Some thoughts on the Garden Bridge and the murky world of Public/Private Space

gardenbridfge

Argggghhh, why won’t this project just roll over and die already?! That’s my first, if slightly unhelpful thought. With news from the National Audit Office today that £22 million of taxpayers’ money could disappear if the bridge is cancelled (which is looking increasingly likely), while much of the £60 million of public money that’s been invested has already been spent, this ill-thought-out, mucky proposal is getting worse by the day. Though I am full of respect for Joanna Lumley’s TV career, when it comes to her public planning career, I haven’t been so keen. Originally conceived as a ‘tribute to Princess Diana’ – a badly designed water feature obviously wasn’t enough – the garden bridge project has been controversial from the get-go. A murky mix of public and private investment, the garden bridge, if it ever gets built, will be another example of ‘privately owned public space’ (POPS for short) to add to London’s growing list. While Garden Bridge supporters have tried to assure the public that private ownership would have little impact on access to the bridge – though there’s been talk of tracking mobile phone signals – the bridge would occasionally be closed for private events during the evening, and would be closed from midnight to 6am every night, meaning it won’t be that useful as an actual bridge. Any form of protest or speech giving would also be prohibited, presumably to stop taxpayers demanding their money back. Nonetheless, the Department for Transport continues to back the project, despite repeated warnings of the financial risks involved, and  even though leading MPs continue to refer to it as ‘Boris’ vanity project’.

While in theory I’m for any scheme that helps bring more plants and trees into London, this really isn’t the way to do it. Given London’s escalating housing crisis, the growing divide between the rich and the poor, and the slow death of the city’s night life, there are much more urgent things to use public money for right now. While bringing beauty into city centres is vitally important, it has to be beauty that benefits everyone and doesn’t come with a string of sub-clauses attached. Projects like this also don’t help London’s standing in the rest of the country, especially when so many vital public services are being cut or closed up and down the country, services that £22.5 million could really benefit.

Projects built solely on the chumminess between celebrities and Tory politicians – with the name of a national treasure thrown in for good measure – clearly set a worrying precedent too. Especially when elsewhere in London, multi-billionaires like Christian Candy have been trying to turn areas of public road into private gardens in the name of ‘increasing green space’. Indeed, as the need for green space in urban settings gains increasing recognition in public discourse, as it rightly should, there is a danger that many privates companies will use this argument in order to take public land out of public hands. Ensuring that public money goes to projects that are fully public and fully transparent is therefore going to be vital if we want London’s green space to truly benefit everyone.

As for the Garden Bridge Project, Sadiq Khan’s inquiry needs to get to work quickly so that this project can either be forced into existence (despite the hefty price tag), or scrapped for good so that no more public money is wasted, neither of which is fantastic for Londoners.

So in the immortal words of Patsy Stone: Cheers, thanks a lot.

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