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Garden Bridge: how the vision came crashing down

It was meant to be a pleasant, traffic-free Thames crossing but five years and nearly £50m of public money later, it has come to nothing. In its spectacular unravelling, the bridge now offers us a masterclass in how not to achieve a goal

Harry Cockburn
Saturday 03 March 2018 16:19 GMT
Plans to construct the bridge, spanning the Thames between the Embankment and Temple, were scrapped in 2017
Plans to construct the bridge, spanning the Thames between the Embankment and Temple, were scrapped in 2017 (Thomas Heatherwick)

What could be more pleasant than a garden bridge? Surely nothing could be less controversial than bucolic tranquillity combined with elegant functionality.

A traffic-free conduit across the Thames festooned with trees, flowers and grassy knolls sounds exactly like the kind of project that could be the centrepiece of innovative British architecture in London.

But five years after the Garden Bridge project was first announced, £46.4m of public money has been spent and nothing has been built.

Plans to construct the bridge, spanning the river between the Embankment and Temple, were officially scrapped in August 2017 due to lack of funds and persistent planning issues.

Instead of a modern monument celebrating sustainability and public space, the failed bridge has become symbolic of political and economic recklessness.

Despite the eye-watering sums involved, Boris Johnson, who was largely responsible for the handling of the project during his tenure as Mayor of London, this week claimed he “did not waste a single penny” on it.

Questioned on the collapsed project by the London Assembly, Johnson was remorseless about the wasted millions, claimed he couldn’t remember making major decisions, tried to shift blame for the project’s failure to his successor, Sadiq Khan, hit out at journalists covering the scandal, and ended by saying he regretted not doing it all faster.

The whole thing is an expensive disaster, but in its spectacular unravelling the bridge now offers us a masterclass in how not to achieve something.

It has also provided a stage upon which we have been able to see individuals engineer the downfall of their own project as their relationships and motivations became clear.

Principle characters

The story of the bridge begins with three illustrious people: Joanna Lumley, actor and star of Absolutely Fabulous; Thomas Heatherwick, artist and designer; and Boris Johnson, former Mayor of London.

Normally, bridges are built because they are needed. But in this instance it could be argued this was not the highest priority for our protagonists.

Lumley has been lobbying public figures for a garden bridge to be built for more than 20 years. She first mooted the idea of a “Diana memorial bridge” in the late 1990s, but it was not taken up.

Then in 2002 she returned with more detailed plans for the bridge, which were drawn up by the engineering group Arup. She presented the project to the then London Mayor Ken Livingstone, but again her idea was rejected.

It was not until Johnson had won his second term as Mayor that Lumley tried her luck again, and she did so in an extraordinary manner.

‘Please say yes’

In a handwritten letter penned just six days after Johnson’s victory, she sent “a thousand congratulations” adding: “Our cheers and shouts reached the rafters, soared above the Shard.” This was, she said, “wonderful news for London”.

She then outlined her vision for the Garden Bridge as a “green pedestrian bridge, with cycle tracks alongside, with container-grown trees, and beauty and practicality in equal measure”.

Joanna Lumley speaking on BBC Newsnight about her vision for a garden bridge over the Thames (BBC)

Importantly, she also mentioned that she already had a designer in mind. The letter said she and Thomas Heatherwick wanted to meet Johnson to discuss the idea “in the near future”. Such a bridge would bring “great loveliness” to the Thames, she wrote adding, “please say yes”.

The 2012 letter, revealed in a freedom of information request submitted by The Architects’ Journal, is a document proving that the three already had a strong idea of what such a bridge may look like.

In interviews regarding her ideas for the bridge, Lumley later described Johnson as being “largely amenable” to the bridge idea, and said that had not come as a surprise since she had known him since he was “four years old”.

Her relationship with Heatherwick as her potential bridge-maker also has a long history. Her 2004 autobiography mentions him as a designer “of incomparable originality” who told her he would be “happy to work on the bridge”.

Bridge competition

As luck had it, in 2012 Transport for London (of which Johnson was chair) announced it was now considering plans for a “new footbridge in central London connecting the South Bank with the Temple area”.

The next usual step would then be to look through TfL’s list of trusted contractors for bridge-building. However, Heatherwick Studios was not on this list. The company had previously designed just one small bridge, which crosses a canal near Paddington.

But TfL departed from usual practice and instead invited three firms to submit designs for a potential bridge.

These were: Marks Barfield Architects, a builder of numerous prestigious bridges; Wilkinson Eyre, which has produced more than 25 bridges around the world including the Stirling Prize-winning Gateshead Millennium Bridge; and Heatherwick Studios.

Despite the stiff competition, Heatherwick Studios outscored the other contenders in the all-important “relevant design experience” category and won the contract.

“The scoring details didn’t really make sense to anyone,” Will Hurst, the managing editor of The Architect’s Journal, told The Independent. “They were just very, very weird.”

“But if you looked at it like they had this one designer in mind and had to make him win, then it made a bit more sense”.

This invitation-only style competition angered other experienced bridge-builders who would have relished the opportunity to build on such a prestigious site. Alistair Lenczner, who led the design of France’s celebrated Millau Viaduct, told a public hearing on the planned bridge that Heatherwick’s design was a “private garden platform pretending to be a bridge”.

A further cause of suspicion was that the invitation was only for “design advice to help progress ideas for a new footbridge crossing of the river Thames”, with no mention of a garden.

Following an internal TfL audit into the process that cleared Johnson and TfL of any wrongdoing in the procurement process, the GLA oversight committee subsequently stepped in and condemned as being unfair that “Heatherwick was party to information that other bidders were not”.

At the time, Caroline Pidgeon, who sits on the GLA panel, said: “Nowhere in this does it mention a garden. If it had said, ‘We want a garden from x to y’, that might have meant it was a level playing field.”


Amid the apparent hoop-jumping necessary to award the contract to Heatherwick Studios, the Mayor’s office was also embroiled in fraught efforts to obtain the necessary planning permissions from various different bodies, as well as to obtain access to the millions of pounds required for the bombastic design.

Initially the cost of the project was put at £60m. By 2015, this had risen to £175m, and by April 2017 the overall projected costs had reached £200m.

This was supposedly going to be financed mostly through private donations, but with an additional £60m coming from the public purse.

The arrangement saw £30m secured through TfL – £20m of which was on a 50-year loan, while the Chancellor at the time, George Osborne, pledged the other £30m, which would come from the Department for Transport. In order to pledge the money, Osborne reportedly circumvented official channels and the DfT’s oversight.

At the time the National Audit Office described Osborne’s methods as “unorthodox”, and said had the normal channels been followed it was likely the money would not have been handed over as there were concerns about the scheme’s value and worries about whether it could be delivered.

At the time, Sir Amyas Morse, of the National Audit Office, said of the project: “It is important to note that the results would not in normal circumstances suggest a compelling value for money case ... The department’s own quantitative analysis suggested that there may or may not be a net benefit and, especially once concerns over deliverability were taken account of, the project might well not have met the department’s normal threshold for allocating its finite funds.”

‘The Apple Bridge’

Freedom of information requests by both Caroline Pidgeon and The Architects’ Journal revealed that in an outlandish attempt to drum up support for the bridge, Johnson, together with Heatherwick and Sir Edward Lister, Johnson’s former mayoral chief of staff, “jumped on a plane”, as Sir Edward put it, to go to San Francisco in an attempt to woo Apple into sponsoring the bridge in early 2013.

At the time, Johnson was very secretive about the escapade, refusing to say who he had met, listing the £10,000 taxpayer-funded trip as “private”, and also failing to report the trip in his monthly report to the London Assembly.

Boris Johnson appearing before the London Assembly on Thursday to answer questions on the Garden Bridge project (Rex)

But transcripts of interviews from Dame Margaret Hodge’s 2017 assessment of the bridge quoted Sir Edward as saying: “The Mayor felt there was a fair chance that Apple might actually sponsor the whole bridge ... So we jumped on a plane.

“We were only there for 24 hours and flew back again. We went there, we talked through it all ... It was, ‘We do this, we call it the Apple Bridge and you pay for it, chum’. It was a real sales operation to try and sell it.”

Johnson was unsuccessful. Nonetheless, a total of £85m was pledged to the company from private backers indicating there was significant private interest in the project.

When the funding drive for the bridge was launched the same year as the San Francisco trip, Heatherwick distanced himself from desiring corporate branding. Speaking to The Independent at the time, he said: “We have had some philanthropic families already offering us tens of millions of pounds and it has inspired me to realise we don’t want a big name on it. There have been other projects in London where a very big sponsor has come in and done an advert across it for themselves; if we possibly can, we’d like to avoid the bridge having a gigantic corporate name across it.”

But, he warned: “This will only happened if British people decide to do something for themselves.”

However, as the projected costs rose, and the Garden Bridge Trust (the charity set up in the project’s name) spent more and more of the the public money it had secured, the “philanthropic families” apparently began to have doubts. By the time the estimated cost hit £200m and £26m had been spent by the trust, two large donors pulled out, reducing funding to £69m.

In August 2016 Mervyn Davies, chair of the trust, confirmed on BBC2’s Newsnight that it had raised some £69.5m of private funding. Combined with the £60m from TfL and the DfT, it meant the bridge was short of some £70m. Nonetheless, the trust maintained it could find the rest of the money.

A design for life

As the bridge’s various financial controversies guaranteed it headlines in a few newspapers, details of the designs had already begun to rankle in some quarters.

Local residents formed well-managed opposition group Thames Central Open Spaces to fight construction of the bridge which would cut across their views of the river.

Michael Ball, a local resident instrumental in setting up the group and who successfully brought a judicial review legal case against Lambeth Council’s grant of planning permission for the bridge, told The Independent: “The local community was concerned about the huge size of the bridge. What we saw was our views being trashed.” In comparison, he says, “there was never a glimmer of concern about the wobbly bridge [the Millenium Bridge] because it was just a streak”.

Despite being an ostensibly green project, with graphics depicting luscious foliage brimming over the copper-clad super structure, the building plans necessitated the felling of 30 mature trees alongside the river, prompting opponents to put up signs on the trees protesting the bridge.

The fact that the bridge would be closed at night and managed in the manner of a royal park also sparked anger over what many Londoners felt was the creeping privatisation of space.

Will Jennings, an artist and campaigner who launched a mock competition for “alternative” plans for the proposed river crossing, told The Independent: “The panorama from Waterloo Bridge has been there for 200 years. When we talk about open public open space, we’re not just talking about parks or streets but about emptiness as well, so that openness above the river – the widest point in the river – is public commons, as much as a park or a street.

“In essence that was going to be privatised. That was going to be largely blocked by the Garden Bridge. The Garden Bridge Trust kept saying the bridge was not going to block the view of St Paul’s, but what they particularly meant was that in one location, standing in the middle of Waterloo Bridge, you will see St Paul’s in between two bulbous lumps of trees. There’s a huge arrogance about it.”

An artist’s impression showing the proposed Garden Bridge (EPA)

A provision in the plans for the bridge also added that it would close for one day a month in order to hold private events to generate money that would feed back into the project.

After Lumley’s initial plan to include a bike lane, she reversed her views on cycle provision on the bridge, telling a Lambeth planning meeting in 2014 that she alone was responsible for that decision because it would stop the bridge being a “peaceful place to walk”.

Other concerns included the numbers of tourists who would visit the bridge. More than 7 million people a year were expected – a greater number than visit the Eiffel Tower – while just eight lavatories were included in the plans, thereby “condemning the whole of Waterloo into a public toilet”, according to one group.

But it was the opaque procurement and appointment processes that ultimately made people fight back against the bridge as a point of principle.

“When I first saw the designs I was really excited,” Will Hurst says. “But what’s below the waterline? When I started digging into it, I became more and more alarmed by what was underneath it all.

“The Garden Bridge was a confused project. It didn’t really know what it was trying to be.

“There was this attempt to show us that it was this fantastic attraction, but also a really important transport project that would bring massive transport benefits to pedestrians in London. But that didn’t really work because it wasn’t a transport project. It could never bring more than marginal benefits.”

“It sounded like it was going to be a place to get caught up in crowds most of the time.”

A question of upkeep

American novelist Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “Everybody wants to create something great, something awe-inspiring, something that’ll give them a hell of a lot of attention. But nobody wants to do maintenance.”

He could have been reporting directly on Johnson and the troubles facing the Garden Bridge, as another black cloud hanging over the project was the cost of the upkeep, forecast at £3m-£3.5m a year.

With the investment gap of £70m, concerns mounted that the Mayor would have to sign a guarantee pledging to cover the cost with further public money if it could not be raised.

This, it emerged, is precisely what Johnson tried to sign off on his last day in office.

The recent revelation, which was the result of another FOI by The Architects’ Journal, shows the efforts to which Johnson wished to see through the plans before they could be examined by his successor.

Johnson wrote: “I have reviewed the Garden Bridge Trust’s draft operations and maintenance business plan and I am satisfied that it represents a satisfactory funding strategy to operate and maintain the Garden Bridge for at least the first five years from its completion.

“Therefore, I am content for you to exercise the authority delegated under the terms [of the earlier mayoral decisions].”

Martin Clarke, the executive director of resources for the GLA, did not sign off the document.

Caroline Pidgeon described Johnson’s actions as “extraordinary”.

“During his last hours in office, Boris Johnson was desperately trying to force through his beloved Garden Bridge when officers at City Hall had serious concerns,” she told The Architects’ Journal.

It’s business time

For significant infrastructure projects such as this, an essential part of the process is assessing the economic case for the provision of funding.

In this case, the DfT funding – £30m of public money – was only provided by George Osborne subject to the business case.

This sounds sensible. But despite the project having already been awarded to Heatherwick and Arup in 2013, and design work well under way with millions spent, the business case was only undertaken in May 2014.

Retrofitting the benefits to a project already in progress as a means to justify investment is unsurprisingly ineffective.

A subsequent 44-page review into the business case, self-commissioned by design and construction consultancy Fourth Street’s Dan Anderson – a campaigner against the bridge – concluded that “the business model is flawed, and the business plan targets are optimistic at best, but more likely unachievable”.

Who is Heatherwick?

Much has been written about Thomas Heatherwick, the designer championed by Lumley and the man behind the plans for the appearance of the bridge. This is for good reason: his projects have been integral parts of London’s recent history, his two best-known projects being the Olympic Cauldron whose flames opened the 2012 games in the capital, and also the revamped Routemaster bus, which was another pet project of Boris Johnson’s.

Heatherwick’s Cauldron design was the subject of a claim over the originality of the work, which was settled out of court in 2014.

Thomas Heatherwick delivering a presentation on his Garden Bridge design in 2014 (AFP/Getty)

His new Routemaster bus gained notoriety for overheating passengers and for causing more pollution than its predecessor because of unreliable hybrid batteries. Each bus cost over £350,000 – twice as much as a standard model. The design was discontinued last year.

A recent New Yorker profile of the designer painted an unflattering portrait, pointing out that he had described his own design for the Garden Bridge as “extraordinary”.

“It’s such a shame,” Heatherwick told the journalist when asked about the bridge. “I got an email saying, ‘This is a vanity project blocking a view of St Paul’s Cathedral’! And you go, ‘I wonder what the biggest vanity project in the city ever was? Probably St Paul’s!’”

His studio is currently working on a conical honeycomb-like structure in New York known as The Vessel.

During Johnson’s recent quizzing by the London Assembly, the former Mayor apportioned blame for the failure of the bridge to go ahead to “abuse” of Heatherwick by The Architects’ Journal’s Will Hurst.

“They’ve been connived at in The Architects’ Journal, which has published a stream of abuse of these individuals, which it is motivated to the best of my knowledge by a dislike that The Architects’ Journal journalist concerned had for Thomas Heatherwick, who is not conceived of as being a proper architect, and is therefore somehow worthy of abuse,” Johnson said.

Speaking to The Independent two days ahead of Johnson’s appearance, Hurst predicted such an accusation and said of Heatherwick: “He won our Contribution to the Profession Award a few years back. So to those who say ‘The Architects’ Journal only writes about this because architects are jealous of Heatherwick’, that’s utter nonsense, we can prove it from our own awards.”

But Hurst points out that Heatherwick has been caught out. “He went on the national press, on BBC radio and Newsnight and said he’s not a part of the Garden Bridge Trust, just the designer. But then we find out he’s the sole founding member of the Garden Bridge Trust, and not only that but he not only headhunted the chief executive from his own firm, Bee Emmott, who was seconded to the trust, but he also headhunted the chair, Mervyn Davies, and the deputy chair, Paul Morrell.

“So the trust starts to look like the creation of Thomas Heatherwick, but he’s telling the public, ‘I’m a designer, I’m not a member of the trust, I’m not a part of the trust’. So there’s a problem there. But I would balance that by saying he’s a superb lobbyist. Those are not illegitimate business skills.”

At the time a spokesperson for Heatherwick Studio said: “It’s well known that the studio’s role on the Garden Bridge was first as paid designer, and second as voluntary advocate.

“The Garden Bridge Trust chose to give Thomas Heatherwick an honorary membership in recognition of this advocacy. In reality, this was little more than a badge. Of course we had no power to appoint anyone or take decisions on behalf of anyone but ourselves.”

Despite this statement, Mervyn Davies had already told Dame Margaret Hodge that Heatherwick had asked him whether he “would be interested in being the chairman” prior to the establishment of the charity.

The Independent approached Heatherwick for a new comment but did not receive one at the time of publication.

Khan’t do it, won’t do it

The election of Sadiq Khan to City Hall did not immediately spell the demise of the bridge. Initially he did not oppose it, but said he would refuse to spend further money on the project.

In September 2016 he ordered a formal review into the finances of the scheme and appointed Dame Margaret Hodge to investigate the value of the bridge. “Once that report was out they were never going to recover from that,” Hurst says.

Hodge’s damning report recommended the project be scrapped at a total cost to taxpayers of £46.4m because allowing the project to continue risked even greater expense.

The review also confirmed the costs of the project were escalating, that the purpose of the bridge remained unclear, that the business case for the bridge was flimsy and that the procurement process in which Heatherwick Studio won the contract was “not open, fair or competitive”.

Soon afterwards, in April 2017, Khan said he would not provide the required guarantee for the future running costs of the bridge, because of the concerns over the project’s financial viability highlighted in the report.

As the guarantee was a condition of the construction, the project came to an end.

The Garden Bridge Trust, set up in October 2013, had spent £37.4m in less than four years without a spade touching the ground. The Government’s agreement to underwrite the financial costs in the event of collapse mean the eventual bill will likely reach £46.4m, the Hodge report estimated.

Asked for an interview for this piece, Bee Emmott, the director of the Garden Bridge Trust, said: “The project was cancelled in August following the Mayor’s decision not to provide the mayoral guarantee. Since then, the trustees have been focused on the process of closing the project and winding up the trust.”

She also forwarded a link to Mervyn Davies’s response to Khan’s decision on the London Evening Standard website, in which he describes it as “disappointing and unexpected”.

The Independent has contacted representatives for Joanna Lumley for comment. Lumley has rarely spoken directly to the press about the project, but in April 2017 she described Khan’s decision not to provide the essential mayoral guarantee as “absolutely shattering, devastating”.

Speaking to The Times, whose owner Rupert Murdoch was among the bridge’s supporters, Lumley said: “The negativity troubles me in my heart. I hope we’re not turning into the sort of country that instantly says no before it considers saying yes. A nation that just pulls the shutters down. The silent majority still love the bridge, but of course they were not asked what they think.”

A fascinating element of the story of the Garden Bridge was that it collapsed under the weight of its own problems rather than due to pressure from external forces.

While there was undoubtedly scrutiny from campaign groups, MPs and some pockets of the media, ultimately it was those involved with the project who made its failure inevitable and who wasted such a colossal sum of money and built nothing.

“It’s outrageous that no one is being held accountable,” says Will Hurst. “An important part of that is that there is no effective oversight of Transport for London – this body that spends billions and billions of pounds of our money every year.

“The London Assembly has done a really good job on the Garden Bridge, but it doesn’t have the power to hold people to account. It can hold hearings and embarrass people, but it doesn’t have the power of a select committee for example.

“It’s absolutely scandalous,” he adds.

Michael Ball summed up the bridge’s failure succinctly: “At the end of the day there were circles they couldn’t square and they were inherent to the project. They should have been flagged up early in the project. Someone should have said, ‘hang on a minute, this is a nice idea but there are really big problems’.”

But is that the end of the Garden Bridge? Last week Johnson – who has recently said a bridge should be built to France – told the London Assembly he felt “miserable” the bridge had not been built. “Frankly, one day I hope the whole project is revived. I think it will be,” he added.

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