"We All Moaned About The Olympics, Too": Interview With The Head Of The Garden Bridge Trust

Rachel Holdsworth
By Rachel Holdsworth Last edited 22 months ago
"We All Moaned About The Olympics, Too": Interview With The Head Of The Garden Bridge Trust
Image by ARUP.

Being the head of the Garden Bridge Trust can’t be an easy job at the minute. There’s vocal opposition — we’ll come onto the detail in a moment — to the extent of parodying the bridge in the form of a scrotum, and an unfolding procurement scandal. But Bee Emmott is relentlessly upbeat about her task.

“I think projects of this nature will always stimulate debate,” she says. “It’s an ambitious, unique project, a bit like the Millennium Wheel. People were up in arms and now you wouldn’t dare take it down.”

The Garden Bridge Trust (GBT) is a charity that was set up to raise funds to build and maintain the bridge, and oversee its construction. It took over the project from Transport for London (TfL) and will be responsible for looking after it once it’s up and spanning the Thames.

“We’ve raised £145m to date. £60m of that is from the public sector and then all the rest is private sector funding. The total cost for the project is £175m but that’s broken down into things like £22m VAT, contingency and operations.” About that £60m; when the bridge was first announced, Londoners were promised that not a penny of public money would be needed. What happened?

“We’ve got a unique [funding] model, in terms of the public funding unlocking such a significant amount of private investment," Bee says. "It’s very difficult to raise private funds in the UK, particularly when we have a very different kind of philanthropic culture than, say, America. You just wouldn’t get that without having some kind of public funding there to help the project get through the beginning stages so it becomes viable.”

Image by ARUP and Heatherwick Studio.

Bee goes on to elaborate the transport case for the bridge, which is the justification for TfL and the Treasury each contributing £30m. “If you look at the frequency of bridges in central London, this area is actually the biggest stretch in central London where there isn’t a bridge. The Garden Bridge can’t be seen in total isolation, you’ve got to look at it in terms of TfL’s wider strategy and transport wider throughout London.

“There’s need for bridges east and west for sure, and this is not denying that’s the case. This is much more about an additional link right in the centre of town that will encourage people to walk. At Waterloo station now, it’s highly congested and people take tube journeys from Waterloo to very short distances away because the walking experience between Waterloo and, say, Covent Garden at the moment is just not a pleasant one.”

Modelling done by the GBT suggests 27,000 people will use the bridge every weekday, 9,000 of whom will be commuters. Given its hybrid appeal of actual bridge and tourist attraction, the modelling predicts peaks of up to 4,500 people mid-afternoon, primarily comprised of tourists. On Saturdays footfall is expected to reach up to 30,000, whereas Sundays are expected to be quieter, with around 18,000 visitors.

These figures are comparable with Millennium and Tower bridges, and significantly higher than Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges. And yet. Bee says it’s been modelled that the Garden Bridge will take 12 minutes to cross “at a reasonable pace”. This seems like a long time to us; Google Maps reckons you can cross Waterloo bridge in just five. Weirdly, it also says that if you start at one of the points where the Garden Bridge will land, walk to Waterloo bridge, cross the Thames and walk to the other landing point, it will take 13 minutes. Why on earth would anyone looking for a quick, simple route from A to B take the Garden Bridge?

“Waterloo Bridge is not an enjoyable pedestrian experience,” says Bee. “If you go through rush hour, it’s a bit like hell! There are quite a lot of schools, particularly in the Covent Garden area, where a lot of the community on the south side go. Waterloo Bridge is very much dominated by cars and buses and that’s its main purpose. It’s not made for pedestrians particularly. I think what the Garden Bridge does is offer an entirely different route that’s putting the pedestrian first.”

During our conversation it becomes clear that the vision for the bridge is for a lovely experience away from polluting vehicle fumes. This may be why it takes 12 minutes to cross; it won’t be somewhere for commuters to charge, head down, on their way to work. It’s for people who need to be exactly where the bridge lands, have a bit of time or prioritise their surroundings over speed. Cyclists, however, are consigned to Waterloo or the forthcoming cycle superhighway over Blackfriars Bridge — all bikes have to be pushed across.

With experience more important than efficiency, what about concerns the bridge might become overcrowded at peak times and people having to queue? Bee is adamant that the modelling suggests this won’t happen. “The maximum number the bridge can take at any one point is about 2,500 people, but that’s a worst case scenario if everybody was still,” she says.

The Garden Bridge offers an entirely different route that’s putting the pedestrian first.

“If you look at pedestrian modelling of other areas of London, people self-regulate to a certain extent, so we anticipate that the Garden Bridge will be the same in terms of the people flow. We don’t anticipate queues [but] we do have mechanisms if there are queues.” Temple station’s roof could be used as a waiting area, and there will be a similar building on the South Bank, where people could queue out of the way of people passing below.

We then ask about concerns that visitors will be tracked by their mobile phones. “You can’t track people,” Bee explains. “It’s the same as the royal parks, you can’t track people like ‘Bee Emmott’ but if I’ve got a mobile phone they can track ‘a unit’.”

The mobile phone story tapped into an increasing concern Londoners have about nominally public spaces that are actually privately controlled. The bridge will be mainly privately funded and privately run — and closed overnight. Will there be security guards patrolling?

“The bridge is privately owned by the charity, like the royal parks are privately owned by a charity, but it’s publicly-operated. This is not meant to be a place which is highly managed. It will feel like you’re just walking in a garden. We’ll have people there, like gardeners and visitor hosts to help with directions and so on, but the feeling is very much about you being in a garden and not being managed in any way at all. The visitor hosts will be helping tourists with directions, that sort of thing.”

Image by ARUP.

Bee also expands on how prominently donors will be acknowledged, following news that Sky has got naming rights over one of the garden areas. “We don’t have the ability to name the bridge, the 'Sky Garden Bridge' or whatever. That’s absolutely not the intention anyway. What we’ve got is very discreet naming opportunities where people get acknowledged on the bridge in different places. It has to fit in with the look and feel of the bridge, it’s not about loads of names everywhere and feeling like Disneyland.”

In the end, Bee feels the bridge will win out. “I guess this is about something that’s just so unique. People say London’s the thought leading capital of the world. If you look back at the Olympics, we all moaned about it and then it was amazing and we congratulated ourselves about how amazing we are and look what we managed to achieve. There’s something about making something happen that is amazing, completely innovative and completely exciting and special and feeling really proud that you can do that. That is also something that the Garden Bridge is about, being at the top of our game and doing something special and that no-one else has done before."

This upbeat finale, however, came before a new wave of negative publicity. In the last week, Richard De Cani, the man at TfL who creating the 'scoring' process for selecting the winning design — by Heatherwick Studio and Arup — has joined Deputy Mayor for Transport Isabel Dedring in going to work for Arup. Or, in De Cani's case, re-joining, as he's worked there before. The controversy over how Heatherwick won the contract has reached the London Assembly, where a motion put forward by Caroline Pidgeon urging TfL to recover public money from the Trust passed 12-7 on Wednesday. Kate Hoey, the MP for Vauxhall, is asking the National Audit Office to investigate. Even the president of RIBA thinks the bridge should be put on hold.

We'd asked Bee Emmott about the unfolding claims when we met, and the Trust is in the awkward position of running the project but having had no say in this procurement. "We feel that it’s very historical, it happened before our time. There’s not much more we can say," she explained.

Time is not on the side of the Garden Bridge. It needs to be finished before construction on the Thames Tideway Tunnel starts in 2018 — the two projects plan to make heavy use of the river, and the Port of London Authority is not keen on both of them competing for space — which means work on the bridge needs to start this summer. Lambeth Council has imposed some planning conditions, more than half of which have been met, but any delay created by an investigation into how the plan got (metaphorically) off the ground could scupper the whole thing.

Looking south across the Thames at the planned site of the Garden Bridge. The bridge would go straight overhead at this point.

Last Updated 13 February 2016

Jon Millwood

I've walked across Waterloo Bridge several times and it has never felt like hell. In fact at sunset the view towards the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye is excellent and there is also a great view of St Pauls (which the Garden Bridge would obscure).

I think one of the main reasons people don't walk from Waterloo to Covent Garden is that they don't know how short the walk is and adding another bridge (with a longer route) won't help that. Also the walk from Waterloo to the Thames is pretty naff. The most direct route actually takes you straight to the Golden Jubilee bridge via the Southbank Centre.

The Olympics provided regeneration and a new park in an area that needed some help. I don't think the Southbank or the Temple area needs any help! The Millennium Wheel (London Eye to everyone else) was entirely privately funded and is completely a tourist attraction, it doesn't pretend to be transport.

Nicolas Chinardet

We also have elections in May. Hopefully the new Mayor will see the light and scrap the thing.

Bill Ellson

"There are quite a lot of schools, particularly in the Covent Garden area,"
Really, since when?
“The bridge is privately owned by the charity, like the royal parks are privately owned by a charity,"
Utter nonsense, The Royal Parks is an Executive Agency of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
As for naming/advertising on the bridge Mr Emmott appears blissfully unaware that the Port of London Authority own the freehold of the river and as a license condition would want the lion's share of any advertising revenues.
All in all Emmott does not know London very well, and like many a provincial before, is likely to get his fingers burnt.

Will Jennings

We are still hugely in debt to the Olympics, and will be paying the over-budget spectacle off for quite some time.

The main legacy for the Olympics is the huge commercial shopping centre through which any visitor to the park has to pass through - a kind of consumerist lobster pot. It's a horrid experience to enable a park to exist. Just as this bridge will only benefit the Northbank BID and its ground floor chain coffee shops for which the developer friends of the Garden Bridge Trust board, the Mayor and Zac/Sadiq will hugely benefit from through massively increased rental costs. That's not to mention the Berkely home penthouses being sold off-shore for millions now there's a glitzy bauble to stick on the advertising brochure.

However, it's nice to hear something from the Garden Bridge Trust which isn't repeat clone statements off PR spin and press releases, even if most of it is still nonsense.

One nugget of truth, however: "We’ve got a unique [funding] model". Yes, Bee. We are slowly discovering about this. £30m from Transport for London when there is no transport need. £30m from the Department for Transport, unilaterally given by Osborne which the National Audit Office have recommended that the Parliamentary Accounts Committee investigate. And spending £10m of public money before a penny of private 'pledge' money, which experts in the public/private sphere state is an extremely unusual situation indeed. So, yes, a very unique funding model. One which basically screws over the public.

Will Jennings

Please help oppose this eco-damaging, private, view-blocking ego project here: www.afollyforlondon.co.uk/take...

Ed Jacks

Absolute waste, of time and money. Just an Ego trip for the luvvies to have their name on a plaque half way across. Don`t let it be built. Tfl and Dept of transport could give their millions to much more deserving causes or maybe spend it on improving their own services.

Bonita Yawl

The Garden Bridge has already missed its chance to be built before the Thames Tideway Tunnel. Thames Water has advanced the start of the TTT works by 6 months and also brought the end date forward by 2 years so the peak of TTT river traffic is now earlier and more intense. If the Garden Bridge starts this summer its maximum obstruction of the river will coincide with TTT's peak traffic period creating an unprecedented level of navigational risk. It would be very surprising if the PLA were to agree to the river-using public being exposed to this elevated risk when they have already said that the two sets of works must not take place simultaneously.

TCOSLondon

Utter nonsense from Bee Emmott; former Heatherwick PR employee. Will she be next on Arup's payroll? In the meantime, here's an excellent well-thought out article that disproves all that Bee says and how the Garden Bridge subverts the lessons of history: https://www.facebook.com/Thame...

Meanwhile sign the petition to stop this folly https://www.change.org/p/save-... and help us take them to court www.everyclick.com/tcos

MB

I support the bridge - I think it'll be great. What might be more interesting is how the strangely quiet area around Temple tube station will be transformed.

catherinebrownsword@hotmail.co

Yes, lots moaned about the Olympics and many of us still think the money could have been better spent. We were told what a great legacy in sport it would leave but there has been little evidence of this.

ASLEF shrugged

"If you look at the frequency of bridges in central London, this area is actually the biggest stretch in central London where there isn’t a bridge". I've looked, its about the same as the stretch between Tower and London Bridges or between Lambeth and Vauxhall Bridge.

Beth Williams

If there really is support this project then organise a public subscription. It is wrong to use our taxes for a trophy project.

Matthew Rees

The comment that the walk over Waterloo Bridge is like hell shows just how out of touch the people behind the Garden Bridge are. Don't take my word for it listen to all the Listed Londoners on the Robert Elms radio show where the view from Waterloo Bridge is often chosen as the best in London. It's my favourite view too.