Dame Margaret Hodge’s recent report on the controversial Garden Bridge has highlighted the question of whether the mayor of London should pull the plug on the project, even if it means wasting £46.4m of public money already committed. David Blackman reports

Garden Bridge

Boris Johnson developed a reputation as the multi-tasking mayor during his eight years at London’s City Hall. Besides fulfilling his elected duties, he dashed off a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph and churned out several books. However, since last October, the now foreign secretary hasn’t managed to find time in his diary to see Dame Margaret Hodge, who was commissioned by his successor Sadiq Khan to investigate his pet project to build a Garden Bridge across the River Thames.

The redoubtable former chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee says in the report, which was published earlier this month, that Johnson refused to co-operate with her review despite repeated requests.

One Greater London Assembly aide is appalled by the former mayor’s lack of co-operation. “He went out to San Francisco for three days at taxpayers’ expense and wasn’t even prepared to spend an hour to defend his record,” he says, referring to Johnson’s trip to the US in 2013 to lobby Apple for sponsorship for the bridge.

Johnson has had a lot on his plate during the last month, trying to drum up support for sanctions on Russia. But if he has thumbed through the 45-page report, he will have found it uncomfortable reading. While Hodge makes it plain that it’s not her job to adjudicate on whether building the bridge – which would double up as a public park – is a good idea or not, but instead to assess whether value for money was being secured, she has pulled no punches.

She says decisions on the Garden Bridge were “driven by electoral cycles rather than value for money”. At its inception, she says, there was confusion about its purpose. The lack of clarity contributed to what she describes as a weak business case for the project, which only appeared after contracts had been let and money spent. “Little regard has been had to value for money,” she rules.

Over the lifetime of the project, the report concludes, its cost has more than tripled from an estimated £60m to over £200m. Hodge calculates that the project has already consumed £37.4m of public money, which could rise to £46.4m thanks to an agreement by the government to underwrite contractors’ costs if the bridge is cancelled.

Even though registered charity the Garden Bridge Trust, which is overseeing the project, has raised £69m worth of private donations, Hodge calculates that the project faces a £70m funding gap. And “continuing risks and uncertainties” will lead to further increases in the capital costs, says the report.

The review recommends that Khan should not sign any guarantees to underwrite the project unless the trust secures the private funds to build the bridge, even if this results in the loss of the taxpayers’ money already expended. The report concludes it is better to take the hit rather than risk squandering any more public money on the bridge, which straddles the Thames from Temple underground station to the South Bank. The report is just as damning about how the way that the bridge’s designer Thomas Heatherwick and engineer Arup were hired (see box overleaf).

So, is there a valid case for the Garden Bridge or will Johnson’s legacy as London mayor be a massive white elephant? And should his successor, Khan, continue to back the project in the light of the report’s findings?

Chocolate teapot

Hodge is right to identify that the fundamental problem with the project stems from the lack of clarity about what it was meant to deliver, argues Michael Ball, of the Thames Central Open Spaces (TCOS) campaign group. This was set up to campaign against the impact on London’s South Bank of what many believe was a vanity project in a part of London that is already well served by crossings. Nearby bridges include Hungerford, Waterloo, Blackfriars and Foster + Partners’ Millennium Bridge.

Few would like to argue against gardens and bridges per se, but put them together and they don’t work, Ball says. He adds: “It’s a real chocolate teapot. You think: chocolate, yummy; tea, yummy. Put them together and it turns into a gungy mess, which is what this is like.”

The range of views about the bridge’s intended purpose offered by those involved with the project, who put themselves forward for a grilling by Hodge, are almost comically diverse. Johnson’s then deputy mayor Edward Lister said the bridge originated as a “cultural idea”, but a senior member of the GLA’s culture team said she hadn’t been directly involved with the project because it was a transport initiative. Johnson himself apparently described the structure as a “wonderful environment for a crafty cigarette or romantic assignation”.

The Garden Bridge may be a one-off, but we have to make sure this is the case and TfL procedures are robust in the future

Tom Copley, GLA

What mattered, according to the report, was that the bridge was a priority for Johnson. The underlying lack of clarity, combined with the pressure to make progress on the project before last year’s handover of power at City Hall, appears to have trumped the need for a “robust business justification of the value of the Garden Bridge and a thorough assessment of the risks”.

However, while Johnson bears ultimate responsibility for the project, the report also criticises his underlings at City Hall and at Transport for London (TfL) for failing to stand up to the mayor.

“TfL is shrouded in this,” says Ball who adds that he is “absolutely gobsmacked” by officials’ failure to rein in Johnson, singling out former TfL commissioner Sir Peter Hendy for criticism. He says: “His job is to advise and guide the mayor. We didn’t pay him £650,000 a year to be a footstool. Boris’ job was to come up with chocolate teapot ideas and his commissioner’s role is to say ‘hang on a minute’.”

In his response to Hodge, Khan says that he has overhauled the TfL board and is ensuring that all executive mayoral directions are properly recorded and reported.

Garden Bridge

Heatherwick Studio won the competition to design the Garden Bridge

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley says: “We need to be clear that this is not going to happen again. [The Garden Bridge] may be a one-off, but we have to make sure that this is the case and that TfL procedures are robust in the future.

“The mayoral system concentrates power in the hands of one person but doesn’t give permission to rig procedures to get an outcome that he wants. If the mayor wants to pursue ‘grands projets’ he should be up front and not crowbar in a business case to justify spending public money on something that should have been privately financed in the first case.”

Sadiq’s choice

Now that the report has been published, the spotlight is turning from the failings of the previous GLA regime to how City Hall’s new incumbent is going to sort out the project.

While, by commissioning the Hodge review, Khan kicked his problematic inheritance into the long grass for a while, the ball is back in his court now.

To date, Khan has given mixed signals about his plans for the Garden Bridge. In response to the report, he has said that he will not approve any more public money for it, but he previously expressed his support for the project in a letter to the trust’s chairman Lord Mervyn Davies last year. In addition, the trust’s executive director Bee Emmott says that City Hall officials have helped her organisation in its negotiations to buy the bridge’s proposed landing point on the South Bank.

You think: chocolate, yummy; tea, yummy. Put them together and it turns into a gungy mess, which is what this is like

Michael Ball, TCOS

For the bridge’s critics, Hodge has given Khan all the ammunition he needs to justify pulling the plug. A condition in Westminster’s planning permission for the project, which is due to run out by the end of this year, states that it can only go ahead if the GLA underwrites the ongoing maintenance and operation of the bridge’s open spaces, which will cost an estimated £3m at today’s prices. By agreeing to underwrite this sum, the GLA could open itself up to a liability worth “tens of millions of pounds”, according to Hodge’s review, a step that mayor should not take, the review recommends.

“Unless Sadiq acts swiftly, he will be in the firing line for wasting public money on this, just the same as Boris,” says Ball, who is puzzled that the mayor has not already cancelled the bridge. “He should have known that the moment he said he wasn’t going to put any public money into this project, it was dead.”

While the GLA’s Copley is willing to give Khan time to fully digest the report and hear the Garden Bridge Trust’s side of the story, he agrees that the mayor needs to act quickly. He says: “Once he has digested the report he should do what the GLA has called on him to do, which is not to sign the maintenance guarantee, which effectively would end the project and [is] what Margaret Hodge recommends.

Hodge and Khan

Margaret Hodge’s review was critical of the bridge …… while Sadiq Khan has sent mixed signals

“We need a pretty quick turn-around to put the kibosh on this project, hopefully before the end of the month. It’s gone on long enough. It’s there in black and white in the report he has commissioned.”

The pressure on Khan to show his hand is mounting from the Garden Bridge Trust too. The mayor must “understand the need for more certainty so that the trust can proceed,” says Emmott.

And the trust is not going down without a fight. Davies has written to Hodge, taking a potshot at her for displaying “lack of respect and disregard” for the impact of her findings. He rejects her criticism of his organisation’s business plan. Arguing that the investigation lacked sufficient technical expertise to back up its conclusions, Davies dismisses its recommendation that no more public support should be offered to the project, pointing out that the trust is due to repay its £20m outstanding loan to TfL. In addition, he says that the bridge’s business plan is robust enough to cover ongoing maintenance costs.

Copley says the review has already damaged Johnson’s reputation. “The court of public opinion will not look very favourably on a man who wasted £40m on a project that doesn’t exist.”

Khan – perhaps weighing the impact on London’s reputation of cancelling a showpiece project, which has made waves around the globe – is biding his time. Meanwhile the capital’s most controversial development project in recent history staggers on to fight another day.

Bridge design: ‘They can’t learn any lessons in this if they continue to be in denial …’

If any architects can recognise the value of an original idea it is probably Julia Barfield and David Marks. As well as coming up with the London Eye, the recently opened i360 viewing platform on Brighton seafront was also their brainchild. But the couple were left disappointed after submitting an entry for the competition to design the Garden Bridge, a process which was described by Margaret Hodge’s report as “not open, fair or competitive” and bedevilled by “systemic failures and ineffective control systems at many levels”.

The review backs up previous findings that the process, which led to the appointment of Heatherwick Studio and Arup as designer and engineer respectively, was tilted in favour of the two successful practices.

Having been persuaded by the then TfL director of planning Richard de Cani to submit an entry, Barfield told the review that the practice was only given eight days to do so, while Heatherwick had already spent months on the project. And Heatherwick, who the report says held one of his meetings with the GLA in a cable car trip across Docklands, was scored higher for “relevant design experience” than the third bidder Wilkinson Eyre, even though the latter had completed 20 bridges to his one.

“We were taken for chumps,” says Marks, speaking to Building while on holiday in France. TfL has still not accounted for the flaws in the procurement process, he says: “They have not acknowledged that there was anything wrong, just that they would read [the report] carefully. They can’t learn any lessons in this if they continue to be in denial.”

However, Barfield believes the saga highlights flaws in the way that the public sector treats innovative designs, like the Garden Bridge which Heatherwick had spent months working on in secret before the competition.

Marks Barfield’s two most renowned projects were developed, initially in the case of the i360, for private clients, which meant no need for an architectural competition. The report concludes that Johnson could have bypassed running a design competition. Nevertheless, Barfield argues that a good outcome from the Garden Bridge saga would be a more open process for bringing forward design solutions in London.

“The public sector needs to demonstrate value for money on the project’s procurement but having a competition isn’t the only way of doing that,” she says. “A lot of architects don’t put forward their ideas because they don’t want them to be pinched. If there was a process by which ideas could be promoted and ideas somehow protected, it could unleash a whole new wave of architects, engineers and designers coming forward with brilliant new ideas.”