22 December 2014

London's Garden Bridge: grumbling rumbles on, but here's a wrinkle

With the utterly unsurprising announcement that London's Mayor, Boris Johnson, has given the go-ahead to the Garden Bridge project, it's perhaps worth taking stock.

I commented on this fiasco-in-the-making last month, noting that its progress now seemed unstoppable, short of the unlikely scenario of the bridge's designers suddenly realising their own folly in an "Oh my goodness, what have I done?" moment, and deciding to quit.

This is a bridge, let's recall, which at £175m has a price tag grossly in excess of what even Donald Trump could consider reasonable (indeed, it's perhaps a surprise that Trump isn't involved, offering copious sponsorship in return for adding a couple of par-3 golf holes to the bridge). This puts it well beyond the realm of the most expensive pedestrian bridges ever built, by a considerable multiple. Having initially promised that no public funding would ever be provided, Johnson and partner-in-crime George Osborne then each offered £30m of taxpayers cash to underwrite the job.

The rest of the funding has to come from private sponsors, and so much is required that this supposedly public oasis will be converted twelve times a year into a private garden party for the use of its wealthy benefactors. Perhaps the capital city's poor and hungry can swim beneath the bridge on such occasions in the hope that some crumbs may spill from the lavishly decorated table. For the rest of the year, the bridge will be closed at night, forbidden to cyclists, and large groups (of 8 or more people) will be obliged to sneak across hoping they can dodge the inevitable CCTV hidden behind cherry blossom. For a bridge supposed to offer a great experience for the public, it won't even be a public right of way.

The bridge will ruin views along and across the Thames, including of St Paul's Cathedral, who have joined an ever-lengthening list of people who have woken up to the bridge's adverse impacts. It's neither a very good garden (central London being already well-provided with large public parkland), nor a very useful bridge, serving no genuinely worthwhile transport need. As the Guardian has recently noted, it turns the Thames into a playground for private fantasies, not public benefit.

Even bridge engineers, never an outspoken lot, are lining up to critique the proposals. Bridge expert Simon Bourne (not a fan of extravagance) was cited in the New Civil Engineer magazine stating that a decent bridge could be built for just £50m, a snip compared to the bill for the Garden Bridge. That certainly sounds reasonable, given that the structurally challenging Millennium Bridge cost about £23m just over a decade ago, and that between £26m and £40m is anticipated for the new pedestrian bridge planned at Nine Elms (of which, more another time).

In the latest New Civil Engineer, the Garden Bridge Trust's Paul Morrell responds to Bourne's criticism. Morrell is a Big Cheese, formerly the government's Chief Construction Adviser. However, his defence of the Garden Bridge illustrates everything which is wrong with this scheme.

Morrell says: "I could ask for the breakdown of [Bourne's] estimate of £50m so we can learn from it", which would seem a complete waste of time given that we already have well-established benchmark costs for pedestrian bridges over the Thames. However, a failure to benchmark costs against comparable projects is entirely normal for those whose infatuation with grandiosity triumphs over common sense.

Morrell goes on to note that £50m wouldn't even cover the Garden Bridge's non-construction costs (fees, fund-raising, land, compensation and "a long list of issues that you really do need to be working on the project to understand"). This patronising contempt for transparency is startling, but not as startling as learning that well in excess of £50m is required before you even start building the bridge - this is really quite disgraceful, but typical of a Grand Projet culture where there is little or no meaningful challenge regarding value for money.

Of course, Morrell is a quantity surveyor, a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Notably, declarations of the value of the Green Bridge have been largely poetic rather than economic in nature: hello trees, hello flowers, hello sky. The government's own guidance for public investment, the Treasury's Green Book, is routinely ignored by political promoters of the extravagant, as it requires benefits, however nebulous, to be properly evaluated and judged against the investment required. With the Garden Bridge, the net benefit may in fact be negative, and it's no surprise that no assessment of the bridge's actual value has been undertaken or published. Morrell ought to know this, so his mis-direction in justifying his project's exorbitant cost is particularly depressing.

Morrell claims: "There is always something cheaper if that is your main aim in life, but it would not get consent, nor would it be fundable, and nor would it deliver what this bridge is designed to be: a unique celebration of British talent and creativity, of design and horticulture, of this great city - and of engineering".

Again, this is just rhetorical sleight-of-hand. We are not obliged to celebrate any of these, and certainly not to divert public money in order to do so at a time when increasing numbers of our population are unable to afford to feed their families properly. Given the other pedestrian bridges which have been built over the Thames or which are planned, it's perfectly clear that a bridge can be built which offers genuine value, at a lower price, which can get consent, and for which funding can readily be obtained, if only the political will permits. Morrell, dazzled by his association with celebrity, seems unable to see that every penny spent on the Garden Bridge folly diverts resources from transport links which would serve genuine need elsewhere in the city.

The sense of defensiveness and the deaf ear to criticism and challenge is deeply reminiscent of two other architecturally extravagant bridge follies from recent times. Sunderland's ill-fated River Wear Bridge was also widely criticised, and as with the Garden Bridge, its backers misrepresented public opinion and ploughed on regardless, wasting millions of pounds of public money in the process. Simon Bourne was one of the critics on that occasion, as well. Glasgow's Neptune's Way farrago was a similar example: an absurd and rightly-criticised design which could not, in the end, be afforded, and was ditched in favour of an economic design serving the same purpose without the pointless showing off.

There is some hope that the bridge may yet be put to the sword before too much money is wasted. There's a suggestion that lawyers may seek a judicial review of the planning decisions. In addition, one of the planning conditions imposed by Westminster is that Transport for London must underwrite the future maintenance costs of the bridge (several million pounds every year). Opponents of the project are hoping that this may yet scupper the plans, Mayor Boris Johnson has confirmed that TfL have no intention of underwriting the maintenance.


Ginkapo said...


All that money on feasibility and yet no one bothered to do a cost benefit analysis? I cant wait for value engineering to kick in during construction.

Anonymous said...

Grand projets require a visionary patron and an inspired designer and there is no doubt the Garden Bridge is a project of positively Presidential ambition. But the equally ambitious French projects of Giscard d’Estaing and Mitterand were the results of public architectural competitions, where the lavish spending of public money was carried out in public view and subject to public scrutiny and debate. When the Garden Bridge was committed £60m of the British taxpayer’s money, the change from an initially private fantasy to a major project backed with TfL’s and the Treasury’s money should have triggered some form of public debate and architectural competition that was open and transparent, instead of being hurriedly legitimised by a planning process that did not anticipate its audacity.

Between the extremes of the grotesquely wasteful Helsinki Guggenheim competition, where the 1,715 entrants had perhaps 90 seconds jury time each as reward for their months of creative energy, and the opaque procurement of the design for this £175m bridge across the Thames, there is clearly the need for radically improved competitive processes which generate more choice for clients; open up fair opportunities for architects and engineers; and reduce costly waste to the profession as a whole.

To the man in the street, this appears to be a privately conceived project, designed in private, imposed upon London and the Thames but ultimately to be paid for by the public in perpetuity. The man in the street has a small voice however with a General Election and a London Mayoral Election both in the offing perhaps that voice will be heard through the ballot box. In London at least, it seems unlikely that the celebrity puff will deter mayoral candidates from taking aim.

The Happy Pontist said...

I think there is already some political opposition emerging to this bridge, perhaps as politicians wake up to the public mood which seems to be against publicly subsidised private extravagance.

The appointment process for the designers, and the sums of public money lavished on them, seems to have completely lacked transparency.

David McFetrich said...

If there is money available for a new 'fun' bridge in London, instead of the Garden Bridge (with its problems of high cost, impact on Thames views and questionable infrastructural benefit) why not build a replica of the medieval London Bridge? Since this could be built on dry land across a site that later became an artificial lake, it would be far cheaper to build, and it would generate its own income by letting out the shop space either side of the roadway and from entrance fees paid by visitors. The lake could even be surrounded by gardens. The main problem would be to find a sufficiently large space in a readily accessible part of London. Is there room at the new park where the Olympics were held?

Unknown said...

I am from Mexico. Here we call this CORRUPTION.
Is there a real need for a bridge in this place?
Is there a DESPERATE need for a park in the area? Because this will be the most expensive PARK ever built.
In this it is similar to the bridge house in Ambleside: that is still a house and this is still a park. But the house builders SPARED MONEY (IN TAXES)INSTEAD OF SQUANDERING IT.

Musomum said...

Very interesting read. The Garden Bridge Trust are still quoting that letter from Paul Morrell..today in fact! Given his recent dismissive response to the very experienced judge granting permission for a full JR,it seems he's forgotten he's a QS, not a QC.