A Conservative minister overruled advice from his officials and signed off millions of pounds of public cash for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge project.
A letter released by the Government shows that in May 2016, then-Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin agreed to increase the money handed over by his department to the Garden Bridge Trust to £15million – even before a brick was set to be laid.
His decision came despite the Department for Transport’s top civil servant, Permanent Secretary Philip Rutnam, casting doubt over whether the project would ever go forward.
In a letter marked “commercially sensitive”, Rutnam said: “If we increase our pre-construction commitment as requested and the bridge does not proceed, there would be cancellation costs to the public sector of up to £15m.
“This is in addition to sunk costs of around £13.5m committed by DfT and £22m by Tfl.
“In this scenario, around 90% of the cost of the cancelled bridge would have been provided by the public sector funders, and DfT specifically would have provided up to a half of the total amount spent.
“In my judgment, this represents a disproportionate level of exposure for the Exchequer to the risk of failure on a charity-led project that was intended to be funded largely by private donations.”
McLoughlin was unmoved by his official’s warning, and in his response argued there were “wider issues” to consider above and beyond the taxpayer money being handed over.
He said: “The Garden Bridge will become a key and iconic tourist attraction right in the heart of our capital city, helping the UK tourism industry to grow. It will also contribute to some of DfT’s own policy objectives, including promoting walking and physical activity.
“I also note that a failure to increase our pre-construction commitment to the Bridge will lead to a high risk of the project being cancelled by its Trustees.
“Cancellation would lead to the public sector’s already committed contribution to the bridge (in excess of £35m) being effectively written-off.
“Providing the additional commitment requested will maximise the likelihood of the government securing value from the investment already made.”
The Garden Bridge project – which would have seen a foot-crossing built over the Thames – was endorsed by Johnson when he was London Mayor.
The project was beset with problems – including a ballooning budget – and in September 2016 Johnson’s successor as Mayor, Sadiq Khan, ordered a review of the proposal to see if it was value for money.
Khan scrapped the project in 2017 after an inquiry found the initial estimate of £60million had increased to more than £200million.
A Transport for London review published in 2019 revealed £53.5million was spent on the failed plan, including £1.7million in executive salaries and £417,000 on a gala.
Of that money, £43million came from taxpayers.