Minutes reveal garden bridge warnings before contract was signed

One trustee asked whether it would be reckless to sign without full funds in the bank

The organisation behind London’s ill-fated garden bridge plan signed a construction contract despite being warned that the project had more than 20 problems to be resolved before work could begin and there was no guarantee of raising all the money needed to complete it.

The warnings, included in newly released minutes of meetings of the Garden Bridge Trust’s board, show one trustee queried whether directors of the firm that was to own the bridge could be held liable for losses if they were seen as having acted recklessly.

The minutes also show that the actor Joanna Lumley, who was one of the trustees, asked who would be financially liable for dismantling the bridge if the project ran out of funds during construction.

The decision to press ahead with the construction contract, despite all the concerns, led to public losses – initially capped at £16m – increasing to more than £40m when the scheme was cancelled in 2017.

The scale of concern within the trust about whether it was able to complete the project will raise fresh questions for Boris Johnson, the former London mayor, who supported the release of extra public funds to build the bridge.

The construction contract was signed with the French contractor Bouygues in February 2016.

Minutes of the board meeting that approved the decision, on 14 January, show some trustees repeatedly questioned the trust’s deputy chair, Paul Morrell, about the scale of the hurdles facing the scheme.

One, Alistair Subba Row, a partner in the property firm Farebrother, “drew attention to still having 22 hurdles to overcome in [Morrell’s] notes and commented that these are significant hurdles that could potentially delay the programme”, the minutes state.

With continued doubts over the funding stream for the project, which was to be financed by a mix of private donations and £60m of public funds, Row also “questioned if the trust would be reckless in signing the construction contract without the full funds in the bank”.

He noted that company directors could be held liable for losses if they engaged in “wrongful trading”, meaning they did not take every reasonable step to avoid losses to creditors if they knew insolvency was possible.

Specific problems raised at the meeting included long delays in securing permission from a community housing trust that held the lease to the land where the south side of the bridge was to be built; the extent of private fundraising; a £10m increase in the projected cost of the bridge, to £185m; and whether a judicial review could delay the project for six months or more.

Morrell told the meeting he was confident the issues could be overcome, and said the trust did not have a “cashflow problem in the short term but a commitment problem in the short term”.

He was backed up by the chair of the trustees, Mervyn Davies, who said new pledges of donations meant trustees should be confident “there are still risks but they are not being reckless”.

Lord Davies said news of the construction contract being signed would provide a boost in donations and would start “quietly informing a number of individuals that the project is going ahead”.

The project was eventually cancelled in August 2017 due to a series of problems, including long delays in securing final permissions, a shortfall in donations and lack of support from Johnson’s successor as mayor, Sadiq Khan.

Minutes of a board meeting held by teleconference shortly before the project was cancelled show Davies told trustees that the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, had not answered a letter seeking answers.

As for Khan, he said, “the only recent communications from him about the project of which the trustees were aware was a radio interview during which the mayor was asked negative questions about the garden bridge and responded negatively”.

Since then the Garden Bridge Trust has failed to file its accounts on time. It released the board minutes only after months of requests from Transport for London.


Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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