National Audit Office investigates London garden bridge grant

Watchdog examining the Department for Transport’s decision to commit £30m to former mayor Boris Johnson’s pet project

The National Audit Office has launched an investigation into the use of public funds to pay for one of Boris Johnson’s most controversial pet projects as London mayor, the garden bridge.

The independent government spending watchdog is examining the Department for Transport’s decision to commit £30m of central government cash to the £175m project. It is is questioning how the department “exercised controls over the grant”.

The money was originally pledged by the chancellor, George Osborne, who told the then mayor that the crossing from Temple to Southbank would be “iconic”.

The move brings the number of official inquiries into the attraction to four. The bridge was originally proposed by the actor Joanna Lumley and the architect of the London 2012 Olympic cauldron, Thomas Heatherwick, and had the backing of Johnson who promised it would be “a stunning oasis of tranquility in the heart of our city”.

The new London mayor, Sadiq Khan, is investigating his predecessor’s conduct in the procurement process for the bridge, after a London assembly committee found there were “significant failures of process throughout”. It emerged in March that Johnson and his team met Heatherwick five times to discuss the idea before the official procurement process began.

The Charity Commission has opened a case following complaints about the spending of the charity behind the bridge, the Garden Bridge Trust. It said it was assessing whether regulatory action may be required.

Transport for London, which is due to provide £30m, has separately appointed Ernst & Young to carry out an audit.

The Labour MP for Vauxhall, Kate Hoey, wrote to the NAO saying she had been alarmed by comments made by Khan, who said at his first mayoral question time: “If the bridge was cancelled now, taxpayers will have spent £37.7m for no benefit at all.”

In a reply obtained by the Architects’ Journal, Sir Amyas Morse, the NAO comptroller and auditor general, said he would investigate the Department for Transport’s (DfT) decision to commit £30m of central government funds to the project and would publish a report in early autumn.

A DfT spokesperson said: “Our £30m funding is crucial to help get this landmark project in central London off the ground and act as a catalyst to attract private funding.

“As with all major projects we provide funding for, we assessed the business case to ensure value for money and we believe that the garden bridge will become an iconic addition to London’s landscape which boosts the economy and brings a range of other benefits. We have been in contact with the NAO about their investigation, and are cooperating fully.”

Hoey also wrote to the Charity Commission, stating: “I have had a significant amount of representations from [Greater London Authority] members, local councillors, organisations and interested individuals who are concerned that the garden bridge project is hiding behind its status as a registered charity in order to prevent the transparency and accountability that would normally be required of a public infrastructure project of this size.”

Hoey told the Guardian: “I don’t have any confidence in the Garden Bridge Trust because of the way it has behaved. It has not listened to the most important people in this, the local community, and it has allegedly abused its cosy relationships with Transport for London. The NAO inquiry seems the only way to give any confidence to the public that this has been a legitimate project that has not been pushed through by special interests.”

A spokeswoman for the Garden Bridge Trust said it had “legitimately spent a total of £37.7m on pre-construction work” and that “public funds were specifically allocated for pre-construction and construction work”.

She added: “With reference to the other proposed inquiries, these are matters for the DfT and TfL who conducted the procurement process. The trust is focusing on delivering the bridge.

“This year we have met the majority of our pre-commencement planning requirements, we are in advanced discussions about the land needed on both sides of the river, legal agreements with neighbours are being finalised, our fundraising continues to be strong with discussions taking place with a number of global organisations, and we have a construction contractor on board.”


Robert Booth, Will Hurst and Peter Walker

The GuardianTramp

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