The Garden Bridge project over the River Thames in London was at risk of offering poor value for money but was nevertheless given £30M of public money, a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has found.
A warning that £22.5M will have been wasted if the controversial project does not go ahead was also given in the findings of the NAO’s investigation into the Department for Transport’s (DfT) grant of £30M towards Garden Bridge construction.
The investigation found that the DfT assessed the business case against the criteria it uses to assess transport projects, finding that benefits to journey times were minimal and wider benefits such as tourism were “considered highly uncertain”.
As well as the DfT grant, Transport for London (TfL) also agreed to contribute £30M towards the scheme, taking total taxpayer investment to £60M. The remaining £125M is from private donations. The DfT grant was administered through an increase in its block grant to TfL.
The investigation said DfT increased the amount it was willing to contribute during the higher-risk pre-construction stage on three occasions. Although a cap was imposed on the amount that could be spent during this period, in June 2015 it was increased from £8.2M to £9.95M. It was increased by another £3.5M in February 2016, and then in May 2016 ministers agreed, following a direction to the accounting officer, to underwrite cancellation liabilities of up to £15M for a limited period until September 2016.
In August the DfT reduced the amount it was willing to underwrite to £9M, meaning it could lose £22.5M if the scheme does not go ahead. The NAO said there remains a “significant risk” that it will not.
The main contractor Bouygues is now on standby and if land for the south landing is secured and all permits given, construction could begin in spring 2017.
The report also noted a pattern of behaviour where the Garden Bridge Trust seeks extra funds. It warned: “If the project continues, it is possible that the government will be approached for extra funding should the Trust face a funding shortfall. The project has faced cost increases and delays to the schedule. The pattern of behaviour outlined in this report is one in which the Trust has repeatedly approached the government to release more of its funding for pre-construction activities when it encounters challenges. The Department [DfT], in turn, has agreed to the Trust’s requests.”
However, in response to the report, the government drew a line under any further funding.
“The government remains supportive of the Garden Bridge project and ministers took into account a wide range of factors before deciding whether or not to make funding available,” said transport minister Lord Ahmad.
“The taxpayer, however, must not be exposed to any further risks and it is now for the Trust to find private sector backers to invest in the delivery of this project. We will consider the NAO’s findings carefully.”
The Garden Bridge Trust said it had made “strong progress” in terms of security planning conditions and had completed detailed pre-construction work and has almost £70M of private funds already secured with more in the pipeline.
“We are working hard to conclude the necessary land deals required for the building of the south landing which has been a complex process with local challenges and negotiations which have taken time to resolve,” said a statement from the Trust.
It added it has not, and is not asking, for additional government funding.