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Garden Bridge

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 7th September 2016.

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Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Labour, Vauxhall 6:30 pm, 7th September 2016

I absolutely agree. I stick up for London. I believe that London, being a great capital city that is loved by the people who live here while being very open to tourism, does sometimes need special arrangements, for example policing. This, however, is something very different. Perhaps the problem for my two hon. Friends is that they do not have Joanna Lumley living their area.

Let us look at the cost. When the garden bridge was first announced, it was claimed it would not require a penny of public money. Very soon after, the former Chancellor announced £30 million of support and Transport for London also came up with £30 million. So, £60 million of taxpayers’ money has been committed to a project that came out of thin air. It had never been discussed with anyone before it was announced, unless in private discussions between Joanna Lumley, the former Chancellor and others.

From the beginning, those supporting the Garden Bridge Trust behaved as if they knew they had support in high places—and of course they had. The report in February by Project Compass, the not-for-profit procurement intelligence service, goes into great detail on how the procurement process was handled. The tender originally asked for broad options for a pedestrian bridge between Temple and the South Bank, and it made no mention of a garden/living bridge element. As a result, only the Heatherwick Studio bid responded with not just a garden bridge proposal, but a design drawing and actual location plan of the garden bridge. That had not been called for in the tender spec, yet Heatherwick Studio received the highest mark for its understanding of the brief.

A single person in City Hall—Richard de Cani, the then manging director for planning for Transport for London—assessed the technical and commercial evaluation of the three bids. Usually, subjective judgments in public tender documents have a team of assessors to ensure impartiality, but this is the same Richard de Cani who we now know used to work for Arup—the same Arup that in another flawed tendering process, as outlined by Project Compass, won the contract for the Temple bridge part of the garden bridge and has been given more than £8 million.

It gets worse. Where has Mr De Cani gone back to work? Arup, of course. Arup seems to like ex-City Hall staff, because it has recently appointed as its new global transport leader Isabel Dedring, the former City Hall deputy head of transport. She was personally involved with nearly all the meetings prior to the tendering process with Thomas Heatherwick. So, both of the officers directly involved with the entire process have now left City Hall and gone to be employed by the garden bridge engineer and lead consultant, Arup. That could be a coincidence, but I think that most fair-minded people would think that it is very strange. Even Greater London Authority’s internal audit head, Clive Walker, admitted that the procurement had been neither open nor objective.

There is a question mark over the procedure, and yet the National Audit Office could do nothing about it. It responded to me by saying that it was not in its remit to look into TfL behaviour, and that that was the responsibility of the GLA oversight committee, supported by locally appointed auditors. Ernst & Young is the GLA’s locally appointed auditor and it was also appointed by the Mayor to run the investigation into TfL, but—believe it or not—Ernst & Young is listed as having donated £500,000 to the bridge, and an Ernst & Young partner also sits on the board of the Garden Bridge Trust. The GLA oversight committee looked into that, and its chair described it as a “dodgy design procurement process” and suggested that TfL reimburse the two other applicants, WilkinsonEyre and Marks Barfield.

I think that the NAO should be able to investigate public money used by TfL. I am glad that it has agreed to look into the £30 million given by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer via the Department of Transport and how it has exercised control over the money.

The model under which the GBT operates sets a dangerous precedent—this is why this should be of interest to all Members—that allows public bodies to effectively offshore major infrastructure projects by leveraging charitable vehicles, under the oversight of the Charity Commission, to avoid the transparency and scrutiny preserved for governmental bodies via the NAO. The House will be interested to know that since July 2015, £26,720,292 has been paid to the GBT, with absolutely no accountability for how it has been spent and no visibility of its accounts.

The current Mayor stated when he came to office that £37.7 million has already been spent by the trust, but:

“Nothing has been achieved to date”.

More recently, he stated on LBC that the figure was now £42 million, yet he himself had stated that he did not want a penny more of public money. It would be interesting to know why another £5 million to £6 million has been spent since he came to office.

Recently, Lord Davies, the chair of the Garden Bridge Trust, stated on “Newsnight” that a significant amount of spend had been on two contractors, namely Arup and Bouygues, which is a French company and there are slight variations in how it is pronounced. No visibility has ever been provided over those contractual arrangements, or legal clarity provided as to whether there are clauses to return public money in the event that the project is cancelled.

I believe that contracts should not have been entered into until the land arrangements on both sides of the river had been secured because it exposes taxpayers’ funds to risk. The land deal still has to be negotiated and Coin Street Community Builders, who hold the long lease from Lambeth, are not happy with the terms of agreement even now. A judicial review has been filed. The money for that was raised by small donations across London. Quite suddenly, just a few weeks ago, the GBT changed its dates for filing its accounts, originally due on 31 July, to 31 December. Again, this lack of transparency is very worrying.

This project is at risk not just of never happening, but of being a colossal white elephant. It is nicely depicted in a cartoon in this week’s Private Eye, with a big white elephant over the Thames. We now know—it has been admitted by Lord Davies on “Newsnight”—that it is going to cost £10 million more, up to £185 million, and will be further delayed by a year even if the GBT gets what it wants. It now has to raise between £52 million and £56 million just to build the bridge, up from the original estimate of £32 million. Additional money is needed to support the running costs at £3 million per year, while the insurance is £15 million, but only £9 million has been offered as surety by the Department for Transport.

I understand—the Minister will want to go into it—why the Secretary of State agreed to continue the underwriting, but I welcome the fact that the Department did not say that it was going to increase it in any way. There was a danger of allowing it to continue, with increased amounts each month. In fact, that did not happen, which is to be welcomed. I still think that this is a ridiculous waste of public money.

The GBT’s own press release from June 2016, just a few months ago, admits to spending £22.7 million of public money solely on pre-construction activities—progressing the design, obtaining licences, permits and planning approvals, which are still not final, including stakeholder and community consultations—but no further information was provided. A number of leading construction experts have said that they cannot understand how that could have amounted to anything more than about £1 million.

I genuinely cannot understand how the Government, whether it be the Treasury or the Department for Transport, can feel comfortable with the truly remarkable amount of money already spent by the GBT. I find it hard to explain to my constituents, many of whom would be the kind of people the new Prime Minister addressed from the steps of Downing street on her first day in office, precisely how £40 million pounds of public money has already been spent on a bridge that is going to be closed regularly for private functions, that will not allow cycling and that will be subject to all sorts of rules about what can and cannot be done on it. As I said, the bridge is in completely the wrong place.