An independent report by Dame Margaret Hodge has ruled that the Garden Bridge project, which is run by the Garden Bridge Trust, should be scrapped at a loss of over £46m to the taxpayer.
The report was commissioned by Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, last year to review the project, and examine whether the Garden Bridge is value for money. Hodge, a senior Labour MP and former chair of the public accounts committee, has concluded that it is best for the project to be cancelled, and the taxpayer accept the significant financial loss, than to risk the additional demands if the project proceeds.
The project has already used £37.4m of public money and the agreed underwriting by the government of costs could bring the bill to the taxpayer up to £46.4m if the project is cancelled.
Hodge said: “In the present climate, with continuing pressures on public spending, it is difficult to justify further public investment in the Garden Bridge.”
In the report, Hodge said that the original ambition to fund the Garden Bridge through private finance has been abandoned, and that the goalposts have moved several times and the risks to the taxpayer have intensified.
She also said that costs of construction have escalated and are likely to increase further, with what started as a project costing an estimated £60m likely to end up costing over £300m.
The Garden Bridge is a proposed footbridge and public garden over the River Thames, linking Temple with the South Bank which is being led by the Garden Bridge Trust. Government has pledged £60m towards the bridge’s cost, with £30m of this coming from Transport for London and £30m from central government. £20m of the money pledged by TfL is in the form of a loan to be repaid in full.
The Garden Bridge Trust
The Garden Bridge Trust was cleared by the Charity Commission earlier this year after an operational compliance report concluded that trustees were acting in compliance with charity law.
However, Hodge's report states that there are some “blurring of interests”, with the chief executive of the trust being closely connected to the design studio that was being paid out of taxpayers’ money. Hodge said that this “simply reinforced the perception that the whole project was owned and controlled by a small, inner group”.
Hodge also spoke of actor Joanna Lumley’s role as a trustee of the Trust. Lumley has been credited as coming up with idea of the bridge. Hodge said that while Lumley didn’t have a 'formal' or 'paid' role at Heatherwick Studio, the design company, she was recognised as an associate member of the team, “intensifying perceptions of the cosy nature of those involved in the project”.
She also said that the lack of involvement of the local community led to a “lack of confidence and support in the trust and the project”.
Hodge said that although she has seen and accepted the conclusion of the Charity Commission report on the Trust that interests have been properly declared, she has “long taken the view that when public money is involved, simply declaring interests is not enough to demonstrate high standards of integrity and propriety in any organisation that spends the taxpayers’ money”.
Hodge said that throughout her review, the only people to express support for the Garden Bridge were the Trust itself, the Evening Standard and former mayor Boris Johnson.
Concluding she said that if the Garden Bridge is "not treasured by the public in the same way that it is by its creators, then the business model which underpins the project is far less likely to succeed".
Hodge said: “It is clear to me that the Trust will find it exceedingly difficult to raise private funding for both the construction and maintenance of the bridge if there is not strong public support for the bridge.”
She also highlighted that the trust’s finances are in a precarious state. She said this is clear from their recent report and accounts, in which the trust stated it was extremely difficult to conclude a going concern assessment.
Hodge said that in her opinion the Trust will not succeed in raising all the private capital required and will need more public money to complete the construction. She also said does not believe the Trust will secure the philanthropic support it claims it needs to fund the management and maintenance of the Garden Bridge. She said that the cost for that will inevitably fall on the taxpayer and council taxpayer.
Lord Mervyn Davies, chair of the Bridge Trust, said: “We are pleased that Dame Margaret has finally published her report after six months of uncertainty. We will be studying the report in detail and seeking a meeting with the Mayor of London to discuss next steps. The Trust remains as determined as ever to make the Garden Bridge happen which will bring huge benefits to London and the UK.”
Confusion of purpose
The review of the Garden Bridge also stated that there was a “confusion of purpose” about the Garden Bridge. The report said that this “absence of clarity of purpose inevitably influenced the implementation” of the project.
Hodge added: “The only thing that was clear to me from the evidence provided was that building the Garden Bridge was a top and urgent priority for the then Mayor and as a result this impacted on the actions and the behaviour of those around him.”
Hodge said in the report that Boris Johnson “refused to engage with the review”. She said: “I deeply regret 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.”
Hodge said that in the absence of any input from the former mayor, her judgments of his actions are based on the papers she has seen and the evidence given to her by those others that were involved and co-operated with this review.
In response to the report Sadiq Khan said it remains the case, as he said when he first took up the role as mayor, that he “will not spend a penny more of taxpayers’ funds” on the Garden Bridge.
In a letter to Hodge, he said: “Your report raises extremely serious questions about the way the Garden Bridge project was handles under the previous administration at City Hall and its current financial viability. We will now take time to thoroughly understand your findings, to read the evidence you have collated and to think through its implications for the future”.