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Why London’s Garden Bridge project failed

Garden bridge

There was a time when it looked like Joanna Lumley would walk across her garden bridge.

In 2014 planning permission for the River Thames crossing project in central London had been granted, architectural designer Heatherwick Studio and consultant Arup were on board and the Garden Bridge Trust (GBT) had been launched with millions of pounds in donations pledged and plenty more in the pipeline.

But a series of errors halted its rise. By August 2017, the GBT had accepted defeat. London mayor Sadiq Khan had cancelled City Hall’s support for the project following a critical review by Dame Hodge.

The project was to be funded with a mixture of public and private money and included some controversial restrictions, notably a ban on bicycles and closures for private hire events.

Initially £60M was pledged by the public sector, and the project attracted £69M from private sector donors, but by August 2016 no new private donors had emerged and costs had soared to more than £200M.

Public opinion had turned and the Garden Bridge was seen by many as controversial and a shocking waste of almost £50M of much-needed public funds, which was spent on initial design work and compensation to the contractors who had already done some work on the project.

So what went wrong?

Poor proposition

From the very beginning, the concept of the Garden Bridge was flawed. Initially the bridge was to be entirely privately funded, with corporate sponsors helping to make Lumley and Heatherwick’s idea a reality. Apple had even been keen to sponsor the scheme in return for a store, set in the middle of the bridge .

But it soon became apparent that private donations would not be enough, and it was decided that an initial injection of public money was needed to kick start a flow of private cash. A £60M pledge evenly split between the Department for Transport (DfT) and Transport for London (TfL) followed.

The use of public money threw up a series of contradictions. If the bridge really was for the people, why put it in an area already well served by river crossings? Lumley had vetoed locations at Vauxhall and Pimlico over a central London location.

Why ban bikes? Why close the bridge from 12am until 6am every night, and for several private functions a year?

For Sam Blainey, senior political consultant for communications firm The Whitehouse Consultancy, the idea of closing the bridge was a fundamental mistake.

“From the start, the element of shutting a piece of [public] infrastructure just for the use of private contributors didn’t sit right,” he said.

Confused campaign

Fundamentally, those behind the bridge could not decide whether it was for transport or tourism.

Giving evidence to Hodge’s review, Sir Edward Lister, who was a deputy mayor and chief-of-staff under Khan’s predecessor Boris Johnson, said: “We were thinking about bridges, but the Garden Bridge came really not as a – it didn’t start its life as a means of transport. It really came in more as a cultural idea.”

TfL commissioner Mike Brown gave similar evidence. “In terms of all the transport imperatives in London – and there are many, and you will know that, the growing population and all the things we’ve got to do – this would not feature in my top 100,” he said.

Then Conservative mayor Boris Johnson said  in 2014 that he “wasn’t really sure what it [the bridge] was for”, apart from a “wonderful environment for a crafty cigarette or a romantic assignation.”

A separate question must be: if senior TfL and City Hall figures have now admitted that transport was not considered the bridge’s primary function, how did TfL and the DfT end up pledging £60M to the scheme?

Without a strong proposition, support for the bridge was weakened. Hodge believed the confusion about its purpose dented investors’ confidence and had a knock-on effect on the procurement process.

‘It looks like a Rigged Tender’

Flaws in the procurement process arguably helped turn public opinion against the bridge even more.

Early discussions in 2013 between Heatherwick, Lumley, Johnson and TfL officials were blamed for creating what Hodge suggested was an unfair competition for the design work.

Internal policy was flouted during the process. In her review Hodge wrote: “…the evidence leads me to believe that the procurement options were intentionally developed to enable Heatherwick Studio to qualify.” While Heatherwick Studio had been working on the scheme for around five months, the two other competitors, Marks Barfield Architects and Wilkinson Eyre, had just eight working days. No mention of a garden bridge was made on the specification, which simply requested design advice for a new footbridge.

Arup’s contract was no better. In 2015 TfL internal audit director Clive Walker reviewed procurement on the project.

He found that Arup, which had worked with Heatherwick Studio on early designs, was the only one of 13 competing firms offered the chance to revise its fees, despite being placed seventh in the competition.  

Once Walker’s review had exposed TfL’s failings in 2015, Hodge’s conclusion that “it looks like a rigged tender to me” was inevitable.

Getting people on-side

In 2014 the bridge had strong political support. Mayor Johnson was a driving forces behind it, and the then Conservative prime minister David Cameron and chancellor George Osborne had intervened to boost the project.

By the time Khan became Labour London mayor in May 2016, it could be argued that the project was wrapped in Conservative blue and that little effort had been made to garner cross-party support.

 “Everybody in the Labour party seemed sceptical at best, and so as soon as you had a Labour mayor – and it’s not hard to picture a Labour mayor of London at some point – frankly I think the project was doomed,” said Blainey.

By the time Khan became mayor of London, the project was wrapped in Conservative blue and little effort had been made to garner cross-party support

Once Khan commissioned the Hodge review, it was obvious how City Hall viewed the scheme. That lack of support spooked wealthy donors. “Why would you invest your money in a project that you can see the political support is dwindling away from?” added Blainey.

And it was not just big political players who were left in the cold. Despite strong opposition from local residents, little effort was made to get them onside.

Between 2015 and 2016 two judicial reviews were launched by a Lambeth resident, tackling Lambeth Council’s decision to grant planning permission and heaping negative publicity on the campaign.

Vital discussions with Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB), landowners at the Garden Bridge’s southern end, were not conducted well. Giving evidence to Hodge, CSCB chair Scott Rice spoke of an aggressive attitude from members of the GBT.

“…there was a particularly tense moment with [GBT chair of trustees] Mervyn [Davies] after the meeting where I was up against a lift outside of the meeting and there was a bit of finger-waving, saying, ‘Well, if this project goes down, we’ll put the blame at Coin Street and you can imagine what that’s going to be like in the Evening Standard’,” he said.

Sign of the times

Some factors were outside the pro-bridge campaign’s control. The post-referendum change in government had coincided with a revived interest in public services, weakened by years of funding cuts; a bridge which used public money to serve private functions went against the mood.

Brexit had exposed the rift between the prosperous, metropolitan capital and the rest of the country and suddenly the Garden Bridge seemed almost embarrassing, an example of unpopular excess.

Ultimately, as Blainey believes, the Garden Bridge was just too late. “If it was proposed in 2003 and finished in mid-2007, they may well have got away with it. But in post-crash London, I just don’t think it was ever feasible.”

 

 

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