The whole concept of a Garden Bridge over the River Thames seemed a modern folly from the very start. Whilst it would have been a visually stunning monument, to those who wanted to establish it, primarily Joanna Lumley, the idea that millions of pounds of public money would be spent on a park that would be privately owned was far from comfortable to many people. The bridge would be closed between midnight and 6am each day and on certain days each year to hold private events to help fund the upkeep of some £2m – £3m. There had also been indications that public access would be controlled using video surveillance and mobile phone signals. All cyclists would need to dismount whilst on the bridge and the rules would prohibit “any exercise other than jogging, playing a musical instrument, taking part in a ‘gathering of any kind’, giving a speech or address, scattering ashes, releasing a balloon and flying a kite.” The idea that national funds would be spent on new local London project at a time when many regional facilities are being closed due to a lack of funding seemed to make this a bad time for a weak idea. That these funds came from transport departments despite the fact that the bridge sits between two other bridges located 200m away in one direction and 300m in another was also a matter of concern.
It now appears that even the Trustees are admitting that the bridge is unlikely to be built. According to this article Lord Mervyn Davies, Chair of the Trustees and Labour Peer writes in the annual accounts “Due to material uncertainties in existence ahead of finalising these accounts, trustees are unable to conclude that the trust is a going concern and feel it only appropriate to flag these risks,”. The previous Mayor of London sank £38m in preliminary work and Transport for London and Department for Transport had between them pledged a further £60m towards the total needed of £185m. The accounts reveal that to date the funds pledged have only come to £129m and the planning restrictions mean that unless the project is commenced during 2017, planning consent would need to be sought in the future. The current Mayor of London has indicated he is not supportive of the project which suggests that future planning consent would be hard to obtain.
Within the accounts comes a further warning that the costs could be even higher than £185m because of a number of hurdles and delays that need to be dealt with. The biggest causes of uncertainty for the project are securing the land, whether the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, will honour his predecessor’s guarantee to support the maintenance of the bridge once it is in place and the need to secure funding that will not need to be repaid if the project is unable to go ahead in the first half of this year. Davies also blames the delays on the EU referendum and subsequent change of government, judicial reviews of local authority decisions and protracted negotiations with third parties.
It seems amazing that funders are willing to fall behind such ideas to the tune of £130m for a pretty bridge 200m from its nearest neighbour when the most the Government seems willing to spend on additional community based mental health services is £15m for the whole country as announced on Monday. Or just before Christmas the same Government found as much as £50m to try to stem the long term problems which lead to street homelessness. We do seem to live in a very unequal society!