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.
The whole Brexit thing is such a weird exercise in magical thinking that there is simply too much to keep track of as it falls apart. Rather than post individual articles, here’s a round-up.
From the FT, Brexit and the challenges of reality:
No one in government has a clue. Pro-Brexit supporters demand a sudden Brexit without any regard to these problems: see this Bernard Jenkin piece in the FT, and the comments beneath are perhaps the most brutal you will see on this website.
The fatuous Jenkins article is referred to by John Naughton who highlights one reader’s comment in particular:
I have many, many questions for Mr Jenkin, but I will focus only on one. You suggest that repatriating the 17,000+ laws and regulations provided under the 1972 European Communities Act will be a straightforward exercise, a stroke of the Parliamentary pen. Bravo. But as I’m sure the learned gentlemen is aware, law consists not just of written law, but also of the case law developed by the courts over many years to clarify what has been written. This is a crucial element of the legal system, and these judgements are relied upon by all legal advisors and practitioners.
So might I simply enquire as to what case law will apply when the court that made these judgements – the European Court of Justice – is no longer a part of our legal system? Anyone operating under these laws or regulations will need to know. Will English courts continue to rely on decisions made by the ECJ? Until what point? And how will anyone trying to operate a business be sure whether they are protected by those decisions or not? Which court will hear any challenges to those decisions, and under what authority?
Sorry, that’s turned into five questions. Funny how these simple questions have a tendency to do that.
Referencing David Brent, Flip Chart Fairy Tales summarises the complexity of the task:
With no clear objectives, an incalculable number of dependencies, unfathomable sequencing, timescales impossible even to guesstimate and depleted resources, any project planner might be forgiven for throwing in the towel. Some sort of plan will emerge eventually but, at the moment, just making one for the project’s first phase, defining what the hell it is we want, is going to be difficult enough.
So spare me the pseudo psychology and the David Brent-isms. Trite phrases like ‘move on’, ‘be positive’, ‘just do it’ and ‘we are where we are’ reflect a failure to understand the magnitude of the Brexit task. There’s no ‘just’ about any of this. It is a colossal and eye-wateringly complex task. It will take years and will dominate UK politics for the rest of the decade.
On a lighter note, InFacts rounds up Leave’s ludicrous promises in What Brexit do we want? The one Leavers promised. Notable how often Johnson’s name appears.
Even so soon after we joined the EU, such antagonism, fuelled by newspapers that were hostile from the start, fed an audience – including both left- and rightwing leaders – with stories of wasteful butter mountains and wine lakes, and threats to the British banger. There was no end to such stories. Sarah Helm, then the Independent’s EU correspondent, has described how in the mid-1990s, she was tasked with looking for the kind of stories written by Boris Johnson, then the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent. “At that time learning about Euro-myths – smaller condoms, square strawberries, fishermen forced to wear hairnets – took up more time than explaining treaty changes,” she wrote.
Helm recalled that many attributed the Danish rejection in a referendum of the Maastricht treaty to a story by Johnson in 1992 – “the biggest whopper of all”, a claim that the then commission president Jacques Delors planned “to rule Europe”. (The Danes accepted it in a second referendum a year later after they secured four opt-outs).
Update (2017): Of course, a better name for euro-myths is false news.
Though, frankly, he’s just a very fertile man with needs and good genes and it’s really none of our business.