Mayor Boris Johnson and Transport for London have been roundly criticised for the way they procured the controversial Garden Bridge, just as the final preparations for its construction are made.
The GLA’s Oversight Committee says in a report that the process included “blunders, leaked documents, missing paperwork, defensive responses and confusion”. It has called for TfL to reimburse the losing bidders, for the mayor’s office to tighten up its record keeping, and for TfL’s Audit & Assurance Committee to be more open with its reporting.
The committee’s report was issued with majority, though not unanimous support from its members. Conservative members felt the report should have focused more on the difficulties arising from managing a project that evolves substantially during its development, rather than directly criticising the project itself.
“This whole process was badly handled from start to finish,” said Len Duvall, an assembly member and chair of the Oversight Committee. “TfL started work without a clear idea of the extent of its eventual involvement, which led to confusion among staff and managers in the early stages of the project. The mayor’s private office was less than honest about where he was, what he was doing there and why.”
“In fact, the situation probably appeared worse than it actually was – due to the secretive and defensive nature of various responses from TfL and the mayor. Also, because there was confusion about the purpose of the bridge, the two other companies tendered for a pedestrian bridge contract. This was unfair – only Heatherwick Studio was fully aware of the desire for a ‘Garden Bridge’.”
“What should be a great tourist attraction, has been tainted by the dodgy design procurement process. Whether the Garden Bridge can overcome its controversial beginnings, will remain to be seen.”
There is a suggestion that, while three designers were asked to bid on the project, the two losing companies were given insufficient or incorrect information, skewing their bids unfavourably. This was despite the fact that the pair – designers Marks Barfield Architects and Wilkinson Eyre – had substantial experience at designing bridges that have been successfully built out.
Among those who saw red was committee member Caroline Pidgeon, who used the Freedom of Information Act to uncover some of the moves made ahead of the final decision on the bridge. She discovered that Johnson visited Apple in San Francisco with City Hall staff, to look for support for the project. In an interview with London Loves Business, she revealed: ”Thomas Heatherwick happened to be there as well and came to the meetings with Apple. And this was days before TfL put out a tender for “a crossing”. It never said a garden bridge. So it feels like the other people who were more experienced at building bridges were not presented with a true picture of what TfL really wanted, and guess what? Thomas Heatherwick Studios won the contract. It’s very murky.”
Suggestions of an inside job have not been helped by revelations that actress Joanna Lumley – who drove the garden bridge concept forward – proposed Heatherwick as the designer in her 2004 autobiography. She is also well acquainted with Johnson, claiming to have known him since the age of four. The Guardian also pointed out that Heatherwick was not on TfL’s framework panel of designers.
RIBA president Jane Duncan has called for the project to be halted, while the concerns are investigated: “The allegations relating to the procurement of the Garden Bridge are extremely concerning. All those who bid for work have a right to expect that their submissions will be judged fairly, transparently and in accordance with the law. Given the high profile nature of this project, the amount of public money at stake and the seriousness of the allegations, we would urge that the project is put on hold and the whole procurement process is then opened up to detailed scrutiny.”
Meanwhile, work to get the bridge under way is accelerating. Construction will begin this summer, and be completed in late 2018: “We are on course with our fundraising targets, we are meeting the requirements of our planning conditions,” said Lord Mervyn Davies, chairman of the London Bridge Trust. “We have huge public support for the project and we look forward to working with Bouygues TP and Cimolai and all our partners to make this a special place to be enjoyed by Londoners and visitors in the heart of the city for years to come.”
Planners in Lambeth are also investigating suggestions that the authority was leant on, to ensure their support. The local authority changed its stance on the project in autumn 2015, pulling out of negotiations over fears that public money was being badly spent.
LPA Perspective: Sometimes, great projects need a champion. But this garden bridge idea seems like something that was born in Joanna Lumley’s head, then driven through to reality at everyone else’s expense. And there’s a distinct feeling in some quarters that – in common with the new Routemaster bus – an inexperienced designer has been allowed, encouraged by the London mayor, to spend rather too much on a vanity project which has run rings round normal procurement rules.
There’s a lack of clarity about who will pay for any shortfall in the finances of the project – and a worry that admission charges could be imposed. Cyclists cannot ride the bridge, and parties of more than eight will need to pre-book. It will be closed overnight, and only accessible from each end by stairs or a lift. Indeed, one experienced bridge designer excluded from any involvement has called the project a “private garden platform pretending to be a bridge”.
The controversy around the project remains, and legal challenges are still threatened ahead of the start of construction. This report shines a light on some regrettable behaviour at City Hall – Johnson’s departure will limit the damage to his reputation, but let’s hope others will not act so fast and loose in future.