20 July 2019

Johnson’s London

Bridge to nowhere

The story of how £43 million of public money was spent on a never-to-be-built garden bridge is a terrifying insight into the political leadership of Boris Johnson

By Martin Fletcher and Will Hurst

It was Joanna Lumley’s idea. The actor thought a garden bridge across the Thames would be a wonderful way to commemorate Diana, Princess of Wales, following her death in 1997. She envisaged a space for pedestrians above the great arterial river that would be “filled with trees… as well as shrubs and wildflowers. Winding paths will snake around woodland copses and glades.” It would be a “floating paradise”, she said, the “tiara on the head of our fabulous city”.

Other memorials were built for Diana, but not the bridge. Lumley persisted. She proposed it to Ken Livingstone when he was Mayor of London in 2002. She mentioned it to the designer Thomas Heatherwick, but he did not immediately pick up on the idea. They swapped Christmas cards until, a decade later, Heatherwick called and said: “Shall we talk about your bridge?”

On 11 May 2012, days after Boris Johnson had been re-elected Mayor of London, Lumley wrote him a note. “A thousand congratulations on being re-elected Mayor of London – our cheers and shouts reached the rafters… wonderful news for London,” she gushed.

She then asked if she and Heatherwick could meet Johnson to talk about “a BRIDGE” which would combine “beauty and practicality in equal measure”. It would be “a boon for Londoners and visitors alike and will add to the great loveliness of the Thames. Please say yes.”

An artist's impression of Thomas Heatherwick's garden bridge design

Johnson arranged for Lumley and Heatherwick to meet his officials. Two months later, he presided over London’s spectacular Olympic games, and Heatherwick, designer of Johnson’s iconic double-decker Routemaster bus, won international acclaim for his design of the cauldron that held the Olympic flame. That autumn, Johnson enthusiastically endorsed the garden bridge idea.

It was Johnson’s sort of project – bold, eye-catching, headline-grabbing. It would build on the triumph of the Olympics, rival New York’s High Line, and help maintain London’s status as one of the world’s most exciting and innovative cities. It drew support from David Cameron, the Prime Minister, George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Sarah Sands, then editor of the London Evening Standard. Sands believed Osborne saw it as a means of maintaining London’s global stature. “Osborne had the kind of romantic sense that, you know, what makes a city great?” she said.

The vision was indeed alluring. The problem was its implementation. The cost of a bridge that was initially supposed to have been built with £60 million of private funds soared to more than £200 million before Boris Johnson’s successor, Sadiq Khan, finally killed the project in 2017. By then, a staggering £53 million, including £43 million of taxpayers’ money, had been washed away in the muddy waters of the Thames without a single brick being laid.

“It’s a story of incompetence, recklessness and arrogance, and of the great and good trying to stitch something up to create a plaything for themselves dressed up as a gift,” said Tom Copley, a Labour member of the London Assembly who – with The Architects’ Journal – has done much to expose the scandal.

“Please say yes.” Joanna Lumley’s letter to Boris Johnson, which got the ball rolling

“It was a systematic failure of how government can be beguiled by high-profile people pitching high-profile projects,” said Nick Davies of the Institute for Government.

No public body or inquiry has explained satisfactorily how the money was spent. The losses dwarfed those of the parliamentary expenses scandal, but no heads have rolled. No penalties have been incurred. Nobody has been held accountable. And Boris Johnson, who drove the project forward with a reckless disregard for the rules governing public contracts, stands at the door of 10 Downing St.

Speed was essential if construction of the 366-metre crossing from Temple to the South Bank was to begin before Johnson left the Mayor’s office in 2016.

The bridge became “a top and urgent priority” for Johnson and “decisions… were driven by electoral cycles, not value for money,” Dame Margaret Hodge, the former chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, wrote in a review of the project that Khan commissioned after he succeeded Johnson as mayor.

Isabel Dedring, Johnson’s deputy mayor for transport, told Hodge: “Boris was every week going, ‘What’s going on with the bridge?’.” Sir Peter Hendy, the former TfL commissioner, said: “The pressure [from the mayor’s office] to get on with this was absolutely enormous… Isabel was on our backs every day”.

By January 2013, just four months after Lumley and Heatherwick first met Johnson, the process for awarding the design contract was well underway – and it was engineered to ensure that Heatherwick won.

Thomas Heatherwick presents his vision in April 2014

Johnson or his deputies held at least five meetings with Heatherwick before the invitation to tender went out on 13 February. The week before, Johnson, Sir Edward Lister, his chief of staff, and Dedring had secretly flown to San Francisco to meet Heatherwick and lobby Apple for a donation. Apple declined, though it was apparently tempted by the idea of having a retail store on the bridge.

The invitation went to three firms – Heatherwick Studio, Marks Barfield Architects (who had designed the London Eye) and Wilkinson Eyre (who had designed the Emirates Air Line cable car which crosses the Thames at Greenwich). TfL pressed the latter two firms to participate to give the appearance of due process.

The tender asked for design advice on a footbridge – only Heatherwick knew that Johnson wanted a garden bridge. It required submissions within eight working days, giving Heatherwick another huge advantage as he had been working on the design for five months. In addition, Richard de Cani, TfL’s then director of planning, contacted Heatherwick Studio after it submitted the costliest bid and it subsequently reduced its price.

De Cani alone assessed the entries. He chose Heatherwick Studio though it had only designed one previous bridge, whereas its two competitors had designed more than 30. Challenged on that, Johnson blithely replied: “Michelangelo had probably never built a duomo or had never painted the roof of a chapel before he did the Sistine Chapel. It is a totally ludicrous complaint.”

Marks Barfield subsequently called it a “sham” process and told Hodge: “It is clear that we were just there to make up the numbers and the outcome of the so-called competition had in reality already been predetermined. We feel deeply embarrassed to have been used in this way by a publicly accountable body who should know better.”

Hendy admitted as much. He told Hodge: “Was it pretty clear that what the Mayor wanted was to ask Thomas Heatherwick to build a garden bridge? Yes it was.”

Some projects do get completed. The London Eye, designed by Marks Barfield, was erected in 1999

The procurement process for the engineering and project management services was little better. The contract went to Arup, though it was initially placed seventh out of 13 bidders. It had worked with Heatherwick on the original bridge designs, giving it a better understanding than its rivals of what was required. It was also the only bidder that de Cani – a former Arup executive – asked to review and reduce its fees.

“These were not open, fair or competitive procurements,” Hodge concluded unequivocally.

By late 2013, the Garden Bridge Trust had been set up to promote, build and run the bridge, with Bee Emmott seconded from Heatherwick Studio to be its executive director. The cosiness did not end there. Heatherwick himself was the Trust’s founding member, though his studio was also making money from the project, and he hand-picked its chair and deputy chair.

It soon became clear that public money would be needed to kick-start the project. That November, Johnson and Osborne announced a £60 million funding package.

Half the money was to come from TfL, though it was unclear that the bridge would do much to enhance London’s transport system. Johnson told an interviewer that he “wasn’t really sure what it was for” apart from offering a “wonderful environment for a crafty cigarette or a romantic assignation”. Mike Brown, who succeeded Hendy as TfL commissioner in 2015, told Hodge: “In terms of all the transport imperatives in London… (the bridge) would not feature in the top 100”.

The other £30 million was to be provided by the Department for Transport (DfT), which concluded that the bridge offered few transport benefits, represented poor value for money and might never be completed, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

Despite that, Sir Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Secretary, approved the grant in November 2014 on condition that only £8.2 million could be spent on the intrinsically riskier pre-construction activity.

The Emirates Air Line cable car bisects the sky above London’s Millennium Dome

Three times over the next two years McLoughlin raised that ceiling until, by the time the project collapsed, the ministry was liable for £22.5 million. He did so against the advice of his officials. On one occasion, Sir Philip Rutnam, the DfT’s permanent secretary, requested a formal instruction from McLoughlin because, he warned: “This represents a disproportionate level of exposure for the Exchequer to the risk of failure on a charity-led project that was intended to be funded largely by private donations”.

McLoughlin was under pressure from Cameron and Osborne. The Tory leaders were frustrated by the hold-ups, according to an e-mail from Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary.

Construction work was supposed to begin in September 2015, but the Trust was struggling to raise funds from the private sector and secure the necessary approvals.

It had no River Works Licence from the Port of London Authority, and no agreement with Coin Street Community Builders (CBSC), a development trust which controls the land required on the south bank of the Thames.

CSCB felt its concerns about the future management of the bridge were being ignored. Scott Rice, its chair, recalled Lord Davies of Abersoch, the Trust’s chairman, telling him after one fraught meeting: “If this project goes down, we’ll put the blame at Coin Street and you can imagine what that’s going to be like in the Evening Standard.”

Hi-vis politicians: George Osborne and Boris Johnson, when they were Chancellor of the Exchequer and London’s mayor

Johnson also savaged opponents. He complained that “the garden bridge is ringed with demented enemies who do not want to see something beautiful established in the heart of London”. He accused one critic of harbouring “a Taliban-like hatred of objects of beauty”. On a letter to Lumley he scrawled: “Up with the Ponte Giardino and down with our enemies!”

Although the Trust had secured neither the land nor the money required, it nonetheless proceeded to award the construction contract to a joint venture consisting of two companies, Bouygues and Cimolai, in January 2016.

That decision – responsible for nearly half the final cost of the failed project – was facilitated by a £7 million TfL grant that was approved by de Cani, even though he had just accepted an offer to return to Arup.

The Trust awarded the contract partly because the bridge had to be completed before work began on building a giant sewer down the Thames. But it also wanted to ensure that the bridge’s construction was well underway by the time Johnson left office, and would therefore be irreversible.

Some of the principal players attend a fundraising auction and dinner for the garden bridge

“Letting the contract was the most likely way of securing the building of the bridge, whatever the implications for either value for money or the taxpayer,” Hodge’s report declared. She added: “I am shocked that the Trust entered into this financial commitment with so many issues unresolved and it is astonishing that the Mayor, TfL or the Department for Transport did not stop the Trust from signing this contract.”

But construction never did start, despite Johnson’s last-gasp effort to lock his successor, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, into the project.

Johnson had initially refused to underwrite the £3 million a year required to maintain the bridge. He later amended a requirement for the Trust to have “secured a satisfactory level of funding” to maintain the bridge to “demonstrating to the Mayor’s satisfaction that it has a satisfactory funding strategy in place”. Finally, the day before he left office in 2016, Johnson decreed that the Greater London Authority (GLA) should underwrite the £3 million annual maintenance costs.

“During his last hours in office, Boris Johnson was desperately trying to force through his beloved garden bridge when officers at City Hall had serious concerns,” Caroline Pidgeon, a Liberal Democrat member of the London Assembly, said.

Khan’s election scuppered Lumley’s dream. The projected cost had surpassed £200 million. Public opinion had soured. The private sector had pledged £85 million, but two big donors withdrew their offers, new ones were hard to find with Johnson gone, and the Trust faced a £70 million funding shortfall. Hodge’s damning report in April 2017 sealed the bridge’s fate. Khan refused to guarantee its future running costs, and the Trust abandoned the project.

When Sadiq Khan came to power, the garden bridge was finished

In February this year, TfL acknowledged that the non-existent bridge had cost £53.5 million, of which £21.4 million was paid to the Bouygues joint venture, £12.7 million to Arup, and £2.7 million to Heatherwick Studio.

Bouygues refuses to say how it earned £21.4 million before construction had even started. TfL – the Trust’s public sector sponsor – refused a Freedom of Information request for the Trust’s construction contract with Bouygues, saying it did not have a copy of that vital document.

Johnson’s office failed to keep proper records of key meetings – a failure Hodge labelled “completely unacceptable”. Moreover, Hodge complained: “Key stakeholders refused to accept responsibility and laid the blame on others.” All requests to interview those stakeholders for this article were refused.

Richard de Cani has meanwhile returned to his former employers, Arup, who were beneficiaries of the failed project. Isabel Dedring has also gone to work for Arup (Hodge said she accepted assurances from de Cani, Dedring and Arup that there was no conflict of interest). Peter Hendy now chairs Network Rail. George Osborne succeeded Sarah Sands as editor of the Evening Standard, which has reported little on the scandal. Mike Brown remains TfL’s £500,000-a-year commissioner.

Johnson refused to cooperate with Hodge’s review, which identified him as the man “ultimately responsible for all the decisions and actions taken on the garden bridge”. But he was compelled to appear before the London Assembly’s GLA oversight committee in March last year.

Boris Johnson with an arm around the then-editor of London's Evening Standard, Sarah Sands

He blustered, obfuscated and blamed others. He dismissed Hodge’s review as a “fairly gimcrack affair”. He accepted no responsibility beyond admitting that “bits and pieces were rough around the edges”. He insisted: “Not a single penny has been wasted by me. It’s been wasted by the current mayor of London who cancelled the project completely unnecessarily.”

Johnson has since proposed – without apparent irony – two more bridges, one to France and the other to Ireland.

The idea of Johnson as prime minister appals those who have followed the garden bridge saga closely. “It tells us he should never be allowed within a million miles of Downing Street,” said Tom Copley, the London Assembly member.

Beyond London, some believe that fiascos like the garden bridge fuel the sort of anger that Johnson’s Leave campaign exploited during the 2016 EU referendum campaign.

Steve Rotheram, Metro Mayor of Liverpool City Region, said: “I don’t believe any other city would have been awarded £60 million by central government for a vanity project, such as Boris’s garden bridge. At a time when our local councils have seen their services hollowed out, seeing that level of waste, and knowing what we could have done here with that money, is heartbreaking.”

Sarah Longlands, director of the Manchester-based think tank IPPR North, noted that the scandal occurred when northern England was losing £6.3 billion through cuts. “The idea that the great and the good of London could conspire to develop a project like this breeds resentment,” she said.

As for Joanna Lumley, she described the bridge’s cancellation as “absolutely shattering”, and told The Times: “The negativity troubles me in my heart: I hope we’re not turning into the sort of country that instantly says no before it considers saying yes. A nation that just pulls the shutters down.”

Thomas Heatherwick isn't done yet: his Pier 55 is rising from the waters of New York's Hudson River

There’s a coda to the story of the garden bridge. In the Hudson River, on the west side of Manhattan, a fantasy island is rising from the waters. Pier 55 is a 2.5 acre park, including a concert bowl that sits on hundreds of concrete “pots” like misshapen champagne glasses with stems sunk into the riverbed.

It was designed by Thomas Heatherwick with an initial price tag of $35 million, which has risen steadily to $250 million, and along the way has attracted similar criticism to that thrown at the Garden Bridge – for being a project of New York’s elite, for its elite. Its lone backer, the billionaire businessman Barry Diller, pulled the plug at one stage but re-engaged after public money was promised to improve the waterfront next to the pier.

The similarities between Pier 55 and the Garden Bridge are striking in many respects but not in one: the fantasy island will be finished in 2021. For better or worse, New York will have succeeded where London failed.

History may record that the fatal failure in London had more to do with process than design. Even in the competition between global cities for marquee projects, the hard lesson for Boris Johnson is that doing things properly still matters.

The argument for the garden bridge

Ella Hill

The garden bridge has become so muddied with scandal that it’s easy to forget its original appeal. Yet that appeal is undeniable. The architect Thomas Heatherwick had masterminded the beautiful, petalled cauldron that acted as London’s Olympic flame, and his studio’s designs for the bridge were similarly attractive: two wide platforms arching across the river, each festooned with flowers, shrubs, blossoming cherry trees and wild grasses. What’s not to like?

The proposal might have seemed grandiose, but (at least at first) it had a very simple, practical purpose – as a river crossing. “Whatever you may think of who was involved, or the aesthetics of the project, in principle the idea of a pedestrian bridge linking the north and the south sides of the river is a good one,” says Lee Mallett, director of Urbik, an urban regeneration consultancy.

According to Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture, surveyors and consultants have been discussing putting a bridge across the river at Temple since the Abercrombie Plan of 1944. “It’s a good place for a bridge partly because of the distance between the two bridges at Waterloo and Blackfriars and because of the patterns of people crossing the river between Covent Garden and the South Bank,” he says.

A well-placed pedestrian bridge could lead to the regeneration of the Embankment on the north side of the Thames, just as the Millennium Bridge did for Southwark and Bankside. “If you look at the riverside condition of the north bank it’s a wasted opportunity. It’s a motorway, to the north of which is a private, privileged lawyers’ garden. On the Embankment, the road needs to go or to be buried, and the north bank needs to be occupied in the way that the South Bank has been,” says Mallett.

In her first letter to Boris Johnson in 2012, Lumley suggested a cycle track to run alongside the bridge, a proposal with “beauty and practicality in equal measure”. As the idea progressed, the cycle route vanished and the design favoured strolling tourists over busy commuters (a typical journey across the bridge would take an estimated 12 minutes compared to the Millennium Bridge’s three).

But, Murray argues, there’s no reason why the Garden Bridge couldn’t have served both purposes. “It would have been easy to have designed a layout with a straight route across, plus benches, plants and trees to the side for people to sit and enjoy the view.”

Photography by Eyevine and Getty Images

Further reading

The London Assembly’s investigations into the Garden Bridge are brought together here.

Dame Margaret Hodge’s review of the project is here.

The 2015 edition of Thomas Heatherwick’s Making, published by Thames & Hudson, includes details of his designs for the London Olympics, as well as for smaller-scale early projects.

Sonia Purnell’s Just Boris: The Irresistible Rise of a Political Celebrity is published by Aurum Books.