Muddy Waters “Jobs for the boys”

London’s proposed Thames Garden Bridge

(Walter Menteth article originally appeared in January 31, 2016 on LinkedIn pulse)

From all that is now known about the Thames Garden Bridge it has become increasingly apparent that this project represents a turning point.  Its entire procurement is characterised by corruption that is tainted by nepotism and collusion.

Boris Johnson’s journey to California in an endeavour to raise funds specifically for the Garden Bridge design before it was put out to public tender is further evidence that has now come to light.

This after all is what the subsequent Invitation to Tender (ref TfL/90711- 13 Feb.2013 Schedule 3 – Specification Purpose of the brief pp14) stated it was inviting responses to:

  1. This initial study will help examine the potential for a footbridge in this area, considering a number of different locations and taking into account a range of constraints in the area. The appointed designer would work with TfL to identify and test broad options and to help identify a potential preferred option that could be considered further.

The tender submitted by Heatherwick studio included the design of The Garden Bridge as its response – for which it received the highest mark in this question category.

Yet nowhere was there mention in the ITT of any requirement for a specific design solution let alone a Garden.

The acquisition of public works is purportedly meant to be fair, non-discriminatory and designed to deliver society best value from a transparent open market.

But the Garden Bridge procurement’s lack of transparency and accountability, along with the manipulation of the due processes, and deliberate misrepresentation (that has been colluded with by public officials), has licenced Boris Johnson’s patronage to prevail over law and democratic principles.  Should a single elected public official be allowed to undermine such basic principles simply because of the considerable support he has received from a small cabal of powerful media and Government figures?

The doggedly careful unearthing of evidence in the case of the Garden Bridge has revealed a lengthy catalogue of significant systemic issues. For this reason to support these extraordinary and diligent efforts by Will Hurst at The Architects Journal  and others opposed to the Garden Bridge I have contributed procurement research and advice, and delivered written and verbal evidence to the GLA Oversight committee and members (examples: HERE.)

The Procurement

It is now clearly apparent that the entire procurement process of the Garden Bridge has been discriminatory and skewed to achieve a pre-determined outcome.

  • Its acquisition has been contrary to the TFEU (Treaties on the foundation of the European Union), breaches requirements under the European Procurement Directives, and the Public Contract Regulations for England nor does it appear to comply with TfL’s own procurement standing orders.
  • The processes instigated were placed contrary to the legal advice given to the TfL procurement team.
  • It furthermore appears that the board of TfL were not adequately briefed or kept abreast of the progression of this proposition, prior to the determination of the design procurement. Basically it appears they were kept in the dark by their chair Boris Johnson.
  • The process failed to engage in any option appraising or ‘a prior’ with stakeholders

Finance

  • The public expenditure committed to this project fails basic tests of accountability. This has been a heist.
  • Change to the proposed £60m of public finance, (& despite the recent transference of £20m into a min. 56 year loan at fixed and near zero interest) is designed simply to obscure the shocking waste of public money at a time when there are other priorities.
  • With TfL having an annual multi £m development budget this ‘jobs for the boys’ approach is unacceptable for all of us.

Public Policy

  • The bridge delivers neither functional bike or free pedestrian connectivity.
  • There has been no consultation on the need for this specific scheme prior to it being imposed de facto on the public. There was no option appraising, impact study, design, stakeholder consultation, development appraising or investigation undertaken prior to this singular proposition being publically announced. Justifiably expressed concerns are simply being trammelled and objectors insulted.
  • There was no specified previous Public Policy justification either in the London Plan or Lambeth Plans for this type of bridge in this location.
  • There is no Public Policy justification for the sectarian use proposed for this bridge or having any limitation on access other than for maintenance or national security.

Design and Quality

  • Good high quality public realm design should serve functional need, effectiveness and delight with public engagement and quality as a key added value. This proposition does none of these. If it was to have been procured after due process this should have been by an open competition selected by Design Contest to attract best value and quality from the widest possible base.
  • The siting and location are damaging to important, protected and much cherished central London views, from both river bridges and the river banks.
  • Investment in other bridges in alternative locations could however  regenerate other river side areas.
  • The loss of trees and promenade area on the river banks are not justified.
  • The proposition has not evidenced contribution to amenity, ecology or sustainability that could not be achieved far more effectively and efficiently by other means or approaches.
  • There will be further undue congestion of the southbank from a bridge of this type in this location. The massive bridge landings are hugely obstructive.
  • My own view is that the design is unduly bulky and lumpen. Seductively well-constructed and selective CGI bridge images are a ‘sales pitch’ misnomer, with light reflecting off the underside of the bridge, always seen at high tide, in the sun, with low trees, vivid enhanced colour and in a pristine condition with no apparent aging or weathering. An artists impression is not reality, it’s a suspension of disbelief and requires extrapolation.

The Thames is London’s single largest public asset and amenity, its most distinctive feature and the reason the city is located here.  The public interest in this asset deserves to be served democratically and legally.

That this has been allowed to happen suggests a total loss of political, ethical and moral compass, fear of political engagement and a buy in to the untenable. Lambeth Council as a Public Authorities as well as the contenders for the Mayors election also have responsibility to uphold the law; but sadly from some there has to date been disgraceful silence.

This case highlights how such issues can easily be concealed beneath the mind blowingly excessive complexity of UK public procurement.  This is no doubt only the tip of the iceberg. Public acquisition has all too often been based on unreasonable processes and criteria that, through discrimination, reduce competition and deny access.  It evidentially favours established players ‘the old boys club’ frequently having the most economic or political clout – and in the current climate this appears to be its appealing value. But this inequity denies access to participation in the UK economy to those who have the skills and expertise to contribute and reduces the capacity for businesses to progress and for society to innovate.

It doesn’t need to be like this, the UK public deserve better.

Acquisition of projects might be open, not only to those undertaking the work, but also to public and stakeholders engagement for whom it is purportedly being delivered. The interrogation of need, benefits, best value, quality and delivery should be engaged before a projects delivery is fully defined and agreed – not afterwards. This leads to better cost, social value and quality.

Our current procurement system has been brought into disrepute it needs more radical reform and realignment. Where-ever civic construction projects are proposed however these should be acquired by Open Design Contest.

There is now no doubt in my mind that those responsible for the Thames Garden Bridge heist should be arguing their case in a court of law – not touting their wares further.