An independent review of the proposed Garden Bridge project has said it would be better to scrap the project at a cost of £46.4m to the taxpayer than to risk going ahead with it.
The review also found that the taxpayer-funded contracts awarded to Heatherwick Studio and Arup were done so without fair and open competition. Systemic failures are exposed.
In October 2016 the mayor of London Sadiq Khan commissioned Dame Margaret Hodge MP to lead an independent review of the Garden Bridge project. Her report has now been published.
She writes: “What started life as a project costing an estimated £60m is likely to end up costing over £200 million. At the same time the Garden Bridge Trust has lost two major donors and has only secured £69 million in private funding pledges, leaving a gap of at least £70m that needs to be raised for the capital investment. No new pledges have been obtained since August 2016.
“There are continuing risks and uncertainties associated with the capital costs which I set out in detail in this review which can only lead to further increases in the capital costs. In my judgment the mayor should not sign any guarantees until it is confirmed that the private capital money to build the bridge has been secured by the Garden Bridge Trust.
“At the same time I am sceptical that the Garden Bridge Trust will succeed in raising all the private capital monies required and I am firmly of the view that more public money will be needed to complete the construction. The trust’s finances are in a precarious state as is clear from their recent report and accounts in which the trust stated it was extremely difficult to conclude a going concern assessment. Furthermore the project has become very controversial with the public.”
Sadiq Khan has always seemed sceptical about the project, but a year ago said that it would be too costly to cancel because there would be no hope of recouping government loans to the trust.
Margaret Hodge suggests it is a price worth paying. She writes: “The project has already used £37.4m of public money and the agreement to underwrite cancellation costs by the government could bring the bill to the taxpayer up to £46.4m. I believe it is better for the taxpayer to accept the loss than to risk the additional demands if the project proceeds. In the present climate, with continuing pressures on public spending, it is difficult to justify further public investment in the Garden Bridge.”
Many parties come out looking bad from the fiasco, but none more so than former mayor Boris Johnson, now foreign secretary, who refused to answer any of Dame Margaret's questions. “I deeply regret that Boris Johnson, the London mayor ultimately responsible for all the decisions and actions taken on the Garden Bridge refused to co-operate with this review, either in person or in writing and despite several requests,” she writes.
Essentially the award of the design contract to Thomas Heatherwick was a stitch-up because he had been involved in the original idea. Arup’s contract award for engineering and project management was not much more rigorous or transparent. Proper procedures were not followed.
“There is an overriding duty on all public servants and elected politicians to act with integrity in administering public money," Dame Margaret writes 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.”
Dame Margaret also suggests that the mayor might like to review employment conditions at City Hall “and the potential for revolving doors among senior staff”. Richard de Cani, TfL managing director for planning at the time, had previously worked for Arup and returned there in 2016. Deputy mayor Isabel Dedring also ended up at Arup. Mrs Hodge accepted their assurances that the moves were unrelated to the Garden Bridge project.
Commenting on her report, Dame Margaret Hodge said: “I did not seek to ask whether the concept of a garden bridge over the River Thames is a good idea. But my review has found that too many things went wrong in the development and implementation of the Garden Bridge Project.
“Value for money for the taxpayer has not been secured. It would be better for the taxpayer to accept the financial loss of cancelling the project than to risk the potential uncertain additional costs to the public purse if the project proceeds.
“In the present climate, with continuing pressures on public spending, it is difficult to justify further public investment in the Garden Bridge. I would urge the mayor not to sign any guarantees until it is confirmed that the private capital and revenue monies have been secured by the Garden Bridge Trust.”
Mayor Sadiq Khan said that he would “take time” to digest the report’s findings and ponder his next step, but confirmed that he would not be giving any more money to it.
Lord Mervyn Davies, chairman of the Garden Bridge Trust, said: “We are pleased that Dame Margaret has finally published her report after six months of uncertainty. We will be studying the report in detail and seeking a meeting with the mayor to discuss next steps. The trust remains as determined as ever to make the Garden Bridge happen which will bring huge benefits to London and the UK.”
The full 45-page review can be found at www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/garden_bridge_review_0.pdf