The overblown Garden Bridge show now looks over

by Dave Hill

Boris Johnson’s appearance before the GLA oversight committee yesterday was, unsurprisingly, largely a revival of the old Mayor Boris Show, complete with close attention from those in the Big Media who think they smell about his person a Garden Bridge-shaped smoking gun. The Guardian even claimed in advance of his appearance that Johnson “could” be investigated for misconduct in public office “if it is shown” that “political pressure” from him “played a role” in public money being lost on the project.

I wouldn’t hold your breath. The comments of the former judge whose view the article was derived from contained even more caveats that its contorted opening paragraph, with its odd insinuation that the then most powerful politician in the UK capital, directly elected by over one million people, had no business trying to see that a project he favoured was delivered.

Two simple points need to be made about the Garden Bridge affair. One, it has illuminated particular failings of Johnson’s time at City Hall, including cronyism, a lack of clarity of purpose and a cavalier attitude to rules that other people expect to follow. The second point is that, notwithstanding the first, it is not and never has been the stuff of monumental scandal. Oh, it definitely matters: The Architects’ Journal and those London AMs who’ve been been digging out the detail have been absolutely right to do so. But some perspective has also long been needed here.

First, let’s look again at the Garden Bridge idea itself. It has appeal. A sylvan Thames crossing, for pedestrians alone, could be a lovely thing for London. Its proposed location – connecting Temple and the South Bank – was strongly opposed by some campaigners, but let’s also note that it has long been considered suitable for a bridge, going right back to the plans of Patrick Abercrombie. And, as Peter Murray has written here, the Garden Bridge concept itself has a history and has long won admirers.

Let’s also think about that public money. Some of it came from central government and Johnson followed up with £30m from Transport for London. That sounds like and, of course, is a very large sum by most peoples’ standards. But in the context of TfL’s overall budget – still around £10bn – it’s rather small. Martin Hoscik of MayorWatch told the Guardian in August that compared with the hundreds of millions of taxpayer cash that get wasted on failed and delayed public procurement and IT projects nationally, “the bridge’s costs amount to little more than a rounding error”. A fair point. The Guardian, however, didn’t publish it.

The undermining of Garden Bridge by Sadiq Khan has been an extended process, taking in a change of attitude by the Mayor himself – as Candidate Khan he had expressed his “full support” for it, albeit with what have turned out to be justified concerns about the procurement process – and the critical findings of Margaret Hodge’s inquiry. The project’s trustees have complained that £9m of public money need not have been spent had he ditched the scheme on taking office. The bridge has been brought down by tidal politics.

The summoning of Boris Johnson to City Hall allowed a sense of an impending reckoning to be constructed, but the former Mayor was never likely to be publicly dismantled yesterday. The Garden Bridge saga has raised important questions about the extent of mayoral powers of patronage and executive fiat and has provided a useful, if atypical, case study of how partnerships between private philanthropy and public bodies can go wrong. But it has never been the outrageous indictment of Johnson’s mayoralty some have cracked it up to be. The overblown show now looks over. Maybe it is time to learn the legitimate lessons and move on.

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