By her own account Joanna Lumley’s brainchild of a garden bridge for London dates back to the late 1990’s, but it was finally given shape by designer Thomas Heatherwick and the bridge scheme was first presented as a private sector gift to the people of London [and perhaps more particularly the tourists, millions of whom, it was argued, would flock to use it and presumably buy the souvenir tee shirt and overpriced ice cream]. Of course there was the small obstacle of planning permission and funding.
Modern London does need bridges and river crossings both east and west of the City of London, but such schemes should justify themselves as part of an integrated transport policy, in a climate of fiscal austerity. In that context it is doubtful that a pair of giant copper clad planters linked by a pavement were at the top of Transport for London’s (TfL) infrastructure wish list. However, soon after his re-election in 2012, Ms Lumley picked up the phone to London mayor Boris Johnson. In placing the call she probably did not have to go through the switchboard and get past the Mayor’s gatekeepers because, as she told Alan Yentob of the BBC “I’ve known Boris since he was four so he’s largely quite amenable”, as so Mr Johnson proved to be.
TfL then carried out, what critics argued, was a cursory procurement process where only two other potential contractors were approached for a new (but previously unannounced) pedestrian river crossing between Temple underground station and the South Bank; Marks Barfield Architects and Wilkinson Eyre, designers of the Stirling Prize winning Millennium Bridge at Gateshead. Of course neither of the potential rival bidders had available the fully fledged scheme for just that location which Lumley/Heatherwick were able to submit. Thus, while both rival practices, were more experienced in building bridges than the chosen design studio, neither of them got the gig. Next, Westminster and Lambeth Council’s pushed through the planning application when the Garden Bridge Trust, of which Joanna Lumley is also a member, said construction had to be completed by 2018 to avoid problems with the barge traffic carrying spoil from tunneling for Thames Water’s massive and equally controversial, 15-mile Thames Tideway Tunnel project.
However, as the scheme progressed and the planning process coupled with Freedom of Information requests forced increasing amounts of background material into the public domain, it became clear that significant amounts of public subsidy would be required, to the tune of £60 million of the construction costs. The Garden Bridge Trust also obtained the commitment of Mayor Johnson to secure the cost of running the bridge from the public purse if the they did not manage to raise the annual running costs, estimated to be in the region of at least £3.5 million per year. It has also emerged that, in return for that subsidy, the public would not only have no right of way across the bridge, as they do over every other bridge across the river Thames, the bridge will also be closed overnight between midnight and 06.00 and at various other times for “corporate events”. The garden bridge effectively sets a precedent for privatising the crossing of the river and the view of the City of London skyline, including St Paul’s cathedral. The bridge blocks the current view of the City from upstream.
Anyone hoping to cross will also find they are not even be allowed to stop for a picnic as they would be able to in any of London’s other Parks, nor will they be allowed to cross in a party of more than eight without registering in advance and forget Mayor Johnson’s dream of a cycling London, there is no cycle access.
Of course the landscape architect, Dan Pearson, is a fine and award winning garden designer, but here the critics argue he has just 2,700 sq m of growing space to play with. That is around half a football pitch for the birds, bees and windswept mid river planting. Also not helping the bridge’s green credentials are the thirty mature trees on the South Bank which will be felled to make way for a “…flexible structure to accommodate a number of uses,” or as it would probably become, the souvenir shop and cafe. Trees which stand on and adjacent to one of the few remaining green spaces on that part of the South Bank.
Meanwhile a genuine, internationally important, scientific and heritage asset and hugely popular tourist attraction, the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, currently faces a £5.5 million deficit in its budget thanks to the Osborne cuts programme. Kew Gardens has already lost 47 core science posts belonging to people doing genuine research. Effectively Chancellor Osborne has chosen to promote a handful of Gardening jobs at the Garden Bridge rather than the support the kind of research which can repay the relatively small investment it requires many times over.
This string of restrictions, the backdoor subsidies from both the Mayor’s office and Osborne and the fudged environmental case give the sense that the whole thing would not have got further than the pretty CAD images from highly selective angles on Heatherwick’s computer had it not been for the allegedly inappropriate level of support from old family friend of Ms Lumley, Boris Johnson himself.
All this leads to allegations of the project’s increasing number of critics that the Garden Bridge is nothing more than the twenty first century version of an eighteenth century folly. In this narrative the Garden Bridge is an unnecessary, ungreen, vanity project and corporate toy, promoted by the privileged and well connected while the taxpayers and London citizens supply the safety net. A folly which has, critics argue, such a flakey business plan and budget that the design could soon find itself reshaped, given tusks and a trunk and painted white. Probably also at the public expense.
© Andy Brockman, June 2015
(This article is a shortened version of one which was originally published on PipeLine, reproduced with kind permission of the author.
Andy Brockman writes on PipeLine an investigative digital news magazine published by the independent heritage group Mortimer and specialising in stories about the place where archaeology, heritage, money and politics meet.