Boris Johnson accused of misleading politicians over garden bridge

Official documents show London mayor was ‘keen’ for Heatherwick design to be chosen before supposedly open contest

Boris Johnson has been accused of misleading fellow politicians over London’s proposed garden bridge after official documents emerged saying the mayor was “keen” for a particular design to be selected, shortly before a supposedly open contest was held.

Official documents obtained by the Architects’ Journal under freedom of information laws and seen by the Guardian also show a series of meetings between Transport for London (TfL) and the studio of designer Thomas Heatherwick before the design competition, which he went on to win.

An official report last month by the Greater London Authority condemned the procurement process for the controversial bridge as “dodgy” and unfair. Johnson nonetheless later assured the London assembly he had personally always been “neutral” over the issue.

However, a TfL briefing document from December 2012, a few months before the design contest, appears to show Johnson explicitly backing Heatherwick’s proposal.

“The designer Thomas Heatherwick, supported by the actress Joanna Lumley, has proposed a new footbridge in central London connecting Temple with the South Bank,” reads the document.

“The mayor is extremely supportive of the need for additional footbridges across the Thames and is keen for TfL to support this proposal. This note sets out some of the issues and options for this support going forward.”

The briefing paper, which came five months after Heatherwick’s Olympic cauldron was unveiled at the London 2012 Games, was put together by Richard De Cani, at the time TfL’s director of strategy and policy, and his team. It was De Cani who was later tasked alone with weighing up the merits of the three competing designs, that by Heatherwick and rival studios Marks Barfield and Wilkinson Eyre.

De Cani’s briefing document names Heatherwick or his studio 28 times and even raises the idea that under a different approach which would not need a formal procurement process the structure could end up being called something like the “Heatherwick-Samsung bridge”, after a hypothetical sponsor.

Another document, from the following month, warns ahead of the design competition that the bridge procurement process must be “robust and could withstand scrutiny and challenge”, adding: “It would be very important not to make premature announcements around particular designs or proposals ahead of the procurement process being completed.”

Other documents show three meetings between Heatherwick staff and Peter Hendy, the then head of TfL, including a visit to the Emirates-sponsored cable car above the Thames for Lumley and Heatherwick the month before the design competition began.

Johnson’s office insisted the documents did not show he had unduly favoured any firms before the design competition.

However, Tom Copley, a Labour member of the London assembly who received assurances from Johnson about the mayor’s neutrality during the mayoral question time last month, said the document appeared to contradict this.

“It looks increasingly likely that Boris Johnson misled the London assembly,” Copley told the Architects’ Journal. “It seems clear that Heatherwick was favoured by the mayor. No objective person could say that this process was open, fair and transparent.”

Sadiq Khan, the Labour candidate to replace Johnson as mayor next month, said he was concerned: “I support the garden bridge but this is another worrying revelation about the bidding process. It is vital that we have full transparency on this project, given the public funds already committed.”

Caroline Pidgeon, the Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate, told the Architects’ Journal that contracts should be cancelled on what appeared to be a “personal vanity project”.

She said: “This whole saga now really stinks. It appears that right from the very start of the process Boris Johnson has been breathing down the necks of TfL officers to get the bridge built at any price.”

A spokesman for Johnson told the Guardian: “The mayor is widely on the record as being in support of the construction of vital new river crossings over the Thames. And his decision to ask Transport for London to invite several world class designers to pitch for the design of a pedestrian footbridge on the South Bank showed no favour to Heatherwick Studio, it simply showed his desire to ensure the very best possible concept was found.”

He added: “The procurement process was open, it was fair and it was transparent. A thorough audit of that process has been carried out and work is due to begin on the bridge this year.”

In February the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Jane Duncan, said the bridge procurement process was sufficiently murky that the project should be stopped and scrutinised before more public money was spent.

Preparatory work is nonetheless due to begin soon on the 367-metre structure, which is intended to be both a pedestrian crossing and a park, featuring 270 trees and thousands of plants.

The plan has proved hugely controversial, especially the use of £60m in public money to part-finance the scheme, which will remain private land, closed overnight and for occasional corporate events, and subject to dozens of rules, enforced by “hosts”. The remainder of the money is being raised from donations.

Critics also argue the bridge is unnecessary as a transport link in an area of central London already well served by Thames crossings.

The garden bridge will not serve cyclists, allowing bikes only if they are pushed over the bridge. However, the TfL briefing notes show that it was initially keen for the new bridge to include dedicated cycling lanes.


Peter Walker

The GuardianTramp

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