The dystopian hellscape of the apparently unstoppable bridge
A Garden on a Bridge doesn’t exactly sound like Dante’s ninth circle of hell. But the planned construction of the Garden Bridge crossing the Thames between Southbank and Temple looks increasingly like the product of massive impropriety. Meanwhile, there appears to be little need for it.
At a time when government budgets have been slashed, and when funding to tackle London’s deadly pollution crisis and major transport issues should be at the top of the agenda, spending over £60m of public money on a non-essential bridge doesn’t just look bad. It is obscene.
Despite a spectacularly dodgy procurement process, public outcry and denunciations from leading architects, MPs, newspapers and a panoply of public bodies (see below), preparatory work is due to begin on the bridge soon.
If the bridge goes ahead it will be a victory for cronyism, vanity and idiocy.
But what exactly will the bridge be? What are the numerous arguments against its construction? And how did it all come about?
Who is behind it? Why do they want it?
There are three prominent people who have driven this project forwards.
They are: the National Treasure, Gurkha champion, insurance saleswoman and star of Absolutely Fabulous, Joanna Lumley; the artist/designer/London bus creator Thomas Heatherwick; and the pantomime baddie Mayor of London Boris Johnson.
Joanna Lumley desperately wants a Garden Bridge to be built.
She originally came up with the idea of a garden bridge back in the 1990s, under the guise of a Diana Memorial Bridge. The idea was never taken up.
Undeterred, in 2002 Lumley lobbied Ken Livingstone, then mayor of London, in an attempt to gain support for a £19m Garden Bridge, which had been designed by engineering group Arup.
Again, the idea was rejected.
But now the bridge is apparently going ahead, and will be built by Thomas Heatherwick, and er, Arup Group.
Ken Livingstone may not have been impressed with Lumley’s plans, but his immediate successor, Boris Johnson, just happens to be friends with Lumley, and has known her since he was four years old.
As the Yorkshire Post reports (yes, even 200 miles north of London there is outrage at the plans), when asked whether the bridge had been a hard sell, Lumley said: “I’ve known Boris since he was four, so he was largely quite amenable”.
Boris was not the only amenable one.
According to Lumley’s 2004 autobiography, an architect “of incomparable originality” told her he would be “happy to work on the bridge”. His name? Thomas Heatherwick.
Heatherwick had also previously won prestigious London contracts during Boris’s tenure, being the designer of the controversial (and now faulty) new Routemaster buses, as well as the Olympic “cauldron”.
A Fair Process?
In 2012, TfL decided that there was indeed scope for a “new footbridge in central London connecting the South Bank with the Temple area”.
The next step would usually be to look at TfL’s list of trusted contractors for building bridges.
Heatherwick Studios is not on this list, having only built one bridge in the past – the Rolling Bridge in Paddington, which is pretty small, only crossing a canal.
So departing from normal practice, in 2013, TfL invited three architects to submit designs for the bridge.
These were Marks Barfield Architects – designers of numerous award winning bridges, and Wilkinson Eyre, which has designed over 25 bridges, including the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, which won the company the 2002 Stirling Prize.
Bafflingly, Heatherwick Studios outscored this high-calibre competition in the all-important “relevant design experience” category, and won the contract.
The Guardian notes that the invitation was to “design advice to help progress ideas for a new footbridge crossing of the river Thames”. No mention of a garden on a bridge was ever made, so the other designers were not aware they were competing to build Lumley’s Garden Bridge.
The GLA oversight committee have condemned this as being unfair as “Heatherwick was party to information that other bidders were not”.
Caroline Pidgeon who sits on the GLA panel said: “Nowhere in this does it mention a garden. If it had said, ‘We want a garden from x to y’ that might have meant it was a level playing field.”
She added: “Why wasn’t the desire from the mayor reflected in the specifications? And it makes no sense to me how a garden responds to the objectives [which were set out].”
If you’re going to San Francisco…
The stench of corruption is most potent when you discover that Boris Johnson had flown to San Francisco for a meeting with Apple to try and drum up financial support for the bridge.
It just so happened that Heatherwick was also there at the time, and the pair met with Apple executives together.
The mayor then refused to say who he had met, listed the £10,000 taxpayer-funded trip as “private”, and also failed to report the trip in his monthly report to the London Assembly. Details of the trip were only discovered through an FOI by Caroline Pidgeon.
This all happened before the tender for the bridge was even put out, indicating that Heatherwick’s involvement was a done deal.
In reality, the experienced bridge designers should have far surpassed Heatherwick as the likely builders. Unfortunately they didn’t know exactly what Johnson and Lumley were after. Funny that.
“It appears to have been stitched up from the start,” Caroline Pidgeon told London Loves Business in February this year.
Richard de Cani is the senior official at Transport for London who oversaw all of the procurement process involved in awarding the contract to project manager Arup and Heatherwick.
Since supplying Heatherwick and Arup Group with the contract, worth £60,000, de Cani has now accepted a job at er, Arup Group!
And he is not the only one involved in the procurement process to take a job at the company. Boris Johnson’s deputy mayor for transport, Isabel Dedring, has also accepted a role, effective 21 March 2016.
Despite numerous claims of rigging, TfL has insisted the bidding process for contracts was fair and transparent.
Labour MP Kate Hoey is now asking the National Audit Office and the Commons’ Public Accounts committee to examine the £175m project’s procurement process.
Last week a damning report by the GLA Oversight Committee, said:
- The mayor should have been more upfront about the range and nature of contacts between his Office, TfL senior management and Heatherwick Studio.
- There were a series of procedural errors in the procurement process.
- The final published audit failed to address the original objective.
So to recap that is: Obvious conflict of interest, loads of “errors”, and after all that, the bridge does not achieve what it set out to.
Committee chair Len Duvall said: “This whole process was badly handled from start to finish. TfL started work without a clear idea of the extent of its eventual involvement, which led to confusion among staff and managers in the early stages of the project. The mayor’s Private Office was less than honest about where he was, what he was doing there and why.”
He added: “What should be a great tourist attraction, has been tainted by the dodgy design procurement process. Whether the Garden Bridge can overcome its controversial beginnings, will remain to be seen.”
After Heatherwick Studio and Arup secured the highly dubious win to build the bridge, the next obstacle to overcome was funding.
This has been reported on a lot, so we will keep it brief here.
The entire project is forecast to cost £175m.
More than half of the money will come from private donors.
The remaining £60m will be publicly funded, and will be an upfront cost to the taxpayer.
Of this, £30m will come from the Department for Transport, despite the bridge not being a transport project.
The remaining £30m will all come from Transport for London.
However, of this £30m figure, £20m will be a long-term loan, that will be paid back to TfL over a period of up to 50 years.
Fifty years is an extraordinarily long time to be paying for a footbridge.
As the New Statesman’s sister site City Metric notes: “That is longer than any mortgage you’d be able to get. It’s longer than any currently available US treasury bond. Remarkably little debt is sold with a term that long.”
Incidentally, the public cost of £60m is the same sum Boris Johnson threw at the erection of his notoriously unused cable car bridge – the “Emirates Airline”, which crosses the Thames at Greenwich.
After such a ludicrous waste of scarce public funds, why is he being allowed to do it again?
The funding scandal
So far, so expensive. Here’s where it gets shady.
In order to give the Garden Bridge the Department of Transport’s £30m, Chancellor George Osborne (whom, we don’t need to remind you is a university friend of Boris’s), apparently bypassed the normal procedures in order to get the funding required from the department.
It is thought the project may not have been approved by the department if the normal processes had been followed.
Parliament’s spending watchdog The National Audit Office said the vast sums of public money being poured into the scheme is at greater risk than the private funds, and a “high degree of uncertainty” hangs over the scheme’s value for money.
Credit must be given where it is due, and the Architects’ Journal editor Will Hurst has reported with great depth on the numerous issues with the Garden Bridge project, as have the Guardian and the Observer.
But an irritating aspect of the media’s coverage of the bridge is how skewed it is because of vested interests in the scheme.
First of all, Rupert Murdoch’s Sky announced £5m of funding for the bridge – and unsurprisingly there has been little coverage of the bridge’s numerous scandals from Murdoch’s news outlets (Sky News, The Sun, The Times, PA).
In addition, Independent and Evening Standard owner Evgeny Lebedev has been given the grand title of “Governor” of the Garden Bridge. Hopefully this means he will stand guard on the bridge with a trident and wearing a loincloth.
A hilarious article in his paper, explains how “the rich and powerful” are “captivated” by their visits to Thomas Heatherwick’s Kings Cross Studio where he serves “hot chocolate, spiced with lemon, and fruit cake”.
Predictably, none of the umpteen scandals have been picked up on by the paper, whose staff would never normally pass up the chance to report on a political argument.
In addition to Lebedev’s involvement, Sarah Sands, the Standard’s editor is a close friend of Boris Johnson’s wife Marina. Sands also used to edit, or handle, Johnson’s column at the Daily Telegraph. She has written many articles supporting the bridge.
The Telegraph pays Boris Johnson £250,000 a year for a weekly column.
The mysterious business case
For major infrastructure projects such as this, an essential part of the process is assessing the economic case for the project.
In this case, the DfT funding – £30m on public money – was only provided by George Osborne subject to the business case.
This sounds sensible. However, despite the project having already been awarded to Heatherwick and Arup in 2013, and design work well underway with millions spent, the business case was only undertaken in May 2014.
Retrofitting an economic case to a project that is already well underway is ludicrous, serving only as window dressing, and doing nothing to really evaluate the bridge’s existence.
Writing in City Metric, economist Dan Anderson, says the business case “isn’t worth a penny”.
He writes: “If it seems extreme to tag the mayor of London, the chancellor and their Transport for London stooges as bullshitters, then it bears repeating that the whole of the taxpayer’s contribution to the Garden Bridge rests on a fundamentally dishonest Business Case.”
Who’s calling for it to be scrapped?
Jane Duncan, president of the Royal Institute for British Architects, said she had “extreme concerns” about the project’s procurement process, and recently called for the bridge to be halted.
MP for Vauxhall Kate Hoey has been a long-time critic of the bridge, and is calling for parliamentary intervention due to the project’s procurement process.
Sir John Tusa, former managing director of the City of London’s Barbican arts centre, said the bridge “sounds like a colos
sal vanity project for Lumley, Johnson and Osborne”.
Novelist Will Self said: “It’s crap. But everything’s pretty crap. Lots of public spaces are being dismantled and privatised.
He added: “I don’t like the bridge. Boris is being a dick over it.”
Meanwhile the artist Grayson Perry suggested the bridge should be built in Hull.
The Financial Times’ architecture correspondent Edwin Heathcote says the bridge is “wrong in virtually every way”, adding that it is a “fundamental misconception about what public space is”.
Leading bridge engineer Alistair Lenczner, who lead the design of the Milau Viaduct in France has described the project as a “private garden platform pretending to be a bridge”.
London transport expert Christian Wolmar told London Loves Business that the bridge “doesn’t make any coherent sense”.
He added: “Canaletto painted this stretch of river. You’re not supposed to have trees growing in the middle of the Thames!”
The Guardian’s Ian Jack slammed the bridge last month, writing: “A sum of £60m, adjusted for inflation, would keep Lancashire’s museums open for nearly the next half century. Instead, thanks to the power of the chums, it will help finance an unwanted, unnecessary new ornament in London.”
The RSPB opposes the bridge too. In a statement, they wrote: “Londoners will not be gaining a new, wildlife rich habitat and, consequently, the bridge will not gain RSPB backing.
“As supporters of green infrastructure in London, the RSPB can suggest much easier and cheaper ways to make life more pleasant for Londoners and urban wildlife.”
Inner London Ramblers say the bridge will “narrow an already crowded part of the Thames Path National Trail and will block the existing views”.
Here is a list of many of the problems highlighted with the Garden Bridge
1. It is disgracefully expensive – £60m of public money up front, £20m of which is a long-term loan
2. The money is coming from TfL, and the DfT, despite the bridge not serving an essential transport function
3. It is not required – There are already ten bridges spanning the Thames in the two-mile stretch between Westminster Bridge and London Bridge, seven of which can be used by pedestrians. This would be the 11th
4. However, other bridges to the east of Tower Bridge are desperately needed
5. The procurement process appears to have been rigged
6. The bridge will not be a public space
7. The bridge will be shut once every month for private parties
8. It will be closed between midnight and 6am
9. Cyclists can’t ride over the bridge
10. Neither can skaters
11. Social gatherings are banned
12. Playing musical instruments is banned
13. Speeches on the bridge are banned
14. Releasing balloons is banned
15. Scattering ashes is banned
16. All forms of physical exercise apart from jogging will be banned
17. It is forecast to attract over 7.1 million people a year (more than the Eiffel Tower). Peace and tranquility will be hard to come by
18. It will only have eight toilets – this “condemns the whole of Waterloo into a public toilet”, according to Thames Central Open Spaces
19. Access may involve queueing or reservations at busy periods
20. It will need to be heavily policed
21. Once built the bridge will block out historic views – current artists’ impressions of the bridge show the bridge from an imagined aerial viewpoint. From ground level it will dominate views
22. The construction of the bridge will mean the destruction of over 30 mature trees on the Southbank
23. The destruction of the trees is in part to enable a southern landing point that incorporates plans for commercial units.
24. According to the Ecologist Magazine, it delivers no benefits to London’s wildlife or environment
25. The business case was carried out after major work had already begun
26. A recent Evening Standard poll spectacularly backfired recently. Of almost 3,000 voters, 60% say they do not back the bridge (at the time of writing)
Garden Bridge Trust response
London Loves Business contacted the Garden Bridge Trust for comment. A spokesperson said:
“We understand the GLA Oversight Committee’s role in reviewing expenditure and processes. But it is important to remember this is a separate process. The Garden Bridge is progressing strongly with the construction contract awarded last week to Bouygues TP and Cimolai SpA and construction will begin in the summer.
“The Garden Bridge Trust is on course with its fundraising targets, and is meeting the requirements of its planning conditions. The project continues to enjoy huge public support and partners and stakeholders are working hard to make the Bridge a special place in the heart of the city to be enjoyed by Londoners and visitors for years to come.”
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