As the Garden Bridge saga appears to be drawing to an ignominious conclusion, it's a good time to ask how much this sorry tale owes to simple incompetence and how much to a more flagrant disregard of consequence.
It's a good time because Margaret Hodge’s recent report into the project lays bare many of its failings.
Hodge's report is incisive and damning. The Garden Bridge Trust's response to it is feeble-minded and exemplifies the wilful deafness to criticism which has marched the entire project into a mire of failure.
Hodge has, probably sensibly, avoided any consideration of whether the world's most expensive flowerpots would be a "good thing", although there is much to criticise here.
Just one year later in June 2014, the total cost had mushroomed to some £159m. By July 2015, the sum had hit £175m, then £185m in August 2016. The Garden Bridge Trust has more recently confirmed the likely final figure to "substantially exceed" that figure, with a sum "north of £200m" reported to Margaret Hodge during the preparation of her report. And yet, the project has rolled steadily onwards, with some £46m now spent or committed without a spade so much as hovering over the ground (indeed, the detailed design of the bridge is not yet complete). This is a steam-roller set in motion but seemingly without anyone sitting in the driving seat.
Cost escalation can arise for many reasons, but chief amongst them on projects of this sort is simply that initial estimates were wrong. Scope and risks are not understood properly at an early stage, project promoters are biased towards optimism, and we are all reliant on a QS industry which isn't fit-for-purpose. There are few meaningful benchmarks for iconic projects so it's not a disgrace that the initial estimate was wrong. It is, however, a disgrace that the project was not stopped when its true costs began to emerge, and it remains a disgrace that nobody involved has the balls to stop it now as costs continue to rise.
At the same time as costs have risen, funding available has actually decreased. Although the government funding bodies have meekly handed over yet more cash every time their funding ceiling has been breached, the private funders on whom the project ultimately relies have been backing off. In spring 2015, donors had pledged £85m towards the scheme; by August 2016, the total pledge had dropped to £69m and has not increased since.
Sometimes when costs escalate, they can be tolerated on the grounds of the project's final value, an economist's totting up of the public benefit. That has been attempted here, with a business case thrown together in May 2014 after the project was already well underway, with design team appointed, costs rising, and up to £60m of public funding already announced. Hodge rubbishes the business case, which had already been found to be questionable and weak by central government.
Hodge's report documents in detail what a farce this procurement exercise was, with several iterations of a briefing document showing how Heatherwick's key role was openly acknowledged then gradually cut out to ensure that a "neutral" procurement document could be presented to others.
Heatherwick have been paid over £2.6m for their work on the project, which may sound like a lot of money, but will sound like a lot more if it turns out to be for something that is never built.
Much of TfL's funding for the project is in the form of a loan to the Garden Bridge Trust, which would be written off. All this would form part of the estimated £46m of taxpayers' funding which will never be recovered.
The blame game that will commence will then form the real interest. Teflon-shouldered Boris, and the ever-defensive coterie of Garden Bridge zealots, will blame the project's failure on the naysayers and the (sadly accurate) prophets of doom, and will never accept or acknowledge their own role in this all-too-avoidable fiasco. The many individuals whose incompetence and cowardice enabled it all to happen are likely to get off scot-free.
If history can tell us anything, it is that flagrant malfeasance shall have no consequences, and that lessons will be stated clearly but not learned. I'm reminded, inevitably, of Sunderland’s River Wear Crossing fiasco, with its overly-ambitious iconic design, the deafness of all involved to external criticism, and the millions of pounds pointlessly wasted. Those responsible in that case also suffered no consequence.
Readers may also fondly recall Glasgow's Broomielaw to Tradeston footbridge, where the promoter again ploughed on despite expert criticism, before eventually being forced to abandon increasingly expensive plans. I discussed the invulnerability of the Garden Bridge's ambitious yet deluded proponents to reasonable criticism in a previous post.
The culture of impunity enjoyed by the celebrity-addled nincompoops who are appointed to, supposedly, spend our money wisely, seems unlikely to change any time soon. They will not even feel the shame that they so clearly ought to, the loss of face is too much to contemplate.
I would hope, however, that the various professions and professionals involved in this and other similarly sorry stories might pause to consider the ethics of our own positions.
Can we simply say that it is the fault of the farmer for providing us with an over-sized trough from which to guzzle? Are we right to say that decisions on what to spend and how to spend it are for the promoters and politicians, and we will simply close our eyes and hold our noses and follow their bidding? Are we also too eager to be blinded by glamour and the excitement of association?
More positively, what are we doing to assist our clients and the wider public to understand our project risks, to understand the primacy of project value, and to help them with better evidence so that they can make better decisions, ideally before the steam-roller is ever put into gear?
Garden Bridge proposed in London
£4m to design white elephant
Heatherwick's Garden Bridge gains planning consent from Lambeth Council
London's Garden Bridge: grumbling rumbles on, but here's a wrinkle
London's Garden Bridge: to build, or not to build?