July 23, 2017

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Garden Bridge Trust responds to Hodge Report inaccuracies

Lord Mervyn Davies, chairman of the Garden Bridge Trust, has written to Dame Margaret Hodge MP to register concerns about her recent review of the Garden Bridge.

Lord Davies commented: “It is a shame that Dame Margaret has shown disregard for the facts and been selective in her use of evidence to support her own opinions. The Trustees’ focus remains on the future of the bridge, and the great benefits it will bring to Londoners and visitors alike. That future is now in the hands of the Mayor. Our message to him is that this report, with its many errors and ill-informed opinions, is no basis upon which to take decisions about a project that has been through the complex democratic processes by which decisions on development are made in this city.”

Key concerns, which focus specifically on the comments made about the Garden Bridge Trust, include:

Public support and consultation – The opinion of Kate Hoey MP is used to support the assertion that the Trust did not engage properly with the local community and that local views were treated with disdain. Without having conducted – and published – a valid survey exercise in coming to her conclusions on this point, we reject Dame Margaret’s conclusions based on evidence of work done by ComRes which shows over three quarters of Londoners support the Bridge being built. It is worth noting that this work complies with the guidance and standards set by the British Polling Council and the Market Research Society for survey exercises.

It is unfortunate that Dame Margaret chose to ignore information provided by the Trust, setting out the many and varied community engagement activities we have undertaken, including more than 50 occasions where local communities had the opportunity to engage in shaping the project. This includes Ms Hoey herself chairing a meeting with the Trust and Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB) tenants in September 2015.

The Trust questions Dame Margaret’s decision to focus almost entirely on speaking to known opponents of the project. She did not meet with any of the project’s supporters nor did she meet with any of the project’s funders who support the project. In addition, she failed to explain that planning permission has been obtained, through democratic process, from both Lambeth and Westminster Councils.

Signing of the construction contract – Hodge concludes it was ‘risky and premature’ to sign the construction contract. The Trust entered into a fixed price (in GBP) contract with the Bouygues Travaux Publics/Cimolai S.p.A. Joint Venture, with the contractor committed to constructing the Bridge within budget and before the required completion date. Our contractor was previously working under a pre-construction services agreement, which is quite usual in the industry, in order to clear the conditions of planning and prepare for construction. Signing the contract allowed the contractor to engage a larger workforce to ensure all planning conditions were met in the timescale, thereby reducing the risk of cost escalation.

The Trust has always ensured that we had the necessary resources to meet our obligations and that there were exit points throughout. Related to the contract, Hodge also cites Brexit and its impact on the exchange rate as a likely contributor to cost increase. This is incorrect. The contract is a fixed cost, lump-sum value, design and build contract in GBP, which means the risk of exchange fluctuation– whatever the cause – is with the contractor.

Fundraising – Dame Margaret expresses scepticism over whether the Trust will be successful in finding donors willing to fund the project, but provides no evidence to support this conclusion. At no point in her work did she seek to investigate the Trust’s fundraising activities in detail, or meet with any of the directors of our fundraising committee. She did not take the opportunity to receive a presentation about the project, its design, its rationale and its potential to provide sources of income. She reports that the Trust has obtained no new pledges since August 2016, but fails to acknowledge that it was the following month that her review of the project was announced, which had a direct impact on fundraising activity.

While Hodge repeats her unsubstantiated claims about philanthropists being unlikely to associate themselves with the project, she fails to consider that the uniqueness and prominence of the Garden Bridge in central London makes it very attractive to corporate donors. It is disappointing that she did not take the time to meet any of our existing funders – philanthropic or corporate – to understand their reasons for supporting this project and more broadly, what drives them – and others – to become involved in projects such as this.

Her suggestion that the fact certain pledges are anonymous “significantly contributes to the fragility of the commitments” is unsubstantiated and incorrect. In fact, one of our most loyal supporters, who has underwritten our operational costs, is anonymous and wishes to remain so indefinitely. It is perfectly normal in the philanthropy and charity sectors for funders to stipulate anonymity for a variety of different reasons, including the desire to support a project away from the spotlight.

Operations & Maintenance Business Plan – When the Trust met Dame Margaret last November, she had been provided with an outdated version of the Trust’s Operations and Maintenance Business Plan. We explained that the Business Plan is a live document going through various iterations and receiving input from external experts. None of this is acknowledged in her report.

Dame Margaret suggests the assumptions in the Business Plan are “ambitious to say the least when compared to the rest of the market” but provides little evidence of anything comparable to the Garden Bridge.

Selection of Trustees – The report asks why a Trustee with involvement in a Business Improvement District is not conflicted by being on the Board, but having a Trustee from CSCB would create a conflict. A Trustee from CSCB would be conflicted as a Board member because the Trust has been in detailed commercial negotiations to build on CSCB’s land. The south landing point of the Garden Bridge will be built on land currently on a long lease to CSCB, which provides it with a direct income source that will be affected by both construction and operation of the Bridge. There is a clear and obvious difference between this and having a Trustee who is also involved in the work of the Northbank Business Improvement District, some of whose members may be affected by the Bridge’s proximity.

Scope and methodology – The terms of reference for Dame Margaret’s review asked her “to assess the public-sector contribution to the Garden Bridge project and whether value for money has been achieved; to investigate the conduct of Transport for London (TfL), the Greater London Authority (GLA) and other relevant authorities; and to set out any lessons that should be learnt to improve the conduct of potential and approved projects in the future”.

The terms of reference did not, as she asserted both in the report and in the media, include offering a recommendation on “whether building a Garden Bridge over the River Thames is a good idea” or whether the project should go ahead. But the report does of course make a clear recommendation. She also stated that she worked alone with the part time support of a Greater London Authority official. There is no suggestion that she drew on any other expertise on any of the topics that the report covers. It is a great shame that, upon changing her position on offering a recommendation about the future of the project, her methodology was not also strengthened to offer a more appropriate level of technical expertise to provide a robust evidence base upon which to ground her conclusions.

Because of this, the Trust cannot accept Dame Margaret’s recommendation. Rather, as the Mayor has said consistently, “the taxpayer will be better off if the bridge is built” and the many benefits of the project delivered, which would of course also mean that the £20m loan is repaid.

A report of this type would typically set out the reasons for selecting the people that have been consulted. This is absent from the report and it is clear from her published list that Dame Margaret has engaged with a very selective – largely opponent – audience.

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