The mayor of London Sadiq Khan has effectively pulled the plug on the Garden Bridge project across the Thames, meaning the £37million already spent will have been wasted.
He has refused to give the scheme the financial guarantees it needs for construction to begin, amid fears taxpayers might end up footing the bill for any funding shortfall – which currently stands at £70m.
Khan said he was “simply not prepared” to put taxpayers’ money further at risk over the proposed pedestrian Thames crossing – after pledging that no more public cash should be spent on the project.
His decision follows three weeks after he asked Labour MP Margaret Hodge to investigate whether the bridge still represented value for public money. Her critical report on April 7 recommended it be scrapped to avoid wasting any more public funds.
The Thomas Heatherwick-designed bridge, with 270 trees and intended to run from Temple on the north side of the Thames to the South Bank, was devised by actress and campaigner Joanna Lumley and backed by foreign secretary and his predecessor Boris Johnson and then-chancellor George Osborne.
But it has still not secured the necessary land use agreements despite three years of talks – and the planning permissions given by Lambeth and Westminster councils expire in December.
Khan has now written to the Garden Bridge Trust, the charity leading the much-delayed project, saying his decision was because of the shortfall, and the lack of progress on the agreements.
“The funding gap is now at over £70m and it appears unlikely that the trust will succeed in raising the private funds required for the project,” Khan said.
“I am simply not prepared to risk a situation where the taxpayer has to step in and contribute significant additional amounts to ensure the project is completed.
“The conclusion I have reached is that Dame Margaret was right to conclude that the project progressing would expose the London taxpayer to additional financial risk, both with regard to the bridge’s construction and its maintenance.
“I have been clear that this should not be allowed to happen. Accordingly, the Greater London Authority is unable to provide Mayoral guarantees for this project.
“I regret that the significant expenditure of public funds and effort from both public bodies and the Garden Bridge Trust has not led to a situation where I can provide the guarantees requested.”
Its planning permissions include the guarantee that its future operational and maintenance costs be met from mayoral funds, if the trust is unable to meet them through its commercial and fundraising activities – and it is this which he has withdrawn. Lambeth and Westminster would be unlikely to allow the scheme to start construction without any financial guarantees it would be completed.
Johnson and Osborne committed £60m of public money to the scheme, with the rest to be raised from sponsorship donations. But agreements could not be made with organisations such as Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB), which owns land on the south side of the Thames where the bridge would have ended.
CSCB chief executive Iain Tuckett said: “Coin Street Community Builders has always said that decisions on how public money is allocated and whether the Garden Bridge should go ahead should be made by the relevant public authorities. Sadiq Khan inherited a situation where a large amount of public money had already been invested in this scheme and we understand the reluctance to see that money wasted. However we welcome the Mayor’s decision to end uncertainty and ensure that further time and money is not expended.”
Hodge said what had started as a project estimated to cost £60m was likely to end up costing more than £200m, with £37.4m of public funds already spent without any building work having taken place.
She also found that the Garden Bridge Trust had lost major donors and secured only £69m in private pledges, leaving a gap of at least £70m, with no new pledges obtained since August 2016.
Khan said this money had already been spent before the agreements had been signed. In his letter to Lord Mervyn Davies, the Labour life peer and former government minister who chairs the trust, he added: “It is concerning that a huge amount of effort and expenditure has been expended on other aspects of the project when there is a real possibility that agreement will not be reached before the expiry of planning permission, or at all.
“Pledged funds being lower than two years ago strongly suggests that support for the project is not robust enough to generate the required funds.”
He said there was “material uncertainty as to whether the trust can properly regard itself as a going concern”.
He criticised the trust’s plan to start construction before all private funds were in place, saying this could leave London with “a partially built bridge which would either require completion or demolition” at public expense.
He had been elected as a supporter of the bridge but had since changed his mind: “It does not seem reasonable to me to believe that all these obstacles can be overcome.”
Liberal Democrats accused Khan of dithering on the decision.
London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon said: “The Mayor has taken a year to make this decision and while he has been dithering more money has been wasted. Yet while it is regrettable that Sadiq Khan has taken so long to make a decision he has finally done the right thing following Dame Margaret Hodge’s damning report.
“it is quite clear this vanity project of Boris Johnson’s would end up as a bottomless pit for the public purse.
“It is now dead in the water and will be held up for many years as a case study on wasting public money and poor decision-making at both government and Mayoral level.”
Taxpayers’ Alliance chief executive John O’Connell said: “It is good news Khan has seen sense and taken taxpayers off the hook for this ridiculous vanity project.
“It is regrettable so much taxpayers’ money has already been wasted on it but we should not throw good money after bad. If, in future, politicians are so determined to build monuments to satisfy their egos, they they should seek the money from the private sector rather than dip their hands into the taxpayers’ pockets.”
Lord Mervyn Davies, Chairman of the Garden Bridge Trust, said: “We received the Mayor’s letter with great regret today. We will study the contents of the letter in detail before responding formally. The Garden Bridge Trust was set up at the request of Transport for London and the Department of Transport to deliver the project which had received public money. We have had enormous support from our funders and are very confident we can raise the remaining funds required. But sadly the Mayor of London has taken a different decision to those in place when the project started.”