meant that despite both TFL’s Commissioner and its Finance and Policy Committee disagreeing with the use public funds, their advice was ignored and Mayoral Direction took precedence. It is therefore essential that when a Mayoral Direction is applied the TFL audit offices needs a more stringent process of checks and balances to ensure that transparency and accountability for using taxpayers’ money is of paramount importance.

If mistakes are to be learnt from this calamitous project, it is that greater transparency and accountability needs to be upheld when taxpayer’s money is at risk. There must now be a concerted effort to hold those responsible accountable and return some of this squandered cash back into the public purse. Unity will now start that process.

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