Despite a last gasp attempt to convince Sadiq Khan that it could hold up financially, the Garden Bridge project has announced its own collapse after several months of ominous creaking. In a statement, its trustees complain that Khan is largely culpable because he failed to provide the guarantees the project needed in order to succeed, despite supporting it in principle both before and since his election. They argue that the ebbing of mayoral enthusiasm over the past year has cost the public £9m more than it would have had he ditched the bridge immediately. So ends this sorry saga of good money washed down the Thames on a tide of shifting mayoral politics.
Its bitter epilogue cannot conceal the fact that the enterprise was flawed right from the start. Leaving aside the argument about whether a bridge of any kind linking the South Bank to Temple is desirable at all, the process that enabled it to get underway has been exposed as a product of vanity, chumocracy and a questionable use of executive power in Boris Johnson’s City Hall. Even the purpose of the bridge was never clear. Was it a transport scheme or a tourist attraction? Could it feasibly be both? Should Transport for London money ever have been spent on an enterprise whose purpose was ambiguous?
Khan may maintain that his changing stance was consistent with his discovery of new facts, but the signs have always been that his attitude to the bridge has been shaped by his perception of Londoners’ opinion of it and of him. When he expressed his “full support” in February 2016, his election battle with Zac Goldsmith was at its nastiest, the Zac-backing Evening Standard was at one with the Tory candidate in praising the bridge, and an opinion poll for the trust published the previous year had proclaimed huge public support.
Even then, though, Khan, ever the subtle strategist, questioned the procurement process. That caveat gave him the freedom he required to commission Margaret Hodge’s inquiry, whose resulting, damning, report provided him with defensible grounds for fatally weakening the bridge’s foundations. If his plan has always been to sink the scheme by stealth it has now worked, though his Conservative critics, noting the trust’s parting shot, will try to stop him from sailing away unscathed.
Amid the wreckage lies the seed of an attractive idea. As Peter Murray has written here, there has long been respectable case for a footbridge at that point on the river, and had the Garden Bridge incorporated cycle access it might have enjoyed wider backing. The notion of a tranquil crossing alive with flora and fauna has the potential to hold great popular appeal if developed properly in a location where it would truly be welcome. The sadness of the Garden Bridge is that it has turned out to be the exact opposite of everything it might have been.