Thomas Heatherwick's proposal for a "garden bridge" across London's Thames has been in the news again. BDOnline reports that Transport for London (TfL) will spend £4m to develop the bridge design through to planning consent stage.
I hope you were sitting down when you read that. Four. Million. Pounds. For the preliminary design of a concrete flowerpot, to be plonked in the middle of London with as little sensitivity as is imaginable.
It's the sort of sum that may well be applicable for a major bridge, but to me seems well out of proportion for a footbridge, particularly one where there is no compelling need for a crossing (it will be barely 250 metres away from the nearest existing Thames bridge, Waterloo Bridge), and there's nobody yet willing to pay for its construction. The hope is that private donors will pay for the entire project, with TfL committing nothing beyond the initial development costs, and carrying the risk that if the scheme goes nowhere, that money is simply wasted.
available online, which reveals April 2014 as the target date for the planning application, meaning they must burn through roughly half a million pounds a month in the feasibility stage. The £4m isn't just for design development, it also covers consents fees, public consultation, and establishing a charity whose aim is to raise private funding for construction and maintenance. Nonetheless, it's a staggering expenditure, and even more eyebrow-raising when you note that this is a proposal which was never in TfL's business plan, but for which money has had to be found largely to satisfy a passing mayoral whim.
Maintenance alone is expected to cost anywhere from £3m to £5m, on top of an initial construction cost of from £60m to £100m. That would make this, I am pretty sure, the most expensive pedestrian bridge every built, by some way, three, four or even five times as expensive as London's Millennium Bridge, and trumping even the costly Gateshead Millennium Bridge on a pound per metre basis (flowerpot: up to £400k per metre; blinking eye: about £190k per metre, allowing for inflation).
These are only initial figures, with more accurate estimates anticipated at the end of September.
value on any conceivable scale; which would almost certainly become a public liability at some point in the future; and which judging from the images created so far looks like a massive blot on the landscape (probably more so when the scale and impact of the approaches at either end become apparent). If this doesn't meet the definition of a white elephant, what does?
Even in a time of austerity, there should be room for a little frivolity, a larger amount of fun, and for things that offset gloom with positive vision. However, if private donors really do have £60m or £100m to spare right now, it's hard not to think of more useful ways of spending their money.
Updated 30th July: Gateshead bridge costs amended (see comments).