It was intended to be a “floating paradise” for London but instead Joanna Lumley’s vision of a Thames garden bridge has collapsed amid acrimony, with the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, and his predecessor Boris Johnson arguing over how £37m of public money had been spent on a project without a brick being laid.
The actor had conceived it as a memorial to Princess Diana, but the trust behind the £200m project for a tree-lined bridge between Temple on the north side of the Thames and the South Bank said it had to abandon the scheme because it did not have support of the mayor whose financial support had become necessary for its survival.
Khan responded by saying Londoners should be “very angry” about the amount of public money already spent on a scheme that had become increasingly controversial. He said: “I have been clear since before I became mayor that no more London taxpayers’ money should be spent on this project, and when I took office I gave the Garden Bridge Trust time to try to address the multiple serious issues with it.”
His Tory predecessor, a proponent of the bridge, hit back, saying it was so sad that Khan had “killed” what he said could have been a “beautiful project” and suggested it could one day still be built. “The only crumb of comfort is that good plans have now been developed and can be readily revived,” Johnson said.
Proponents of the bridge, which would have featured 270 trees and thousands of plants, argued that it would be a big tourist asset and a useful pedestrian link. Lumley’s vision – stemming from childhood memories of mountain gardens in Malaysia – had been taken forward by the designer Thomas Heatherwick in 2013 as part of a private development, but the project ran into increasing difficulties.
Critics said it was in a crowded section of the capital already well served by bridges, and questioned why public money should be spent on a link that would be privately run, would be able set its own rules for access, and would close at night and be available to hire for private events.
Mervyn Davies, the chair of the trust, wrote to the mayor outlining the reasons why the trust had taken the decision, and tried to pin the blame on Khan. Lord Davies said it was “with great regret that trustees have concluded that without mayoral support, the project cannot be delivered”.
“We had made great progress obtaining planning permission, satisfying most of our planning conditions and we had raised £70m of private money towards the project,” he said, adding that the bridge would have been a “beautiful new green space”.
Heatherwick won the design competition for the bridge a few months after designing the Olympic torch for the London Games, winning the backing of Johnson and George Osborne, the then chancellor, who committed £60m of public money to the scheme. The rest was intended to come from corporate donations, but the trust failed to raise the private money it needed. It secured only £69m in private pledges, leaving a gap of at least £70m, with no new pledges obtained since August 2016.
Against that backdrop, Davies warned in January that the project faced many challenges that needed to be resolved before construction could begin, including securing final planning consents for the south end of the bridge near Waterloo, securing a guarantee from London authorities for future maintenance costs and raising more private money.
Khan, meanwhile, asked the former Commons public accounts committee chair Margaret Hodge to investigate whether the bridge still represented value for public money. Her report, published in April, recommended that the plan be scrapped. She pointed to multiple failings and argued that the business case for the bridge was “incredibly weak” and based on unconvincing evidence, and said it had been given special treatment under the support of Johnson as mayor.
“What started life as a project costing an estimated £60m is likely to end up costing more than £200m,” Hodge wrote.
The £37m spent on the bridge included direct grants of about £26m from the Department for Transport (DfT) and about £11m in services in kind from Transport for London, of which £8.4m was spent with engineering company Arup.
Four months later, Khan wrote to Davies announcing he would not provide the financial guarantees needed for construction to begin, effectively killing off the scheme. Lumley said in April that decision was “absolutely shattering, devastating”, adding that she was disappointed that the project had become politicised.
Kate Hoey, the MP for Vauxhall, and the councillors Jennie Mosley and Kevin Craig, who campaigned with the local community against the bridge, said the costs to the public purse were in the sphere of £50m. The higher figure, they said, came from the government underwriting the cancellation costs on the bridge, which is thought to be a further £15m on top of the £37m.
They said they would be seeking a full public inquiry and “accountability for the garden bridge trustees in respect of lost taxpayers’ money”.The London Evening Standard, edited by Osborne, blamed Khan for the collapse of the project on Monday. The bridge, the newspaper said, “was a brilliant and imaginative plan to put the river centre-stage in London, designed by one of the most distinguished contemporary British architects, Thomas Heatherwick, and it will not now be realised, for what looks like nakedly political reasons” [see footnote].Heatherwick struck a more rueful note. In a statement he said: “London needs new bridges and unexpected new public places. The garden bridge has not found its right moment, but I hope one day it will and that London continues to be open to ideas that make life here better.”
• This footnote was added on 15 August 2017. Thomas Heatherwick is not a qualified architect but he was the designer of the garden bridge project.