There are many more worthwhile things £60m of taxpayer money could fund in London
A gift for the capital, entirely funded by private money and sponsors – that’s how Boris Johnson first presented plans for the Garden Bridge. Since then, like so many of his promises, this no-strings-attached gift is set to cost tax payers tens of millions of pounds.
Despite that initial ‘cost-free’ promise both Boris Johnson and George Osborne have since each have happily pledged £30m of public money for the project. Even after that, the extent to which public money would be used for the garden bridge has been rapidly growing.
As was revealed last month, the mayor has secretly agreed to underwrite the maintenance costs of the bridge, to the tune of some £3.5m a year for London taxpayers.
The manner in which this was done was shocking and downright dishonest. After promising listeners to LBC on the Tuesday that ‘the maintenance cost will not be borne by the public sector’, it was revealed the very next day in a letter that ‘the mayor has agreed in principle to provide such a guarantee’ [of the maintenance costs].
The Garden Bridge Trust has produced very little evidence, as part of an upcoming judicial review, that it could raise the £3.5m annual running costs. If the Trust failed to raise the necessary funding each year, and with a 125-year life span, this underhand agreement would leave London taxpayers footing the bill for years to come.
London deserves better than a mayor who explicitly promises not to do one thing whilst drawing up plans to do exactly that. It shows how just little Boris Johnson’s word is actually worth. A mayor should be paying more attention to the proper and honest use of public money rather than his misplaced desire to pursue vanity projects and please friends like Joanna Lumley.
The other vital part of this story is the fact that London’s priority is not a privately managed tourist landmark expensively propped up by the taxpayer. What place does public money have in maintaining a bridge, the simple transport definition of which is a public right of way across a river, that will actually offer no such right for Londoners?
Firstly the bridge would be closed from midnight to 6am. There have also been indications that numbers on the bridge will be limited, particularly on group sizes thereby suggesting the possibility of a ticketing system. Lets not forget that last time Boris introduced a ticketing system for a ‘free’ event, London’s iconic NYE fireworks display, he also added a £10 administration charge! Either way, it’s sounding more like a tourist attraction and less like a transport project with every detail that comes out.
The commercialisation of public space in a city as dense as London is something that frightens many. It would be an outrage if it was surreptitiously achieved and maintained on the back of taxpayer’s money.
There are also plans for the bridge to be closed once a month for corporate events. This is a slippery slope that would probably only expand – especially if the Trust’s fundraising plan is as weak as many believe.
Finally the bridge’s environmental credentials, that originally got many observers excited, are also quickly eroding. Cyclists will also no longer be able to use the bridge, the RSPB has come out against it and questions have been raised about some of the companies set to be involved in the build.
There are many things £60m of taxpayer money could fund. For example, Michael Ball, head of the Waterloo Community Development Group, has claimed the cost of the project could fund some 30 new London parks, achieving a much vaster area of space of greenery than the bridge would achieve. If a greener area for London is the priority so much more could be achieved with the kind of figures currently being mooted.
Building public support for these kinds of infrastructure projects requires public debate and support. Despite this, Boris Johnson has consistently and knowingly misled Londoners on both the costs and benefits of the Garden Bridge. There may well be a place for the project on the Thames but deception will never provide a lasting foundation. With every new revelation about the Garden Bridge the case is weakening further – its time for Boris to be straight about the real price of this ‘gift’ and ask whether Londoners think it is worth it.
John Biggs is the Labour London Assembly member for City and EastLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.