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Kirsty Weakley: Who was to blame for the Garden Bridge fiasco?

25 Apr 2019 Voices

The Garden Bridge charity crashed spectacularly, wasting millions of pounds of public money – and no one appears to be responsible, says Kirsty Weakley.

The Garden Bridge was a failure, a calamity, a fiasco, a disaster, an embarrassment – the list is endless. There is a remarkable level of consensus that the idea to build a bridge across the River Thames in London was both impractical and expensive.

Last month, the Charity Commission published its concluding report on the charity that was set up to deliver the project, the Garden Bridge Trust. The regulator reiterated that this was a “high-profile and expensive failure”. The charity was first registered in 2013. However, after years of criticism, the trustees admitted defeat and announced they would wind up the charity in 2017.

There are several candidates who might be to blame for the failure: those who came up with the idea in the first place; the trustees who oversaw it; local and central government, which funded it; those who pulled the funding; and the Charity Commission for not stepping in soon enough.

High-profile backers and a sorry end

The idea for a Garden Bridge was conceived by actor and campaigner Joanna Lumley and designer Thomas Heatherwick.

Lumley had first proposed the bridge in 1997 but was turned down by the then chancellor Gordon Brown. However, the idea was later enthusiastically backed by Boris Johnson, who became mayor of London in 2008, and George Osborne, who became chancellor of the exchequer in 2010. It was supported by Transport for London (TfL), the Greater London Authority and the Department for Transport (DfT). 

Mervyn Davies, a former government minister, was named as the trust’s chair. Over the next few years, the project received £30m from both TfL and the DfT as well as securing private donations and pledges – though not as much as it needed.

Costs spiralled. The initial estimate for the project was £150m but, by time the plug was pulled, the trust had spent over £50m without actually building anything and the cost of completion was estimated at £300m. The trust struggled to raise enough from donations and the public money dried up.

In 2016, the National Audit Office published a damning report into the DfT funding. This was followed by criticism from the Public Accounts Committee, the group of MPs who scrutinise the use of public money.

Under a new Labour mayor for London, Sadiq Khan, the project continued for another year but was eventually brought to a halt in April 2017 when Khan refused to give the financial guarantees needed to obtain planning permission.

This decision was partly informed by an independent review carried out by Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge, which concluded that the project should be scrapped.

‘A failure for charity’

In 2017, the Charity Commission published an operational case report about its involvement with the charity so far, which largely absolved the trustees of any breaches of charity law. This raised some eyebrows.

The regulator has since come under pressure, with politicians attempting to blame it for not foreseeing the disaster and acting to prevent money from being wasted. In March this year, Caroline Pidgeon, the Liberal Democrat’s London Assembly member, urged the Commission to re-examine the charity. Later, shadow minister for civil society Steve Reed raised the matter in parliament, accusing the Commission of having a “cosy” relationship with the trustees.

“How can the public have trust in charity regulation if the Charity Commission won’t properly investigate a scandal of this magnitude?” Reed said. “And what is the minister going to do herself to ensure this investigation is conducted, not just a report but a full investigation?”

The Commission’s much-anticipated final report has not entirely stemmed the tide of criticism. In keeping with many of the regulator’s recent statements, the report focused on the impact the scandal could have on public trust in the sector, with a statement from chair Baroness Stowell stating: “I understand [the public’s] anger and am clear that this represents a failure for charity that risks undermining public confidence in charities generally.” The tone of the statement has attracted criticism from the sector.

In an article for Civil Society News, Kristiana Wrixon, head of policy at the Acevo, wrote: “Our vision is of a regulator that gives civil society leaders the tools and information they need to run effective organisations. This includes providing them with information about the lessons learnt from cases where charities act recklessly, illegally or immorally. But calling the Garden Bridge Trust a failure of charity rather than the failure of a charity is a failure of the regulator.”

Wrixon is right to say that concern about public trust should not be overblown. When most of the public think of charity, they think of the big fundraising charities, not something that never even got off the ground. This failure is more likely to damage the reputation of policymakers and “the establishment” in the minds of the public. However, an issue for charities to consider is whether they have become too close to the establishment in the minds of the public.

‘No mismanagement’

The Commission’s concluding report, like its previous case report, maintains that trustees did not mismanage the charity. Yet it seems contradictory for a project to collapse so spectacularly, spending £50m along the way, but for those running the charity to not be held accountable in some way. The report says that trustees “complied with their legal obligations and that there was no mismanagement”.

But if trustees can fulfil their legal duties and still oversee a failure on this scale, it is inevitable that questions will be asked about what their legal duties should be. Scepticism in some quarters is fuelled by the fact that several accusations in the Hodge report are not directly addressed by the Commission. For example, Hodge’s claim of conflicts of interest at senior level in the charity are alluded to only to the extent that the Commission believes these conflicts were managed robustly.

The Commission’s report does point out that there are many lessons for policymakers, and asks whether setting up a charity to deliver large-scale public projects of this nature is always appropriate. It says: “We would advise policymakers to think very carefully before setting up an entirely new charity to deliver a singular public project or purpose.” But it could have gone further.

Simply setting a project up with a different legal structure is unlikely to have changed the outcome in this case. Policymakers pushed for the project, but donors – whose money was needed to make it happen – were scarce.

Tensions between those who supported the idea and those who did not ran high for some time and, when the project came under scrutiny, trustees too often reacted defensively. The Garden Bridge Trust filed its annual accounts late and was reluctant to address concerns, most recently refusing to appear before a working group set up by Greater London Authority to look into the events.

In a letter, Mervyn Davies said: “Whilst it is certainly the intention of the trustees of the Garden Bridge that the full story should be told, we regret that we are not able to attend. We do not believe the Working Group to be representative of the full membership of the Assembly; and nor can we have faith in its objectivity given that leading members of the Group have been so critical of both the Garden Bridge project and the Trust over a matter of years, without at any time feeling it would be helpful to speak to the Trust. Had they done so they would have learned that there is indeed another ‘side of the story’.”

The power and the fury

The failure of the Garden Bridge is about much more than the failure of one charity and the risk to the sector’s reputation. It is symbolic of the way people with power and influence can wreak havoc without dealing with the consequences. It is this behaviour and cavalier attitude that has angered many people and deepened divides.

It is about the failure of the system. To focus on a single element diminishes the significance of the failure and ignores the way established power structures intersected to enable the project to get off the ground in the first place and struggle on, before collapsing spectacularly.

The system meant the whims of influential and important people were acted on. Huge amounts of funding was provided with not enough scrutiny or oversight. A massive charity was plonked in the sector then kicked about like a political football.

While policymakers are distracted with vanity projects like this, under the guise of it being a charitable endeavour, it will be impossible to have sensible discussions about the issues that matter. It is significant that central government funding for the project was provided only after ministers sought a ministerial direction to release additional funds for it during the pre-construction phase. If ministers had listened to civil servants, a lot less money could have been wasted.

This has uncomfortable echoes of the Kids Company funding saga which, likewise, benefited from ministerial direction. Should ministers ever be allowed to override officials? This gives the impression there is an uneven playing field – one rule for charities that are well connected in government and another for those that are not.  


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