Mervyn Davies, chair of the Garden Bridge Trust, is upset. The Hodge report that recently damned his project is, he told the Today programme, “one-sided”, “full of errors” and based on “selective use of evidence”. Pressed by John Humphrys, however, to substantiate his accusations, Lord Davies didn’t offer much. Neither does an open letter issued by him answer her most important points.
This is rich. The garden bridge, proposed to cross the Thames from the South Bank to Temple, is nothing if not a landmark of the post-truth era. It has wrung tens of millions out of the public purse on the basis of deceptions, distortions and facts that proved to be fake. First sold as “a gift to the people of London”, entirely paid for by private sector donations, it is now due to cost a minimum of £60m in public money. Its estimated total cost has gone from £60m to “north of £200 million”. Its claims to fundraising prowess are exaggerated, its promised transport benefits minimal. Its backers assert overwhelming public support on the basis of a poll that told those polled nothing of the costs and drawbacks of the project.
The selection of its designer, Thomas Heatherwick, and its engineers, Arup, was through a process as credible as a general election in a communist state. Its questionable business plan was produced only after public funds had been committed. An expensive contract was awarded to the contractors, Bouygues, although there were significant doubts about the project. Again and again, procedures intended to create fairness and transparency were broken.
Many of these points are already well known. In her report, Margaret Hodge lays them out clearly, but also reveals the machinations and arm-twisting that seem to have gone on in the mayoralty of Boris Johnson, the project’s chief backer. Notes and minutes of crucial meetings go missing. Functionaries forget things you would expect them to know well. Bucks get passed and goalposts moved. Requirements of the trust to prove its viability keep being shifted in the trust’s favour. Objectors to the project are thuggishly threatened with negative publicity, presumably from the project’s Pravda, the London Evening Standard.
It was above all Boris Johnson’s project and it shows the vanity, entitlement, duplicity and disregard for detail that should by now be familiar (see also his contribution to the Brexit campaign and other underperforming projects such as the Emirates Airline cable car and the Orbit sculpture in the Olympic Park). He refused to answer Hodge’s questions, but she makes it clear that many of the decisions about the bridge go back to a concept of “mayoral direction”, the ability to do pretty much anything he wanted. He must be held accountable more vigorously than Hodge was able to do.