The Garden Bridge is like a student project – good on paper but impossible to realise

With government cuts and increasing global tensions it’s not the time to waste money on a costly folly, says Eleanor Jolliffe

On Friday last week Margaret Hodge drove another nail into the almost inevitable coffin of the Garden Bridge project saying it represented poor value for money and recommending that “it is better for the taxpayer to accept the loss [of cancelling the project] than to risk the additional demands if the project proceeds”.

Lord Mervyn Davis, chair of the Garden Bridge Trust was defiant in the face of such damning comments saying that the Trust “remains as determined as ever to make the Garden Bridge happen”.

Heatherwick and Lumley’s vision is lovely - planting trees on a bridge, greening the public realm; a shaded street across the Thames does sound inviting. However why build a new bridge and why build one at a point in the city where there are arguably already enough crossings? Indeed, why London?

Joanna Lumley’s describes the garden bridge as a slower, quieter way to cross the Thames with the sights and sounds of an English pastoral scene. I agree this sounds appealing but am unconvinced that the bridge as drawn will actually deliver that vision. Indeed the side of me that grew up in rural Norfolk is sceptical that the biodiversity Lumley envisions will be prepared to settle on an inevitably noisy crowded tourist attraction - perhaps the ubiquitous pigeons or a few of the infamous London parakeets?

Since the first CGIs this bridge has reminded me of the student projects you see at university - glorious ideas that would be truly magnificent when built if only reality didn’t have to be factored in.

Were this bridge privately funded I would probably be more supportive but I find the National Audit Office report worrying: “the [Garden Bridge] Trust has repeatedly approached the government to release more of its funding for pre-construction activities when it encounters challenges. The department [of Transport], in turn, has agreed to the Trust’s requests.” Personally in a time of austerity and national political and social uncertainty I find this rather distasteful.

When the bridge was originally conceived we were living in different times. When it went to public consultation in 2013 the word ‘Brexit’ hadn’t been coined and the thought of a Trump presidency was laughable; the financial crisis of 2008 was beginning to loosen its grip and the UK growth rate looked rosier. A utopian garden bridge fit with that world and seemed almost plausible.

Now we are facing cuts across almost all government departments, uncertain relationships with Europe and increasing political tensions globally. Spending millions on what could be a costly folly – that will be privately run and regulated is not necessary and will block views - sits uncomfortably with the reality we are currently experiencing.

I honestly hope the garden bridge does succeed in the future - if only because it will mean that our economy and society are prosperous and optimistic enough again to entertain the idea as desirable. For now though could we perhaps use our public money to support infrastructure projects we actually need, or just to put towards the cost of Brexit?

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