28 July 2013

£4m to design white elephant

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.

TfL's £4m figure comes from a committee paper 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.

I find the entire idea beggars belief. This is a bridge with no real purpose (the additional green space created is peanuts relative to Green Park, 20 minutes walk away); which nobody (yet) is willing to pay for (other than the £4m of public funds to be washed down the drain); for which the likely cost must outweigh the likely
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).


Martin Knight said...

Completed in 2001, the final construction cost of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge was £17.7m GBP. The design of this movable pedestrian and cycle bridge adopts a parabolic plan form with a variable deck width of between 7m and 9m. The curving plan fulfills the briefing requirement for a connection from quay level to quay level. The direct distance between quaysides is approximately 128m and the distance along the c/l of the deck curve is approximately 155m. Using an average 8m deck width and depending on whether or not you accept the 155m distance is a consequence of the brief, the cost per square metre is either £17,285 or £14,275. The cost per linear metre is £114k. Even allowing for inflation, the reported cost of £300k is much too high.

Martin Knight said...

...even allowing for the higher total project cost of £22m published on the Gateshead Council website, the 2001 cost per square metre is either £21,485 or £17,742 and the linear cost is £142k.

The Happy Pontist said...

Thanks for these figures, which are different to those I can quickly find on the web (105m span, and 130m length). If you take Gateshead's reported £22m in 2001, and apply 2.5% inflation for 12 years (which is a reasonable average over that period), you get a present-day cost of £29.5m. Over a 155-metre length, that works out at £190k per metre of deck. I will update the blog post to reflect that number unless you have other figures to offer?

PS: Do you like the flowerpot bridge?

Anonymous said...

Man how do I get in on designing a bridge that will never be built for four millions pounds! (That's like six million plus dollars!)

I will design anything you want, as long as it never gets built, for two million pounds. Hell I will put a dome over it and grow you a rainforest.

How do you get these jobs, who do I have to go drinking with? Seriously how do you get these jobs?


Hugh said...

Thanks for the blog - I really enjoy it.

" it's a staggering expenditure"

I agree, any idea how it breaks down between preliminary structural engineering and the other activities?

The Happy Pontist said...

Sorry, no idea!