The Olympics may be over, but there’s one event everyone is watching which is still stuttering on to a car-crash of a conclusion. There’s only one entrant in it, but the Garden Bridge Hurdles is attracting a larger audience by the day despite the sorry state of the sole competitor – the exhausted and gasping Garden Bridge Trust – becoming more of a figure of ridicule than the usual loved plucky underdogs who struggle to compete.
The Garden Bridge Hurdles is a drawn out affair in which the charity must try to reach the finishing line despite more and more obstacles being put in the way. It’s tragic but compelling, and while today the miserable entrant may have managed to step over (or sidestep) one hurdle, many more lay ahead with more at the sides ready to be placed in their path.
Today it was announced that the Transport Secretary has granted some of the requested funds extension which underwrites the costs in “the unlikely event that the project is cancelled”. The Garden Bridge Trust had been seeking £15m as guarantee, but Chris Grayling has only offered £9m and told the GBT to “pull up their socks”. Even the pathetically biased Evening Standard can’t report on their favoured development (today they uncritically called it “Heatherwick’s masterpiece”!) without now acknowledging some of the whiff of controversy which hangs over the project like a musky fly-filled fog, writing:
It should be remembered that while the GBT are struggling at their hurdles event, only just clambering over, there is one skill they do have – spinning. They are spinning this news as a positive for their project, but what it amounts to underneath is a reduction in financial support from the government of £6m and a strong warning that they are sinking fast. Grayling may not have had the courage to press the stop button though, and seems to be playing a similar game to Sadiq in holding back any further support and issuing warnings across the bow while wiping hands of the responsibility of saving the public money, heritage and public space.
It is in marked contrast to reports from Whitehall two weeks ago when Newsnight were told by officials “we’re not in the business of backing white elephants” and the news wasn’t good for the GBT at all. But there may be a reason for the slight shift in Grayling’s position, a colleague of his being a certain Boris Johnson.
The Evening Standard article had this telling paragraph:
Firstly, the incredibly patronising and stupid comment about the money tree; at a time of austerity when Lambeth libraries are being closed and park budgets cut by half for a millionaire to talk about how easy money is to come by is, frankly, disgusting. If it was as easy as shaking the mythical money tree then why would the GBT have LOST £20m in funding over the last year despite desperate attempts to reach a further £60m?
But, more important, is that first paragraph and the suggestion that Johnson’s fingerprints are back on the bridge “behind the scenes” – perhaps he is worried people may further investigate his role on the procurement. Two weeks ago Whitehall officials were laughing at the Garden Bridge, then Theresa May goes on holiday, Johnson gets a sense of power and suddenly Grayling softens his stance. Someone with contacts in Whitehall today told me “it’s all pretty murky”.
Nonetheless, the GBT will spin this pretending it’s a show of confidence in their vandalism. But there are signs it is quite the opposite. The Evening Standard article also includes this:
This is important. What kind of donor would want to donate £6m to any project knowing it is only going to be used as insurance against the scheme being cancelled? As Dan Anderson of Fourth Street points out in his excellent report which pulls apart the limp Business Plan, the GBT require donors covering the debt and overheads for 55+ years when anyone giving likes to point at something and said “I built that!”, not “I paid for the maintenance and debt underwriting for that!”.
Dan said today, “it’s a bit like getting a £6m insurance policy on your house – WHILE it’s on fire. Not an easy ask.”
With the GBT not only having failed to add any money to their fundraising in the last 12 months, but actually having lost £20m of promised pledges, they need to shake that money tree more than ever. They show no signs of being able to do that so have drawn in the only supporter they have, the Evening Standard, who today included this hilariously desperate call-out in their editorial:
If the GBT are reduced to placing classified ads in the local freebie rag then what hope have they got in raising over £65m – or more if the scheme, as expected, shoots even more above budget?
Finally, to return to the laboured metaphor, it should be remembered that this hurdle that the GBT have just struggled over (or did Boris Johnson nip in from the side to pull it out of their path?) wasn’t even one of the ones we knew they were facing. Ahead of them they still face the massive obstacles of a Charity Commission inquiry, National Audit Office investigation, Mayoral investigation, a huge funding gap with little trust or support suggesting they can fill it, ever-growing public opposition, a business plan in need of complete re-writing, lack of agreed maintenance guarantee, not all the planning conditions signed off and the Thames Central Open Spaces Judicial Review.
There are many big hurdles in their path, and they needed big help from powerful allies the Evening Standard and Boris Johnson just to clamber over this one…
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