Another week, and another controversy rocks London’s proposed ‘Garden Bridge’. Placing a bridge on a precious and sensitive stretch of the river Thames should, you’d think, involve the highest standards of deliberation. And if the proposal includes inserting a strip of greenery between world-famous and irreplaceable views of the capital, across its most important open space, that scrutiny should be all the livelier and more sceptical. However the Garden Bridge lurches forward in a swirling fog of scandal, back-room opacity and rancour.
This week Jane Duncan, the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, has called for the bridge to be halted amid growing concerns in the architectural profession that the tender process for its design was rigged in favour of the winner, Thomas Heatherwick. This demand is a consequence of last week’s revelation, by Will Hurst of the Architects’ Journal, that Heatherwick and London mayor Boris Johnson were fundraising together for the bridge before the completion of the tender process, strongly suggesting that it might have been a foregone conclusion. Heatherwick’s name has been attached to the project since its chief cheerleader, the actor and campaigner Joanna Lumley, floated the idea in a letter to Johnson after the mayor’s re-election in 2012. All very chummy and cheerful, but when it comes to procuring major infrastructure works using £60 million of public money, one or two rules apply.
Also this week – you’ll have to forgive me, following the story of this project does entail more twists than the average episode of Game of Thrones – LBC reported that Transport for London has in place contingency plans to turn the ‘bridge’ into a pier. This would naturally save some money, but further muddies the question of why TFL – which is chipping in £30 million – should be funding the bridge at all, as it would no longer serve any transport purpose, and would be no more than a privately operated Thames-side leisure attraction. This cuts right to the ruinous contradiction at the heart of the bridge project. It is supposed to be two things: a useful pedestrian link across the river, and a tourist destination in itself, where visitors can linger. TFL has now guaranteed to support the bridge’s maintenance in the event that the Garden Bridge Trust – the private body that will operate the bridge – cannot consistently raise the funds. The Trust swears that the bridge will support itself through sales of tourist knick-knacks. But for that to be the case, visitor numbers would have to be very high, eroding the bridge’s value as a pedestrian route with queues and crowds, and undermining the stated intention to make it a restful place where people can dawdle.
But these are concerns that the Trust, and the mayor, are unwilling to answer. The mayor, in fact, has generated a remarkable and undemocratic atmosphere of bad faith around the project, repeatedly insulting its opponents as ‘Taliban-style’, ‘demented enemies’ of beautification itself, despite criticism from all parties in the Greater London Assembly, including the Conservatives. London’s Evening Standard newspaper, which might be expected to enjoy digging around in such a murky and high-stakes business, has been a particularly eager supporter of the project since the beginning. Chancellor George Osborne, a name normally associated with parsimony, has gladly coughed up £30 million of national government money in addition to TFL’s £30 million. All this, let’s not forget, for a privately operated tourist attraction jammed into one of the city’s most glorious panoramas.
So what can be done to oppose the bridge? Much now rests on the mayoral election, which will take place in May. Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith has backed the bridge. Sadiq Khan, his Labour rival, has also shown some support, but has promised the review the project once he takes office. Both men may be susceptible to the polite concerns about use of funds, though, so please do consider writing to them:
The Liberal Democrat, Green and UKIP mayoral candidates all oppose the bridge, a fact worth remembering at the ballot box. Goldsmith has painted Khan’s rather mild promise of a review as recklessness, as if Johnson’s extraordinary record of littering London with loss-making tourist attractions didn’t make backing the project the truly reckless move. Speaking of recklessness, Johnson himself is urging a start to construction ahead of the poll, hopeful that the more taxpayer gold is sunk into the mud of the Thames foreshore, the more secure this particular legacy boondoggle will be.
Otherwise, there are two fine grassroots organisations opposing the bridge that can use your attention and assistance. The first is Thames Central Open Spaces (TCOS), a coalition of concerned locals, which is mounting a legal challenge to the project. Please consider signing its petition, or even contributing to its fundraising efforts.
Lastly, the artist and former conservation architect Will Jennings is running a mischievous and inventive campaign against the bridge called A Folly For London (which he wrote about for Apollo, here). A Folly For London’s Twitter account and Facebook are excellent places to keep up to date with the latest developments.
I’m grateful to Jennings for the background he supplied for this article.
For updates on the Garden Bridge project, follow the Art News Daily blog.