It’s easy to bat away big numbers like this – numbers too big to get our arms or head around. Most of us haven’t the first clue what it might cost to build a bridge.
£18.2million. That’s how much it cost to build the Millennium Footbridge across the Thames in 2000. Other proposals for footbridges across the Thames have come in at around £25million. So those are the sorts of numbers we should expect.
But somehow we’ve managed to blow double that, and don’t even have a bridge to show for it.
If you want to know the official line on where the money has gone, I have it in writing from The Garden Bridge Trust:
£37.4million of public money was spent to get the bridge to the stage where the team was ready to start construction work. This breaks down into three areas;
1. Pre-planning (up to the point at which the Garden Bridge Trust took control of the project from TfL): design; preparation of planning application materials by specialist technical consultants; public consultations – £10.7m (29 per cent).
2. Pre-construction activities: progressing the design; obtaining licences, permits and planning approvals (including stakeholder and community consultation) for detailed plans (eg the Construction Logistics Plan, Code of Construction Practice, operations and security plans); other activities, including the selection and tagging of trees and plants, river survey and ground investigation works, procurement of the construction and landscaping contractors, and procuring and placing orders for materials – £23.3m (62 per cent).
3. Professional services: legal, property and planning advice in relation to the negotiation of the land agreements with the various affected parties and stakeholders; the cost to the Trust of covering those third parties’ professional advice – £3.4m (nine per cent).
The lawyers and property specialists have made a pretty penny from thin air.
And if you are wondering how I got from £37.4million to a total taxpayer spend of £46.4million, guess who underwrote the risk of contracting the build team before finances and necessary mayoral guarantees were in place?
We did. You and I. The British taxpayer. And no one ever asked us whether we minded.
Not the engineering firm, Arup, who won the project management and engineering contract. Not the design practice, Thomas Heatherwick, who say they will have earned £2.7million in total from the project.
And not the trustees who created this risk exposure by engaging the construction team, Bouygues, as late as January 2016. No one ever thought to ask the taxpayers if this was a vanity project they were prepared to fund.
But the dark truths behind these figures are even more disturbing, many of them gleaned from the excellent investigative journalism of Will Hurst for the Architects Journal, and others summarised in a brutal report by Dame Margaret Hodge.
She does not hold back. And thank God for her. Because hers feels like the sane voice of the people in the face of utter moral, political and commercial bankruptcy on the part of too many to mention by name. Margaret Hodge has got their measure.
Dame Hodge notes: ‘Key stakeholders refused to accept responsibility and laid the blame on others. This made my job much more difficult as I had to come to a view of where the truth lay and where accountability should rest.’
When the sh*t hit the fan, everyone ducked for cover. And not a single soul has been prepared to hold their hands up and say: I am partly responsible. I am partly to blame. I let you down. Many of whom were taking home big salaries and final pensions for their efforts.
She lists those providing conflicting accounts by name: Isabel Dedring, Richard De Cani, Thomas Heatherwick. These names come up in her report over and over again.
Isabel Dedring was the Deputy Mayor for Transport, and had day-to-day responsibility for the Garden Bridge. Guess where Isabel Dedring now works? Arup Engineering – as their Global Transport Leader.
Richard Di Cani was the key official at Transport for London responsible for progressing the Garden Bridge project. He was involved in awarding the contract to project manager Arup and played a vital role in securing £3.5million of government funding for the firm. And guess where Richard works now? The very same Arup Engineering.
A TfL spokesperson said ‘Richard de Cani, as managing director of planning at TfL, led our involvement in the Garden Bridge and was required to do so during his notice period. And suggestion of improper involvement in relation to the Garden Bridge is completely unfounded.
Dame Hodge says ‘Both they (Isabel and Richard) and Arup have assured me there was no connection between Arup’s contract with TfL for the Garden Bridge and their recruitment by Arup. I found no evidence to suggest otherwise and fully accepts those assurances’.
Meanwhile, Thomas Heatherwick was involved in early meetings with Boris and Ms Dedring even before the official tendering process for the Garden Bridge had begun. He ‘just happened’ to be in San Francisco when Boris was there to meet potential sponsors – a £9,000 trip Boris had attributed as private in his records.
Dame Hodge was equally unimpressed with his method of selection as the other designers involved who felt they were there to give the appearance of a competitive process.
‘These were not open, fair, or competitive procurements and my review revealed systematic failures and ineffective control systems at many levels,’ she reports. ‘The evidence suggests procurement options were developed to enable Heatherwick Studio to qualify’.
As well as a lack of consistency and clarity regarding the actual purpose of the bridge – from ‘an iconic new pedestrian Garden Bridge’ to ‘serving a movement function’ to ‘a cultural idea’ – there was also a singular failure to create a business case for it to be built in advance of major decision-making.
When a plan was finally cobbled together ‘by consultants’, Heatherwick Studio had already secured a contract to design the bridge, Arup had secured a contract to engineer and project manage the build, and Boris and Chancellor George had already committed £60million of public funds to building it. Signed and sealed. Never delivered.
Less cart before horse. More bridge over increasingly troubled water.
The lack of purpose or clarity seems to have been largely driven by Boris, looking for a fitting legacy for London in his second term and with a big budget to play with and Osborne happy to match £30million of TfL spending with £30million of the government’s own. Much to Dame Hodge’s irritation, Boris refused to co-operate with the investigation either in person or in writing, a decision which she ‘deeply regrets’.
Not as much as Boris would, if he ever faced her with his explanation of the purpose of the Garden Bridge…
‘A wonderful environment for a crafty cigarette or a romantic assignation’… which all sounds delightfully buffoonish and Utterly Boris until you are hit in the face with a £50million bill for the sum total of stuff all.
And the risk to the taxpayer only ever kept increasing. The original ambition to fund the Garden Bridge from finance has been abandoned. The Garden Bridge trust has lost two major private donors and has pledges of £69million, with no new pledges since August 2016.
Having read the letter of the Chairman of the Garden Trust, Lord Davies, to the London Mayor, I have some sympathies with their position. They have clearly tried to get answers from Sadiq Khan for a long time. I imagine he has been too busy posing for selfies with large sportsmen. He has never bothered to meet the Trust face to face, despite their repeated requests.
The Mayor’s office was key to guaranteeing the payments for the operations and maintenance for the Garden Bridge, and – up until as late as February 2017 – had indicated ‘the taxpayer would be better off if this bridge is built’.
The commitment to build the Garden Bridge sat with the office of the Mayor of London. And it was a commitment Sadiq had been prepared to honour, until 28 April when he sent a letter saying he would not sign a mayoral guarantee for funds.
Lord Davies sets out his complaint with Sadiq Khan in full – notably that he has sought to down play the hard truth of his decision not to provide a guarantee for the maintenance costs and operations of the Bridge, knowing full well this is critical to the future of the Bridge, and attracting other possible source of funding.
His decision effectively pulls the plug. He simply wasn’t bold enough to say it. Or to face Lord Davies and explain his decision.
Lord Davies spells it out in black and white. Stalling and indecisiveness by Sadiq Khan has been very expensive for the taxpayer. ‘The result is that £9million of public funds have been committed since the date of the mayoral election, and had you made last May the announcement you have made now, then most of that expenditure would have been avoided.
No one comes out of this sorry mess well.
Public money has been mis-spent at scale. And no single individual or collection of individuals are appropriately or publicly accountable for the public money spent.
Worse still, the behaviours of those in positions of power – linked, networked, related to the point of professional incest smacks of all that I detest about the power and influence. And in truth, all that I abhor about the machinery of government and the city.
There is no value in a bridge that was never built. There is no value to be had for our £50million that was taxed from our pockets for others to spend.
Joanna Lumley christened this The People’s Bridge. It certainly is not that. The people deserve better than this. The people are better than this.