UPDATE: Deputy Mayor for Planning Sir Edward Lister gave City Hall's formal approval yesterday. He said: "Having reviewed this application thoroughly, I am happy for Westminster City Council and Lambeth Council to determine the applications for the Garden Bridge themselves. We have worked hard with both local authorities and the Garden Bridge Trust to ensure that the bridge is of the very highest standard of design while remaining fully accessible to those who work, live in and visit the city."
Labour London Assembly Finance Spokesperson, John Biggs, gave it more of a lukewarm welcome, calling the approval a "mixed blessing". "It’s obvious that the Garden Bridge is primarily a tourist attraction not a transport scheme, as such you really have to wonder whether this TfL funding could not have been better spent,” he said.
The Garden Bridge is going to be a reality. Westminster and Lambeth councils have signed it off, leaving just the Mayor’s office to give approval, and since Boris Johnson has been a vocal supporter since launch it doesn’t take a genius to see how that decision will go. We can expect to see the copper-clad, tree-lined bridge stretch between Temple station and the South Bank sometime in 2018. But what is the thing actually for?
The obvious answer is: 'a bridge, idiot'. Except it's not that simple. The pedestrians-only Garden Bridge will be closed between midnight and 6am, as well as for 12 days each year for events. If there are eight or more of you, you'll have to book in advance (a 'handy' side effect of which, notes the developer, will be to stop protests). If you turn up on a weekend you'll probably have to queue: the Garden Bridge Trust (GBT) expects peak demand of 4,000-5,000 people an hour, but capacity is 2,500. That might be manageable if everyone just went straight across, but it's anticipated that people will linger an average of 25 minutes. If you're at Temple tube station and want to get to the ITV building in a hurry, it might genuinely be quicker to walk over Waterloo bridge than attempt to cross the Thames via the new flowery one.
A tourist attraction
The bridge's own planning application (PDF) calls it a "popular visitor attraction", and includes measures to manage expected queues for the estimated 7.1 million annual visitors. We have no objection to something awesome being opened in the middle of London, and were bowled over when plans were announced last year. But back then the idea was that it would all be privately financed. Now, Transport for London (TfL) and the Treasury have each committed £30m to the project. Much like the cable car, it leaves us asking: should public finances be going towards what's basically a tourist attraction?
As well as initial construction costs of £175m, it's estimated the bridge will need £3.5m each year for its upkeep. (That compares with around £4.7m a year to maintain all the, admittedly less fancy, City of London bridges (PDF): Blackfriars, Southwark, Tower, London and Millennium.) The GBT plans to raise that money itself — hence the 12 potential closures each year, so it can hold fundraising parties — but Westminster council wants TfL to act as guarantor for the maintenance money as a condition of planning permission. Which would mean if the trust can't raise the dough, TfL would have to cough up.
This 'privately funded' bridge is increasingly relying on public finance, even though the public aren't even guaranteed 24-hour access. To a bridge in the centre of London. What's the point of it again?