Just over a week ago Sadiq Khan announced that he had appointed Margaret Hodge MP to oversee an full inquiry into the Garden Bridge, its finances, history and oversight. It was widely picked up across the media (even, briefly, the Evening Standard) and will not only raise awareness about the numerous issues and concerns with the project, but also shed more light into some of the many dark corners.
Here we look at what will be covered by the report, how it was reported and what it means for the nailing of the Garden Bridge coffin.
THE SCOPE OF THE REPORT
The terms of reference for the report are:
a) To assess the public sector contribution to the Garden Bridge project and whether value for money has been achieved,
b) To investigate the conduct of Transport for London, the Greater London Authority and other relevant authorities in regard to the Garden Bridge project from first proposal to date,
c) To achieve this through assessing the findings of previous reviews, interviewing current and former GLA/TfL staff and other stakeholders, and investigating more deeply as required,
d) To set out any lessons that should be learnt in order to improve the conduct of potential and approved projects in the future,
e) To produce a report for the Mayor of London, which will be published in full.
It has been stated that the purpose of the report is not to make the decision on whether to proceed with or cancel the bridge, or to ascertain the merits of it. However, these will clearly come into play – the Garden Bridge Trust will struggle to raise any donations while the inquiry is running and if its findings are damning it will be hard to see how it could continue.
Through reading up on the project’s history Hodge will come to realise that there was no transport study demanding a crossing in this location and that there was no proper process followed by the former mayor or TfL for the procurements, project development or funding arrangements.
THE AUTHOR OF THE REPORT
Margaret Hodge is a solid choice to chair this inquiry. Just over a year ago she stood down from her five years heading up the Parliamentary Accounts Commission, a position in which she became respected for a bulldog approach holding even the rich and entitled to account, as can be seen here in her grilling of the boss Matt Brittin of Google over tax arrangements.
Hodge is MP for Barking, a part of London which could well do with a functional river crossing, and upon accepting the role made this statement:
“I’m delighted to accept Sadiq’s offer to look in detail at some of the key decisions made so far around the Garden Bridge. 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.”
In a Newsnight interview (see below) Hodge said that she would “get a van load of stuff” delivered to her house the next morning and just two days after accepting the position she was seen not far from the South Bank public park which would be destroyed for the Garden Bridge – so it seems she’s jumped straight into the deep end!
THE TIMING OF THE REPORT
There have been questions raised over the timing of this announcement as the inquiry had been promised by the mayor not only since the election but also throughout his electoral campaign. There had been concerns that it was yet another promise he would u-turn on and that it had been shelved – just a week ago journalists asking questions about it had been met by silence from the Mayor’s office and responses from Assembly Members that they had not been contacted once about it.
Perhaps the increased pressure over his lack of fulfilling the promise to “let the sunshine in” on the procurement and project in general as well as the whole chamber of AMs, from all parties, asking more and more questions has led to him finally relenting and staying true to his word. Just a week before the announcement, Will Hurst of The Architects’ Journal – who has doggedly worked this story since it began – published a damning opinion piece in which he said the following:
Or maybe it was part of a plan to delay as long as possible before launching the inquiry. In July Jonn Elledge of City Metric asked if Sadiq was cancelling the Garden Bridge “by stealth”, and he has followed this up with a new article proposing that his timing of this inquiry backs up his thoughts saying, “I think [Sadiq is] trying to create the political space to make [cancellation] possible without everyone calling him a killjoy.
But more and more quotes are coming from City Hall suggesting Sadiq is vehemently opposed to the development – this Politics.co.uk article quotes a Transport for London ‘source’ as saying “The mayor and his team are bitterly opposed to it. I think Sadiq just doesn’t want to shoot it down publicly yet.” It then suggests that the Hodge inquiry could offer Khan the ammunition to cancel the whole thing.
It’s unclear, then, whether Sadiq has announced this due to the pressure of journalists, politicians and the public to stay true to his promises to “let the sunshine in” or whether he has strategically timed it to kill the whole thing off. Whichever, it is a key appointment and will lead to more facts of the murky history, financing and processes of the development coming into the public domain.
MEDIA COVERAGE OF THE REPORT ANNOUNCEMENT
Newsnight continuted their strong recent coverage of the Garden Bridge debacle with an item in which they interviewed Steven Norris, former Conservative Secretary for State for Transport in London who oversaw the Jubilee Line Extension Project.
Norris said “I think she can smell a dud project, and I think she will find this one is a real dud. If this was built entirely with private money, and there was enough private money to ensure that it wasn’t a liability on the taxpayer in future, I’d still think frankly it was a waste. This is just a bad way to think of spending public money and the sooner it’s scrapped the better.”
In a thorough report they also raised the issue that the Garden Bridge Trust appeared to be misleading the public about the financial viability of the project – on the same day as writing to the Department for Transport claiming the project could be cancelled any day they wrote to the press saying it was going swimmingly. Norris said this was “disturbing” and “at best misleading, at worst downright dishonest.” in a story which was also covered by the AJ the following day.
You can watch the Newsnight coverage here:
The news was covered by the whole range of media, even in the Evening Standard – which in MP Kate Hoey’s words is the “unofficial mouthpiece for the Garden Bridge Trust” – there was a small article which didn’t quite cover the full extent of the report.
The Guardian reported that the development “has been placed in jeopardy” and that it “piles further pressure on a troubled and delayed scheme that has yet to raise the private donations needed, or to clear all the necessary planning hurdles.” The Telegraph wrote that its future “hangs in the balance”. The BBC claims “it could be the beginning of the end for the Garden Bridge… It seems like this is a slow death by a thousand reviews.”
HOW THE GARDEN BRIDGE TRUST REACTED
The week before the announcement was made there was a PR offensive by the Garden Bridge Trust – Mervyn Davies’ deeply misleading letter in the Times newspaper and then Joanna Lumley repeatedly lying on BBC radio – suggesting that they were aware of the imminent inquiry.
There is no doubt that even though this inquiry may be dressed up by Sadiq as not looking to cancel the project, it will be near-impossible for the Trust (who have LOST £20m of donations in the last year) to raise the substantial funds it needs while there is such scrutiny and coverage of their project.
Despite declining to make comment or send a representative to Newsnight, they did put out a press release with a feeble spin suggesting they welcome the inquiry. But there are no two ways about it – this review could be the final nail in the coffin for their most damaging and aggressive of developments. Hodge will have access to all the City Hall papers and will have the time to thoroughly read all the independent reports and media history as well as take statements from all those who know the project so profoundly, whether the local community, journalists or politicians.
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