Mayor Boris Johnson and Transport for London are coming under increasing pressure over how the contract to design the Garden Bridge was won by Heatherwick Studio and Arup.
There have been reports of meetings between Johnson, Joanna Lumley and Thomas Heatherwick before TfL's procurement process began. One of these — a meeting between the mayor and the designer in San Francisco, which took place less than two weeks before TfL opened its bidding process — has only just been confirmed. A statement from City Hall said the meeting had "no bearing" on a "fair and transparent" procurement process.
However, it's precisely whether the procurement was "fair and transparent" that is coming into question. An internal audit (which itself has come under criticism for watering down its findings) done by TfL found that some documentation has gone missing, meaning we don't know why Heatherwick Studio beat out the other tenders by Wilkinson Eyre and Marks Barfield, despite having less experience in bridge design. In a GLA Oversight Committee meeting in October 2015, TfL's director of internal audit Clive Walker eventually admitted that there were a "bunch of issues" that affected the openness and objectivity of the procurement process.
Johnson's February 2013 trip to San Francisco was spotted shortly afterwards by Boriswatch, which noted that the purpose of the trip had been to conduct "negotiations for a major investment in London". Johnson confirmed to the GLA Oversight Committee in December that it was indeed for the Garden Bridge. Last Friday's City Hall statement says that Thomas Heatherwick was in San Francisco for a different meeting but, since Johnson knew his studio was interested in the project, the mayor invited him along.
The Guardian quotes London Assembly Member Caroline Pidgeon after the committee meeting:
You don’t start lobbying for investment in a specific scheme when it has not been selected unless you are absolutely certain of the outcome... It is mockery to claim that it was an open and fair competition when the chair of Transport for London [Boris Johnson] was already flying around the world seeking investment for one proposal.
We have to stress that nobody's accusing Heatherwick Studio or Arup of wrongdoing; the question is whether Transport for London and the mayor ran a proper, transparent and fair process for deciding how to spend public money. £30m of TfL cash is currently committed to the project, plus another £30m from the Treasury, and TfL has promised to underwrite maintenance costs if the Garden Bridge Trust can't raise the money itself.
Other suspicions surrounding the appointment include:
- previously, Heatherwick Studio had designed just the one bridge, the Rolling Bridge at Paddington. Wilkinson Eyre and Marks Barfield boast 12 each on their websites
- Boris Johnson's February 2013 meeting with Thomas Heatherwick was not in his official diary, and his early discussions with TfL about the project weren't reported to the London Assembly
- Joanna Lumley was named as an "associate" of Heatherwick Studio in its bid document, and has been working with the company for some years. There's no suggestion Lumley was paid to lobby on its behalf, but as a childhood friend of the mayor there are concerns that her preferred architect won under a process that didn't follow best guidance practice set by the EU
- beyond the confines of London government, Chancellor George Osborne bypassed the usual channels to offer funding, which the National Audit Office wasn't terribly impressed by. No laws were broken, but it adds to the impression that the Garden Bridge isn't subject to the normal rigours surrounding projects using public funds.
Len Duvall, a Labour London Assembly Member and chair of the GLA Oversight Committee, said:
This debacle is increasingly looking like a scandal and we now need full disclosure. The Mayor, as chair of TfL, appears to have undertaken activities in support of this bid which, when combined with the questions about TfL’s procurement process, increasingly look like an attempt to stitch up the procurement for a favoured architect and project. It's hard to believe there were no notes made of any of these meetings as the mayor claims.
For more sterling work on the background to this affair, see The Architects' Journal.