This post is contributed by Caroline Pidgeon, Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member
Last year I wrote an article for A Folly For London’s website setting out my serious concerns about how the Garden Bridge had come about and in particular some very concerning aspects of the procurement process relating to the awarding of the design contract.
Looking back at what I wrote there is not a word that I expressed that I regret, indeed if anything my concerns have heightened over the last year.
Of course much has happened in the last 12 months…
There has been growing opposition to the bridge, as evidenced by opinion polls, but also anecdotally as witnessed by the packed public meeting organised by Thames Central Open Spaces on 17th May at St John’s Church at Waterloo (which you can watch HERE).
There have been extensive investigations, led of course by the indefatigable Architects’ Journal (£) but with some fine questioning also undertaken by the Guardian, Observer, LBC and other media outlets. A steady stream of freedom of information requests have been submitted to Transport for London and the Mayor’s office, from myself and others. In February the President of the Royal Institute of British Architects called for the project to be halted while the whole procurement process is fully scrutinised. London Assembly Members have continually asked numerous Mayoral Questions (although sadly not always answered) and the London Assembly Oversight Committee undertook an extensive inquiry, leading to a publication of our report in March 2016.
And of course there have been Mayor and London Assembly elections, leading to a new Mayor for London.
Yet while a great deal has taken place in the last year sadly one thing has not changed at all. Londoners are still stuck with a Mayor who is supportive of the Garden Bridge.
On a wide range of issues I am on record as welcoming many of the new Mayor’s decisions in his first few weeks in office, stretching from tackling air pollution to introducing a one-hour bus ticket. So I don’t say the following lightly – the actions of London’s new Mayor towards the Garden Bridge are highly regrettable but also sadly misguided.
As a recap the argument put forward by the new Mayor is that of the £60 million total of taxpayers pledged, £37.7 million had already been spent by the Garden Bridge Trust. The argument goes that if the project was now cancelled this amount would be lost in full with no benefit at all to Londoners or taxpayers.
Such a statement needs to be taken apart, examined and rebutted.
Firstly, it should be noted that the new Mayor is failing to recognise that the GLA is being asked to provide a permanent guarantee for the £3m annual maintenance costs (£) of the bridge.
The Mayor’s decision to restrict the number of days (and the length of these days) that the bridge is closed for commercial events might seem a good idea, but in reality by constraining fundraising for the Garden Bridge Trust he is just helping to ensure that the annual bill for maintaining the Garden Bridge falls on the taxpayer. For anyone who hasn’t seen the naïve assumption in the proposed business plan (pdf) by the Garden Bridge Trust I suggest looking at the excellent article by the investigative digital news magazine The PipeLine. It highlights that even before they were hindered by the new Mayor the fundraising targets of the Garden Bridge Trust were already highly speculative.
The new Mayor also overlooks how the Garden Bridge will repay any money to TfL. While technically the Garden Bridge Trust is committed to eventually repaying £20 million of the £30 million it has been given by TfL it is worth noting that the repayments only start five years after the bridge has been built and incredibly will be repaid over a further 50 years. The loan will be repaid with an interest of RPI, though is capped at and will never exceed 2% – so let’s hope inflation never creeps up in the next fifty years. Quite frankly this is an incredibly subsidised loan that only has to be repaid over a painfully long period.
A Londoner currently in their 30s will either be dead or lucky to be a nonagenarian when the loan is finally repaid by the Garden Bridge Trust. Of course the risk of the Garden Bridge Trust simply defaulting in their repayments cannot be overlooked as well.
A further issue that needs to be addressed is why nearly all the expenditure so far on the proposed Garden Bridge has been from public funds. The eagerness of the Garden Bridge Trust to spend public money and hold back on spending privately raised money says a great deal about how they intend to operate in the years ahead. Let there be no doubt this is an organisation that will not hesitate to come back and beg for further public funding in the years ahead and will be in a very strong negotiating position to do so.
Of course there are numerous other issues relating to the Garden Bridge that remain unresolved. Above all else it is simply wrong that an infrastructure project is being financed by a Trust that allows so many of its donors to remain anonymous (pdf). One doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to have some serious questions about a project where already £43.75 million of privately raised money is expected to come from ‘confidential’ or ‘anonymous’ companies and donors.
A public body such as TfL simply shouldn’t be involved at all with a Trust that is so secretive over its funding arrangements.
If Sadiq Khan wishes to keep to his pledge to ‘run the most open and transparent administration London has ever seen’, he should be telling the Garden Bridge Trust that it should truly open up its books and ensure that Londoners can really see who is behind a project that so many of them object to.
Looking back over the last year there are two further issues that become even clearer.
Firstly there is the issue of open space.
One of the most incredible claims about the Garden Bridge is that it is delivering a new open space for Londoners to enjoy. Leaving aside the obvious points that much treasured open space on the Southbank will be lost and that the bridge will be closed for 25 per cent of every day, it is worth noting just how little extra open space will be created.
The footprint of the proposed Garden Bridge is 8,000m², which is 2 acres. In contrast the Thames Tideway Tunnel is adding 3 acres – or 12,000m² – of additional open space to London as engineering shafts are landscaped and new pocket parks created on the banks of the Thames.
Quite incredibly a sewage tunnel running under the Thames will deliver more open space for Londoners than the proposed Garden Bridge.
A second issue that has become even clearer is the claim that the bridge will be providing a valuable transport link.
To pretend that a bridge in this location should be a priority is simply a deep insult to anyone east of Tower Bridge.
At present Canada Water (the last stop on the Jubilee Line before Canary Wharf) is now so crowded that there are signs up at the station deterring people from using it.
A real pedestrian and cycle bridge linking Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf truly is a transport project that is needed and should be prioritised by TfL. It would serve thousands of pedestrians and cyclists who wish to cross the Thames, but where there is at present a total absence of suitable crossings. It would also play a vital role in reducing overcrowding on the Jubilee Line. On every criteria of transport need it trumps the Garden Bridge.
It is regrettable that the last Mayor devoted so much of his time to lobbying and secretly fundraising for the Garden Bridge. There are so many other projects he could have backed which would have delivered real benefits for Londoners.
However even now it is not too late for London’s new Mayor to recognise the foolishness of Boris Johnson’s actions. He should not hesitate to do what is right.
Caroline Pidgeon AM
Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member
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