There is much talk these days about greater transparency by public bodies.
Boris Johnson even published a dedicated manifesto
LINK on this subject as part of his 2008 mayoral election campaign.
And to be fair some progress has been made in greater openness across most forms of government, including even at City Hall. For example under Ken Livingstone Mayoral Decisions
LINK were not even published. Thankfully they now are. All expenditure on items over £250
LINK is also regularly published. If you know what you are looking for – such as the ridiculously large window cleaning bill
LINK facing City Hall – the information is open to inspection. Another area of progress has been the London Datastore
LINK allowing people access over 500 datasets.
Yet when it comes to the Garden Bridge this spirit of openness suddenly disappears. Obtaining information about the funding and procurement of the proposed bridge has been a lengthy and torturous process and even now many questions remain unanswered.
The limited information that has come to light so far has only been due to extensive inquiries by myself and other London Assembly Members, and some brilliant investigative reporting, especially by Will Hurst of Architects’ Journal.
One area where the full picture still needs to be revealed relates to the overall process of procurement of the Garden Bridge design contracts. It is simply baffling how the different architects were judged.
Internal Transport for London (TfL) documents show that Thomas Heatherwick, the winning designer, scored more highly than two competing architect firms in the “relevant design experience” category.
The internal scoring by Transport for London (TfL) has quite rightly raised eyebrows because the two competitors, Wilkinson Eyre and Marks Barfield, are very experienced bridge designers, while Heatherwick Studio has only completed one. One of Wilkinson Eyre’s designs, Gateshead Millennium Bridge, won the Stirling Prize.
A further area of controversy relates to the closeness between Heatherwick and Joanna Lumley. Heatherwick Studio even list her as an associate in their bid to design a bridge across the Thames.
Of course there is a much wider issue as to why such a significant project simply wasn’t open to a proper design competition.
After raising a number of questions relating to the procurement process for the design of the bridge, it is encouraging that Sir Peter Hendy, the Commissioner of Transport at TfL, has recently instructed a review to be undertaken of the overall process of procurement. However, it is worth noting that this review is only taking place despite, not because of the Mayor of London. To his credit Sir Peter has ignored Boris Johnson who has consistently opposed any examination being undertaken as to how the design contracts were ever awarded.
Incredibly the Garden Bridge boldly declare on their website that ‘Transport for London’s procurement process for design of the Garden Bridge was wholly proper’. This is a statement they would be wise to refrain from making, certainly until the review is fully completed.
Clarity is also needed as to the timing of public money being awarded for the proposed bridge.
The only evidence or justification for the bridge is the draft Strategic Outline Business Case
LINK which was not published until May 2014, but the key decision
LINK to put £60m was taken beforehand, back in December 2013. What was the evidence on which the Treasury and TfL took that decision? The preamble to the business case says that it was commissioned at the request of the Mayor of London and Chancellor of the Exchequer. It really looks as if it were commissioned to post hoc justify the decision to commit £60m.
One further area where the Mayor has not been open with Londoners is over the maintenance costs of the bridge. At first he promised that no more public money would be used on the project, following a £30m injection of cash by Transport for London. It then slowly came to light
LINK that he had in addition guaranteed that the estimated £3m annual running costs of a garden bridge over the Thames would be met by public money if private funds were insufficient.
To seek to deflect any examination of the Garden Bridge proposals the Mayor has resorted to ridiculing anyone who speaks out. He has even declared that anyone who raises any questions about the proposed scheme as having a “Taliban-style hatred of beauty”. Such tactics say everything about his lack of credibility on this issue.
The lack of openness by the Mayor of London over the Garden Bridge is simply unacceptable. His record on this issue has now tarnished his other initiatives during his time at City Hall, which have genuinely have allowed greater transparency.
Truly every aspect of the funding, procurement and design of the Garden Bridge is murkier than the River Thames.
© Caroline Pidgeon, July 2015
Caroline Pidgeon MBE is a Liberal Democrat politician in the United Kingdom and the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the London Assembly. She is seeking selection as the Liberal Democrat candidate for London Mayor and Assembly List.