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I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I am glad to hear that he has come to this debate with an open mind. Yes, as I am going to mention later, that is indeed one of the most dreadful things that will happen. It might not seem that important, but once it is no longer there, we will realise it and miss it. The wonderful views of St Paul’s from Waterloo bridge will be ruined. That will happen without a doubt if the garden bridge is built.
I also find it difficult to understand why this new Government are giving money and underwriting a project for a charity whose donors and backers too often remain unidentified. The public do not discriminate as regards which pot of money the funds come from; to them, it is all public money. There is, however, a list of donors and a breakdown of the funding up to August 2016, and what is remarkable is how many of those donors are anonymous—anonymous this and anonymous that. Why do they want to be anonymous? Some people might decide that they want to be. Strangely, however, £12.6 million is described as being “confidential until launch announcement”. Is that real money or is it a pledge from someone? It is all smoke and mirrors. I shall say more about donors in a few moments. Because of that, and because of the way the trust’s accounts have been dealt with, I welcome the Charity Commission’s investigation, which it has confirmed to me in writing.
Let me say a quick word about the business plan, which has been examined admirably and in great detail in a report entitled “Operational Viability of the Garden Bridge” by Dan Anderson, who is a director of Fourth Street. Some Members will know of Fourth Street, which has done great work for the National Trust and other public bodies. The report draws attention to all the flaws in the business plan, and I commend it to anyone who wants to understand more. In paragraph 4.2, Mr Anderson makes this crucial point:
“It is worryingly worth noting that the Garden Bridge Trust has a perverse incentive to spend money as quickly and not as efficiently or cost-effectively as possible. That is, the Trust has a powerful incentive to ensure that it reaches a ‘point of no return’ (in financial terms) as quickly as it can so that planning, land acquisition and/or legal challenges do not ultimately thwart the project.”
I think that that must be a very large part of the explanation of how such an extraordinary sum could have been spent before construction has even started.
Others, too—apart from the Government, Transport for London and City Hall—need to examine their behaviour in respect of this project. A cosy little cartel has been operating, with everyone blaming everyone else. The almost zealous support that has been given to the Garden Bridge Trust by Lambeth council is disturbing. The chief executive has attended meetings with the Mayor’s head of staff, David Bellamy, and the trust. The council’s leadership has never allowed a proper, full debate in the council and a vote, and has ignored local councillors’ views. Council officers and members have proceeded for three years without any policy basis. Their transport plan does not even mention the garden bridge, and there has been no policy paper from Lambeth explaining why the council should support it.
Lambeth could stop this project tomorrow if it wished. Coin Street Community Builders, of which I am a huge supporter, should have said no to the change in its land lease from the beginning. It, too, could stop this tomorrow if it wished. The Mayor of London, coming new to the project, should have put a stop to it, or at least consulted local politicians. It is just not good enough for him to say, “So much money has been spent that we must carry on.” He could stop it tomorrow if he wished. Will the Minister tell us who will pay the £3 million running costs? Will he confirm that it will not be the taxpayer, and will he confirm categorically that there will be no more public funding for the bridge?
Lord Ahmed had stalled everyone who objected to the bridge. No one could manage to see anyone in power except representatives of the Garden Bridge Trust, who seem to have been able to do so whenever they wished. Lord Ahmed has now written to Councillor Craig saying that he will meet local councillors, but I ask him to come and look at the site, and speak to the people who really know the area and the problems.
Having talked privately to many of those who are involved in all the different aspects of the project, I know that there is huge unease. I know that there is unease in the Department for Transport, I know that there is unease in Lambeth, and I know that there is unease in Coin Street. I know that most of those people —with the exception, probably, of the former Chancellor—would like the project to be stopped, but no one wants to be fingered as the person responsible for actually saying no.
I appeal to all the potential donors to think carefully about whether they want to be associated with the project. I believe that the reputation of many of them will be damaged by their support for this folly. As the critique of the business plan states, the garden bridge must be loved as much by the public as by its creators, or the business model will fail. Given how unpopular it is and how much has been exposed by freedom of information requests, I have to say that if I were a trustee of a body that was thinking of donating to the Garden Bridge Trust, I would be thinking again. It is ironic that this may be the only way in which we may now be saved from a complete waste of public money, even more of which will be wasted as time goes on, and a deeply flawed project which, as I said earlier, will ruin the most wonderful views of St Paul’s from Waterloo Bridge, as well as making congestion on the South Bank—which is already at dangerous levels during some weekends—much worse.
Charitable trusts and private donors should now stop their support and look elsewhere for projects more in keeping with their objectives. That is what I would like to see happen.
This has been put forward as a wonderful new tourist attraction for London. It is a tourist attraction, but it has been dressed up as tourist infrastructure; it has been dressed up to get Government support when other brilliant tourist attractions in London have done this by private money. It is an inappropriate use of taxpayers’ money and, worse, it was promised from the beginning that it would not be.
We have to ask who has sold us down the river and how we can ensure that no more damage will be done and no more public money will be wasted. This Garden Bridge Trust project must be stopped by someone, and I would like to hear the Minister say he will do his utmost to make sure not a penny more will be spent and that we will find ways, when this project fails, as I believe it will, to get that public money back.