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Boris, you owe us £37 million

29 April 2017

The news that the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has effectively pulled the plug on the project to build a ‘Garden Bridge’ across the Thames by refusing to commit yet more millions of public money to its future maintenance comes as no surprise. The criticisms made of this deeply flawed project by Margaret Hodge MP in her recent review were devastating: that the process by which the designer Thomas Heatherwick and the engineers Arup were given the job was far from transparent; that the benefit of the bridge to London’s transport needs would be, if anything, marginal; that the business plan proposed by the Garden Bridge Trust is unconvincing. Her conclusion was unequivocal: ‘Value for money for the taxpayer has not been secured. It would be better for the taxpayer to accept the financial loss of cancelling the project than to risk the potential uncertain additional costs to the public purse if the project proceeds.’

What is, however, surprising – and scandalous – is that so dodgy and unnecessary a project should have got so far – and that so much public money should have been spent and wasted on preliminary work for a monstrously expensive structure that was originally intended to be entirely privately financed. This indicates, perhaps, the unhealthy power of celebrity in British culture, for it was the fact that the idea was apparently conceived and first promoted by the actor Joanna Lumley that ensured its initial success. Although many worried about the effect the Garden Bridge (with its trees, if they survived) would have on the view of St Paul’s Cathedral from Waterloo Bridge, few pointed out at first that the idea of trees and plants growing in the middle of a wide metropolitan river was essentially silly. And only experienced engineers and bridge builders were able to claim, with authority, that the design of the bridge was inelegant and essentially crude. A further criticism was the clumsy and impractical way in which the ends of the proposed bridge would connect – or, rather, not connect – with the Thames embankments to both north and south.

There are clearly lessons to be learned from this expensive debacle: that because an idea is unusual does not necessarily mean it is ‘visionary’; that celebrities and thespians do not necessarily know more than professional experts; that public money should be committed and spent with rather more care and scrutiny; above all, perhaps, that Boris Johnson, Sadiq Khan’s predecessor as Mayor of London, who so energetically pursued and found financial support for the absurd dream of his friend Joanna Lumley, should never again be entrusted with power, responsibility and the keys to the (taxpayers’) cash box. This is a lesson unfortunately already lost on the Prime Minister, but it is worth remembering what Margaret Hodge reported, ‘that Boris Johnson, the London Mayor ultimately responsible for all the decisions and actions taken on the Garden Bridge refused to co-operate with this review, either in person or in writing and despite several requests.’

The current estimated cost for building the gratuitous Garden Bridge is some £200 million, and rising, leaving a shortfall in funding by the Garden Bridge Trust of over £70 million which is unlikely now to be filled. The scandal, however, is that the £37.4 million already spent on it should have come from public rather than private funds. Such a sum would pay for a sensible and elegant new bridge across the Thames where one is really needed, or, of course, be of huge benefit to, say, the many museums and art galleries outside the capital which are now struggling for survival. In fact, perhaps the story, the farce, of the Garden Bridge should not yet be declared over, and the Garden Bridge Trust and, yes, the man currently acting as foreign secretary should now be pursued for the return of those ill-spent millions to the public purse.