Scroll through the website of Gardenbridge.london and you’ll see computer generated images of a sun-drenched bridge, covered with trees, stretching across the Thames, a startling addition to the London skyline. The idea for the 336-meter-long garden, “floating above the River Thames”, has been around for over a decade now, and is the brainchild of Joanna Lumley, a British comedienne.
In a gushing video for the BBC back in 2014, Ms. Lumley described her vision for the bridge, juxtaposing the concrete of the city with nature, as “paradise.” It won the wholehearted backing of former London Mayor (now Foreign Secretary) Boris Johnson, who once described one of the bridge’s critics as adopting a “Taliban-like hatred of objects of beauty”, as well as other powerful figures (the Garden Bridge Trust’s chair is the former chair of Standard Chartered). Thomas Heatherwick, the designer behind the 2010 Olympic’s iconic cauldron, is its design lead.
Less than three years after Mr. Johnson approved the creation of a “stunning oasis of tranquillity”, the plans lie in tatters. A damning report by Margaret Hodge, a well-respected parliamentarian, has called for the project to be scrapped, despite the vast sums of public money already spent. Questioning the business case for the bridge, the report noted the project’s costs have more than tripled to £200 million, and with two major funders having dropped out, there remains just £69 million in private funding. The report also raised fundamental questions about the lack of openness, fairness and competitive practices in the procurement process, and the awarding of contracts. While £37.4 million of public money has been pumped into it, she concluded that it was better for the “taxpayer to accept the loss than to risk the additional demands if the project proceeds”.
Since the outset, there has been a strong opposition movement, including from the Thames Central Open Spaces, a campaign group started in 2014 focussing on this project, but with plans to champion public spaces along the riverbank in the long term. Wai-King Cheung, a member of the campaign, pointed to some of their objections ranging from the impact it would have on the immediate environment and communities to the lack of consultation and public involvement and the amount of public money already being poured in at a time public finances were stretched at the local, city and national levels.
“People sometimes see this part of London as a playground of the city but it’s a place where people have lived for centuries,” she said, adding that the creation of the bridge would set a dangerous precedent regarding the privatisation of public spaces in the city going forward. Ms. Cheung’s anger is shared by others such as Will Hurst, the editor of The Architects’ Journal, who was one of those who early on drew attention to cronyism and questionable aspects of the deal. In a recent piece for the magazine, he described it as a “project born of shady deal making and arrogance”.
The bridge’s trust insists it remains committed to the project, but current Mayor Sadiq Khan now says he’s reviewing its future. “The trustees had hoped this situation to reach the point of no return where the government would have no choice to carry on…,” says Ms. Cheung, who is cautiously optimistic that the project will have to be abandoned, and a further tranche of money due to be paid by the Central government to the venture not being released. “Going ahead with it now would be defending the indefensible... The bridge is the idea of a privileged few, who have arrogantly ignored the wishes of the people of this city.”
Vidya Ram writes for The Hindu and is based is London.