Everyone seems to want a Garden Bridge across the Thames so it was no surprise when the planning authority brushed aside legal requirements

Jay Das

Thomas Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge over the River Thames has passed the final planning hurdle and now has permission. If and when it comes to fruition this, together with the “Boris bike” and the introduction of the new Routemaster bus, will be one of Boris Johnson’s memorable legacies.

The Garden Bridge is supported by the mayor on the basis that it will help deliver the Greater London Authority’s overall objectives for transport, the environment and social and economic development. The key benefits of the Garden Bridge are said to be that it:

  • Will create new opportunities for walking in Central London, reducing journey times and supporting a shift towards journeys by foot
  • Will support economic development on both sides of the river, in particular, by acting as a catalyst for development in the North Bank area by improving accessibility and increasing footfall in the area around the Strand and Aldwych
  • Will generate health benefits through an increase in the number of people walking in Central London
  • Will create a new London icon and visitor attraction, encouraging more tourists to visit
  • Will create a new open space which will enrich the quality of life for residents, commuters and visitors.

Most importantly, however, it is the business case for the bridge that appears to have won over the mayor who believes it will showcase British design, engineering and landscape industries and will become a marketable international icon, creating significant promotional and branding benefits for London and the UK.

It is highly likely that a scheme of such a nature, if it had been a purely private venture, would not have got off the ground

It is highly likely that a scheme of such a nature, if it had been a purely private venture, would not have got off the ground. The scheme will affect views of St Paul’s Cathedral from many vantage points, including Waterloo, Jubilee and Blackfriars bridges. The City Corporation has successfully protected views of St Paul’s Cathedral through the St Paul’s Heights code for over 70 years. The views protected by the Heights code are sensitive to even small infringements and consistent application of the limitations is therefore crucial to the successful protection of the views. 

The setting of precedents which encroaches on protected views has been a real concern. The granting of planning permission for the Garden Bridge not only provides a precedent for other schemes to encroach on protected views but potentially provides a blueprint on how to secure consent in a challenging policy environment. It has always been the case that harms caused by schemes should be dealt with by the planning process and in any event should be minimised, but when it is a question of views, this is much more difficult.
In addition concerns have been raised about the location of the bridge between Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges in terms of supporting transport infrastructure.

But what has really divided opinions is its design costs and public funding – £30m coming from Transport for London, under the mayor’s remit, matched by £30m from central government. The notion of public and green space in such environments is also now attracting much debate - the recent opening of the roof garden in the City’s Walkie Talkie building (20 Fenchurch Street) has begun to raise concerns over the public use elements of the scheme. Perhaps, though, the real concern about the Garden Bridge is one relating to the quality of the facility being delivered.

In this case the decision makers are of the view that an iconic bridge is in the public interest such that it outweighs the harm to other notable and protected interests. Planning is always a matter of subjective opinion, especially on matters of design and aesthetics. With the right supporters the planning system will always deliver schemes which are contrary to policy. This proves that the “material consideration” exception to determining applications which are contrary to policy is alive and kicking.  

It will be a brave party which is prepared to challenge a decision which is so clearly based on subjective judgments. Those entertaining potentially contentious schemes should consider joint venture type schemes with public authorities, which should at least assist in paving the way through protectionist planning policies.

Jay Das is head of planning at Wedlake Bell