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London's Garden Bridge Will Be an Expensive Private Playground Paid for by the Public

It's a "public" park owned by a charity that will be closed off for private events, and where you can't skate or cycle.

by Mark Wilding
05 November 2015, 4:01pm

Arup

Eight out of ten people want it. According to a poll conducted earlier this year, Londoners are crying out for the Garden Bridge. Leaving aside who paid for the poll (ok, it was the Garden Bridge Trust), support for the bridge seems to span public opinion, just as the bridge itself will span the Thames in all its glory. And what's not to like? This is to be no ordinary bridge. According to renowned bridge expert Joanna Lumley, AKA Patsy in 1990s comedy Absolutely Fabulous, the Garden Bridge will be a "horticultural oasis", "the tiara on the head of our fabulous city". This 366 metre-long footbridge will create a tree-lined boulevard of peace and tranquility suspended above the water. Also, it'll knock five minutes off the walk between Temple to South Bank.

All this for just £175 million. The cost is obviously irrelevant but, unfortunately for eight out of ten Londoners as surveyed by the people behind the bridge, not everyone sees it that way. Six weeks ago, the future of the bridge looked in doubt when Lambeth council and Labour mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan pulled their support over concerns about the cost to the taxpayer.

It was previously agreed that George Osborne would be putting up £30 million for the project, a sum to be matched by Transport for London - meaning a total public cost of £60 million. Thankfully for all fans of gardens and bridges, the crisis was averted this week when it was agreed that anything more than £10 million spent by TfL will be treated as a loan – bringing the cost to the public down to a mere £40 million. Lambeth and Khan are back on board. But what if they were right to be concerned? Can we be sure the promise of the bridge will really be delivered?

On closer inspection, that prospect looks unlikely. A look at who's involved should be enough to sound alarm bells. The idea was first proposed by Joanna Lumley, whose prowess as an actor, general good-deed-doer and national treasure may be beyond question, but whose expertise in major infrastructure projects is much less obvious. Boris Johnson has been a major supporter of the project, presumably in the hope it will come to be known as the Boris Bridge. Let's not forget that the support of London's mayor was crucial in making plans for the Thames cable car a reality – a project which cost £24 million in public funding (after an early pledge that the costs would be covered by private finance) and is now used by no commuters whatsoever.

Then there's celebrated artist and designer Thomas Heatherwick, whose major achievements to date include the London 2012 Olympic torch and the revamped Routemaster buses. That's the Olympic torch whose design he was later accused of borrowing from someone else (the case was settled out of court) and the Routemaster buses which cost £400,000 each and featured a range of cool new additions such as broken air conditioning and windows that don't open. Heatherwick's appointment came after a procurement process mired in opaque dealings and allegations that Lumley and Boris had long ago chosen Heatherwick, forcing TfL to work backwards from there. Those unimpressed by the Garden Bridge team include author Will Self, who told the Guardian: "It's crap, but everything's pretty crap... I don't like the bridge. Boris is being a dick over it, and silly old Joanna Lumley – what's she going to do? March Gurkhas up and down it?"

Setting aside such personnel concerns, there are other reasons to believe the realised bridge might not be the public utopia we've been sold. It's been described as a "free public garden in the centre of London". That depends largely on your definition of "public". It will be owned by the Garden Bridge Trust – a charity. There will be no guaranteed public right of way. Cycling and skateboarding are among the list of banned activities. The bridge will be closed between midnight and 6AM. It will also be closed for private events for up to 12 days a year. It's been reported that groups of eight or more people will have to seek permission before visiting, although the Garden Bridge Trust has since clarified that larger groups will only be "encouraged to contact staff in advance" and "there will be staff on hand to help look after visitors and safely manage numbers".

A draft management plan provides a helpful insight into how visitors will be "looked after". The document lists a series of "crime related threats" which, oddly, include various activities which aren't crimes at all. The risk of robbery and assault seems like a reasonable thing to consider. But rough sleeping? That's not illegal – despite the best efforts of certain councils. The there's "fear of crime", "anti-social behaviour", and "public protest". In essence, this is a public bridge, just as long as you promise not to annoy anyone or complain about anything while you're there. And if you do? There'll be a "garden bridge security force", whose tasks include "person and property searches" and "patrol of the bridge and perimeters". Of course, they won't officially be known as a security force. Instead, they're to be called "Visitor Hosts".

Eight out of 10 Londoners may back it, but in light of what we now know, perhaps we should be listening to the people who don't. Leading bridge engineer Alistair Lenczner has described the project as a "private garden platform pretending to be a bridge". After reading the management plan, it's hard to disagree. This isn't a public bridge at all. It's a private project propped up with public funding (even if part of that funding now comes as part of a loan) and with the backing of a mayor who's desperate to squeeze in one more vanity project before leaving office. Not only will the bridge cost us £40 million, we could be covering the £3 million running costs every year. In return, we'll be allowed to use it – just as long as we play by the long list of rules.

@mark_wilding.

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