George Osborne pulled rank on his Tory colleague Boris Johnson to insist he use his budget as London mayor to fund the garden bridge, it has emerged.
Letters between the chancellor and the mayor, obtained by the Architects’ Journal, reveal how Osborne overruled Johnson’s wish to merely underwrite private funds for the bridge over the Thames.
Johnson and Osborne have each pledged £30m of public money for the project, despite their party planning £12bn in cuts to social security as part of an attempt to balance the government’s books.
In a letter dated February 2014, released to the Architects’ Journal after a Freedom of Information request, Osborne wrote: “I was surprised by your proposal that TfL should offer to loan the Garden Bridge Trust £30m rather than to provide this as a grant.
“I imagine that providing this support as a loan rather than grant will make the job of fundraising even more difficult, which presents an unnecessary risk to the success of the project. I will therefore be paying the government’s contribution as a grant and believe you should do the same.”
The last four words were underlined by hand, the Architects’ Journal reports. Osborne has been a key backer of the £175m project, describing it as iconic.
Critics of the bridge, which will span the Thames between the South Bank and Temple, describe it as a folly and criticise the use of public money to fund what was initially proposed as an entirely privately funded venture. They say what is being created amounts to a privately managed tourist landmark rather than a bridge for the public.
Details of how the bridge will operate indicate there will be limits on group sizes, suggesting a ticketing system may be required. It will be closed once a month for corporate events, and each night between midnight and 6am. Plans for cycle lanes have been scrapped.
Will Hurst, deputy editor of Architects’ Journal, whose reporting has already led to a review of the procurement process for the bridge’s designer, said that in Osborne the project had a powerful cheerleader.
“The garden bridge has gone from being a 100% privately funded project to one with a substantial and possibly ongoing cost to the taxpayer,” Hurst told the Guardian.
“While George Osborne knew he could recoup much of the Treasury’s £30m contribution through VAT paid on its construction, Boris Johnson clearly harboured serious doubts about committing TfL funds to the scheme and only finally agreed to underwrite the £3.5m annual maintenance cost in March this year.
“As these letters reveal, he was egged on to do so by the garden bridge’s other powerful cheerleader in Number 11 Downing Street.”
The latest revelation emerged days before the launch of a competition inviting new proposals for “a folly for London”, which is intended as a satirical protest against the garden bridge proposal.
Natalie Bennett, the Green party leader and the architecture writer Owen Hatherley will be among the judges choosing “alternative and equally absurd designs to be located on the public South Bank green space which would be sacrificed for the proposed bridge”.
The short brief asks potential designers: “Think about the best piece of transport infrastructure and design on which you could spend £60m of public money for the environmental and community benefit of London. Then reverse those ideals and design your perfect folly for London.”
Designs must cost at least £60m, build on as much green space as possible, largely use environmentally damaging and unsustainable materials, block the views of St Paul’s and Somerset House, and, of course, maximise house prices in the area
Siân Berry, the Green candidate for mayor of London, said the competition, dreamt up by Will Jennings, a local artist, was a genius way to expose the absurdity of the bridge.
She said: “I hope everyone puts forward their most outrageous ideas for a folly for London, but it’s hard to see how any of us have a chance against Boris Johnson, whose legacy for London will be a litany of follies, and who I’m sure could easily think up an even worse idea for this site if he entered.”