The promoters of the £200m project, which was always conceived as a visitor attraction rather than transport infrastructure, have conceded defeat in their bid to attract sufficient private donations.
The Garden Bridge Trust, the charity established to build and manage the proposed structure, has informed the Mayor of London, as well as Transport for London (TfL) and the Department for Transport, which have both allocated public funds to the project, of its decision.
The Garden Bridge project will now be formally closed. All contracts will be terminated, including those with French builder Bouygues, Italian steelwork contractor Cimolai and designers Arup, Heatherwick Studio and Dan Pearson Studios. The Trust itself will be wound up in accordance with the Companies Acts.
The Trust blamed the collapse of the project on London mayor Sadiq Khan’s refusal to underwrite the annual maintenance costs. This scared off potential donors, it said.
Transport for London (TfL) and the government had previously each committed £30m to the Garden Bridge. The remaining funding was being solicited through private donations. Of the £30m pledged by TfL, £20m was in the form of a loan that was expected to be repaid.
Sadiq Khan revealed in May 2016 that of the £60m of taxpayers money pledged, £37.7m had already been spent by the Garden Bridge Trust without breaking ground.
The Garden Bridge Trust and the office of former mayor Boris Johnson appeared to have survived allegations of financial improbity and breach of public procurement rules, despite clear evidence of project designers being given jobs on the project on the basis of celebrity friends.
Notable backers of the project include TV's Joanna Lumley, who is credited with persuading Boris Johnson to put his weight into the project. Prominent critics included architect Ian Ritchie, who described the project as "a wonderful exercise in celebrity hype and hubris".
However, the report produced by Dame Margaret Hodge into the project, commissioned by Sadiq Khan, was the final nail in the coffin of the Garden Bridge. Published in April 2017, it concluded that it would be better to scrap the project at a cost of £46.4m to the taxpayer than to risk going ahead with it. It also confirmed that the taxpayer-funded contracts awarded to Heatherwick Studio and Arup were done so without fair and open competition.
“There is an overriding duty on all public servants and elected politicians to act with integrity in administering public money," Dame Margaret wrote in her report. "The money they are using is not their money; it is the taxpayers’ money. The mayor’s appointees in City Hall should have stood up to Boris Johnson’s determination to achieve the outcome he wanted. TfL’s commissioner and his staff should not have interpreted a clear and proper desire of the mayor to build a Garden Bridge as a licence to contravene procedures. The rules exist to protect public money and ensure due process is followed. They were not followed appropriately.”
No legal charges have yet been brought against any of those involved, however, either for abuse of public office or breach of procurement law.
Lord Mervyn Davies, chairman of the Garden Bridge Trust, said: "It is with great regret that trustees have concluded that without mayoral support the project cannot be delivered. We are incredibly sad that we have not been able to make the dream of the Garden Bridge a reality and that the mayor does not feel able to continue with the support he initially gave us. We had made great progress obtaining planning permission, satisfying most of our planning conditions and we had raised £70m of private money towards the project.”
Confirming that there was no transport rationale for the bridge, he added: "The Garden Bridge would have been a unique place; a beautiful new green space in the heart of London, free to use and open to all, showcasing the best of British talent and innovation. It is all the more disappointing because the Trust was set up at the request of TfL, the organisation headed up by the Mayor, to deliver the project. It is a sad day for London because it is sending out a message to the world that we can no longer deliver such exciting projects.”
Sadiq Khan said: “It’s my duty to ensure taxpayers’ money is spent responsibly. Following the very serious issues highlighted in Dame Margaret Hodge’s independent review of the bridge - including a funding gap of over £70m, potentially unlimited costs to London taxpayers to fund the bridge in the future, systemic failings in the procurement process and decisions not being driven by value for money – I could not permit a single penny more of London taxpayers’ money being spent on it.
“I have been clear since before I became mayor that no more London taxpayers’ money should be spent on this project and when I took office I gave the Garden Bridge Trust time to try and address the multiple serious issues with it.
“Londoners will, like me, be very angry that London taxpayers have now lost tens of millions of pounds – committed by the previous mayor on a project that has amounted to nothing.”