London's bridge project canned

PHOTO: HEATHERWICK STUDIO/INSTAGRAM

The $354-million Garden Bridge to link the north and south banks of River Thames fails to garner political and financial support

LONDON • The proposed Garden Bridge (above) in London has not been able to "cross" troubled waters and bridge the differing views between its backers and critics.

The US$260-million (S$354-million) project to create the pedestrian crossing between the north and south banks of River Thames has been officially scrapped, even though US$48 million of public money had been spent. The design comes from British architect Thomas Heatherwick.

In a letter published in The Guardian, Mr Mervyn Davies, chairman of the Garden Bridge Trust, said the lack of political and financial support from Mr Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, made it impossible to raise further funds to proceed with the project.

Mr Khan, who inherited the project from his predecessor Boris Johnson, refused to guarantee the annual maintenance costs of the bridge, estimated at US$3 million to US$4 million.

He said that even before he became mayor last year, he had stated that no more taxpayer money should be spent on the project and that he had given the Garden Bridge Trust time to address "multiple serious issues".

He added: "Londoners will, like me, be very angry that London taxpayers have now lost tens of millions of pounds - committed by the previous mayor on a project that has amounted to nothing."

Mr Tom Edwards, the BBC's transport correspondent, wrote on its website: "This shambles is an embarrassing mess for the capital and it has already descended into finger-pointing and a blame game over who is culpable for wasting... public money."

He added that the plan "was born in a different age when London's transport budget was not as constrained" and that it began badly by "not asking locals if they wanted it".

The Garden Bridge has been dogged by controversy almost from the outset.

The idea came from actress Joanna Lumley, who won support for the project from Mr Johnson in 2012.

Mr George Osborne, then chancellor of the Exchequer, committed US$78 million of public money to the project, with the balance to be raised from philanthropic and corporate donations.

Mr Heatherwick's design called for 270 trees and more than 100,000 plants and shrubs to cover the 366m-long bridge connecting the South Bank, from a point close to the National Theatre, to the Temple train stop on the other side of the Thames.

Although many admired his design and argued that the Garden Bridge would be a major tourist attraction, local opposition, arguments over Mr Heatherwick's selection and the demand for a financial guarantee from Mr Khan before planning permission would be granted, meant continued delays and increased costs.

In September last year, Mr Khan ordered a review of whether the project represented value for public money. Led by Ms Margaret Hodge, a Labour member of Parliament, the investigation concluded that it did not and recommended in April this year that the project be abandoned.

Although the Garden Bridge Trust responded vehemently, accusing her of being selective in her arguments, the report seems to have signalled the end of the project.

"The Garden Bridge would have been a unique place; a beautiful new green space in the heart of London, free to use and open to all, showcasing the best of British talent and innovation," Mr Davies wrote in the letter to Mr Khan. "It is a sad day for London because it is sending a message to the world that we can no longer deliver such exciting projects."

In a statement, Mr Heatherwick expressed hope that the plan would be executed at some point. "London needs new bridges and unexpected new public places," he said. "The Garden Bridge has not found its right moment, but I hope one day it will."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2017, with the headline 'London's bridge project canned'. Print Edition | Subscribe