Warm words and a time-unlimited guarantee - but minister caps financial backing for controversial project

The government has cut its underwriting of the Garden Bridge by £6m.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling announced today that while he would extend the financial guarantee for an unlimited time period, it would be cut to £9m.

The current guarantee, which covers up to £15m of cancellation liabilities, expires next month and the Garden Bridge Trust had asked for a year’s extension.

Chairman Mervyn Davies was forced to issue a renewed plea last week when the government remained silent as the deadline approached. He said it was a crucial time for the £175m project and that it would be a “tragedy” if the government withdrew its support now.

In a statement released today by the Department for Transport, minister Lord Ahmad began with warm words for the Heatherwick-designed project but ended with a clear warning that government financial support is strictly limited.

“The government wishes the exciting and innovative Garden Bridge project every success and has provided public funding to help get it off the ground,” he said.

“We have extended our agreement to underwrite cancellation costs but capped at the current [sic] level of £9m.

“The taxpayer must not be exposed to any further risk and it is now for the trust to find private sector backers to invest in the delivery of this iconic project.”

A spokeswoman for the Garden Bridge Trust said they were confident of finding those private backers.

“The main thing is the government has indicated its support and that’s the news we really wanted to hear,” she said.

“We are talking about cancellation liabilities so it’s hypothetical but we have to be prudent.”

An official statement added: “The government has made it clear it wishes to continue to support the ‘exciting and innovative’ Garden Bridge and has agreed to extend a large part of its underwriting agreement.  The Garden Bridge Trustees have agreed to explore any further underwriting required and are currently working with new private-sector sources to build on the current support.”

Work on the bridge was expected to start this spring and the trust has already spent more than £30m of the £60m of public money it has received.

But delays caused by planning and land purchases meant construction will now not be completed until 2019 – a year later than scheduled – potentially putting it in conflict with the so-called super sewer project which is being built under the Thames.