Mayor Sadiq Khan has announced a review of the troubled Garden Bridge project, just as its supporters admitted they had yet to agree terms with a key landowner.
Khan has asked Dame Margaret Hodge, former chair of the Public Accounts Committee, to run the rule over the project. Specifically, he has asked her to look at the procurement process, the contribution of public money, and the conduct of public bodies such as Transport for London and the Greater London Authority. Her review will also list any lessons to be learned from the whole experience to date.
“I’m clear that since the beginning of the project there hasn’t been the necessary standard of transparency and openness around the Garden Bridge,” said Khan. “Nearly £40m of public money has already been spent on the Garden Bridge project, and Londoners deserve far more information about the decisions that have been made around how their money is being spent.”
The review will run alongside another review of the project being undertaken by the National Audit Office, which is looking at the Department of Transport’s support for the project. And the Charities Commission is considering whether it should carry out a full review of the Garden Bridge Trust, set up to drive the project forward.
“Margaret Hodge is hugely respected for her work scrutinising some of the UK’s largest and most high-profile publicly funded bodies. There’s no better qualified person to get to the bottom of the procurement process around the Garden Bridge, and establish whether Londoners have been getting value for money since the project began. I am absolutely clear that no new London taxpayers’ funds should be committed to the Garden Bridge, but I’m also determined that the Garden Bridge review helps the project achieve higher standards of accountability and transparency it has so far been lacking.”
Khan’s intervention comes just as project enthusiast Joanna Lumley revealed the bridge has yet to secure key access for its southern landing point. Speaking on BBC Radio London, Lumley said Coin Street Community Builders, which owns the land on which the proposal would sit, remains “very opposed ” to the project, leading to a “hiatus”. She told listeners: “Coin Street are very opposed to it so we’re having very interesting discussions with Coin Street and we hope next week we’ll be able to come to a conclusion.”
CSCB group director Iain Tuckett responded to the Architects Journal with: “We recognise that refusing to surrender our lease and imposing requirements in order to mitigate construction impacts and ensure proper operational arrangements should the bridge be built, may be seen by others as ‘Coin Street being difficult’. We see it as doing our job.”
In accepting Khan’s review brief, Hodge said: “It’s not a project that I have previously had an opinion on either for or against, but given the millions of pounds of public money allocated to the project, it is clear that there needs to be far more transparency around how funds are being spent. The planned bridge is a major project in an iconic part of London, and there are clearly questions that remain unanswered around issues like procurement.”
“From his first day in office Sadiq has been relentless in his drive to ensure Londoners get value for money, both around the Garden Bridge and other areas of major spending. I look forward to presenting the findings of the review, and assessing the lessons we can learn for other major projects in our city.”
Most recently, the Garden Bridge project has been estimated at £185 million to build. The government has pledged £30 million towards it, as has Transport for London, albeit two thirds of TfL’s funding is expressed as a loan.
LPA Perspective: The storm clouds appear to be gathering over a project that looks increasingly as if its backers ran fast and loose, pushing due process out of the way in order to force the idea towards reality.
Aside from its unwilling southern landlord, the Coin Street Community Builders, agreeing terms for the bridge to land on the south side of the Thames, plenty of other questions remain. How pedestrian and cyclist friendly will the structure really be? Will it ultimately turn out to be a private function space, subsidised by Londoners?
Expect the Hodge report to pull no punches. And expect Khan to pull the plug, if he forms the view that that project could become an embarrassing one for London in the future.