The Garden Bridge project is dead. At last. Its death has rather been like watching a great ship sink ever so slowly beneath the waves. In truth, its demise has been inevitable ever since Sadiq Khan became mayor and, in particular, asked Margaret Hodge to produce a report on the state of the project which turned out to be so damning. It was, in truth, neither a garden nor a bridge and made no sense for London.
The idea sounded rather compelling at first. Let’s build a pedestrian bridge over the Thames with trees on it and provide a new type of park on London’s river. It would be funded charitably by private donors and open to the public for free. The reality was rather different and that’s what makes the scrapping of the project very important for those of us fighting against the increasing privatisation of the public realm.
Apart from the location, on a very crowded part of the South Bank, and the lack of any ostensible purpose (a few hundred people at most would have crossed the Thames on the bridge), it was the use of public money for a barmy idea promoted by an actress, Joanna Lumley, and an over hyped-designer in Thomas Heatherwick, both mates of Boris Johnson
In fact, far from laying no claim on the public purse as the proposers had originally claimed, George Osborne, then chancellor, and Johnson, then mayor, promised £30m each for the bridge. Moreover, it seemed that Johnson was on the point of promising to fund the estimated £3m running costs of the scheme until he was warned off and postponed the decision until after the 2016 mayoral election.
The bridge was a way of creating a private crossing on the Thames whose running costs would be guaranteed by the Greater London Authority. It would be closed at night and for a dozen corporate events every year. Moreover, plans involved the destruction of a series of elegant mature trees and the construction of a commercial building. One of the key objections was that this area of the South Bank is already overcrowded and the bridge would have added to the congestion.
Sadiq had been somewhat sceptical of the project during the hustings but for a time after his election seemed to be allowing it to go forward. However, once he commissioned the report from Hodge, it was clear that it was likely to go forward.
Protestors against the bridge, who had run a very effective campaign, were critical of Khan’s initial equivocal stance and suggest that perhaps money could have been saved if he had firmly knocked it down as soon as he was elected. The ultimate cost to the public purse is reckoned to be £46m and it unclear how so much could have been spent before any building work was undertaken. In an article on the ending of the project, The Economist was highly critical of the fact that a quarter of the cost had been spent before construction.
While the collapse of the project is good news for Londoners and taxpayers, there are numerous unanswered questions. Why was the scheme given the go-ahead by Transport for London when it had no transport benefit? Why did a company that had little relevant experience get the contract to design it – the same company responsible for the terrible New Routemaster bus? What has happened to the £46m? And so on.
There should now be an enquiry into the procurement process and what has happened to the money which, it seems, will not be recovered. This could be initiated by the London assembly or by a parliamentary select committee (there are several possible candidates but transport, now chaired by the excellent Lilian Greenwood, is probably the most relevant since the £30m came from the Department of Transport). There is a lot of dirt to be uncovered and some of it may well stick on the former mayor. The bridge was, in fact, yet another incursion of private interests into the public realm. That’s what makes its scrapping worth celebrating.
Christian Wolmar is a transport author and former Labour PPC.