Garden Bridge: 'A sorry tale,' say MPs

 

Influential MPs have delivered a stinging attack on the Thames Garden Bridge project, calling the saga ‘a sorry tale’ about how high profile individuals can gain access to funds with little risk.

In a submission to the London mayor’s review of the project, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which is responsible for scrutinising public spending, catalogued many of the issues surrounding the scheme.

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Key concerns include:

- A flawed business case; the project relies on voluntary donations for 70% of its income, significantly higher than the 10-30% voluntary donation income received by cultural attractions such as the Tate, V&A and Science Museum.

- A high level of public financial exposure; if the project fails around 90% of the losses would be public money. Senior Whitehall officials raised concerns over this, but were overruled by ministers

- A lack of contingency planning for maintenance costs

- A high level of uncertainty around whether the project would even come to fruition

The project was put forward when Boris Johnson was mayor and championed by then chancellor George Osborne.

It has been reviewed by the National Audit Office, which raised concerns about the project's viability, and is now under review by former PAC chair Dame Margaret Hodge on behalf of current mayor Sadiq Khan.

Meg Hillier MP, PAC chair, said: ‘The story of the Garden Bridge is a sorry tale about how high profile individuals with the ear of the powerful Mayor of London can gain access to funds with little risk.

‘With an already stretched budget, TfL [Transport for London] can ill afford this and there are still important questions about who would pay the ongoing maintenance of the bridge which the Mayor’s review needs to get to the bottom of.

‘All this public money has been pledged without a convincing business case. The timetable has now slipped so there is serious likelihood that if the bridge gets the go-ahead it will clash with work to build the Thames Tideway tunnel.

‘Wishful thinking and a close relationship with the mayor are not the basis on which central Government should be spending taxpayers’ money. If the promised private investment fails to materialise this muddled thinking will result in a poor deal for taxpayers.’

Ms Hillier makes a reference to former transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin, now Conservative Party Chairman, who instructed the Department for Transport's permanent secretary to increase the public liability on the bridge by £15m despite concerns.

The then chancellor Mr Osborne committed £30m for the Garden Bridge project from central funds, matched by £30m from TfL’s budget.  £20m of the money pledged by TfL is in the form of a loan to be repaid in full.

The remaining funding – to meet an expected total project cost of around £175m – is due to be raised from private sources.

Around £37m has already been spent from the total £60m pledged by Government and TfL.

 
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