London City – Garden Bridge

The following entry is a record in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe” – a list of failed or troubled projects from around the world.

Garden Bridge Trust – UK
Project type : Bridge design & construction
Date : Apr 2017
Cost : £53M (including £43M of public funds)

Synopsis :
New York has its ‘High Line’, Seoul has its ‘Sky Garden‘, Paris has its ‘Promenade Plantée‘ and London nearly had it’s ‘Garden Bridge‘. Elevated, elongated city parks are a draw for both tourists and locals alike. An oasis in the urban jungle, these parks are both practical ways of getting around and places of serenity.

Based on a proposal first put forth in the 1990’s by actress Joanna Lumley (Patsy of ‘Absolutely Fabulous‘ fame), the Garden Bridge was to be a footbridge over the river Thames in central London. Linking Lambeth to the south with the Victoria Embankment on the north, the Bridge was to be a garden, a footbridge, a tourist attraction and a breath of fresh air in the midst of the hubbub that is London.

Proposed bridge across the river Thames

Although the proposal struggled to gain traction when first proposed, the project received renewed interest in 2012/3 when Boris Johnson (then Mayor of London and now Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) picked up the idea. Despite there already being two bridges in the immediate vicinity, the Garden Bridge was a unique proposal and could well have been a vibrant contribution to the fabric of the city had things gone according to plan.

Unfortunately that is not what happened. A 2017 review commissioned by Boris Johnson’s successor (Sadiq Khan) revealed a shaky financial foundation and the project was cancelled before the first pilings were driven into the ground. Despite politics and finger pointing between Johnson and Khan, the seeds of the problems had reportedly been sown long before Khan took office. Perhaps the most significant issue from a Project Management perspective was the failure to establish a clear vision. Although it is a nice idea, ‘nice’ isn’t good enough when you are about to spend millions of pounds.

For success a project like this needs a strong vision that can easily be communicated and that can be used to get the buy-in needed. Typifying the problem was a comment from Boris Johnson made in a 2014 interview to the New Civil Engineer magazine. When asked about what the vision was he noted that he – “wasn’t really sure what it was for”, other than making a “wonderful environment for a crafty cigarette or a romantic assignation”. Hardly the lofty language of a project with a sound vision.

That lack of vision had knock on effects. Chiefly among those problems was the failure to engage effectively with the local communities or other key stakeholders. Furthermore that ‘nice’ idea lacked a clear business case or financial model for the bridge’s construction and subsequent maintenance. Although both government and private sector pledged money, the totals committed fell short of the estimated £200M construction cost and £3M per year to maintain. Hoping the shortfall could be made up as the project proceeded (the jump off the cliff and hope you pass by a parachute as you fall approach) engineering and design work started. The resulting designs were beautiful, but not beautiful enough to garner the support needed.

Costs mounted quickly with £1.7M going into remuneration for the non-profit board overseeing the project, £160K for a website and of course the design and engineering costs. Concerned at the state of the project Khan engaged Dame Margaret Hodge to conduct an independent review. The opening remarks of her summary concluded that “From its inception when there was confusion as to its purpose, through a weak business case that was constructed after contracts had been let and money had been spent, little regard has been had to value for money.”

Khan’s response was swift and decisive. The project was cancelled with a write-off in the range of £53M. Although it certainly was a nice idea, it was ultimately a bridge that went nowhere. While Patsy would likely have enjoyed the crafty cigarette, I think at the end of the day the project would have left her reaching for another drink.

Might the project taken a different path had the vision been sharpened? I suspect it would. It is a nice idea and as New York, Seoul and Paris have all shown, there is value their to be had.

Contributing factors as reported in the press: 
Unclear vision. Unsound business case. Project governance and financing problems. Failure to engage key stakeholders leading to a lack of stakeholder support.

Reference links:

  1. Dame Margaret Hodge’s independent review report – April 2017
  2. Failed London Garden Bridge project cost £53m
  3. London’s Garden Bridge project officially abandoned