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Letter to Dame Margaret Hodge from Lord Mervyn Davies

, Garden Bridge Trust

Dear Dame Margaret

Garden Bridge review

I am writing to clarify a number of inaccuracies in your review of the Garden Bridge, published on 7 April 2017, and to query the validity of some of your conclusions, particularly where based substantially on your personal opinion or judgement and relying only on selective use of evidence. I am also copying this letter to the Mayor directly, so that he is aware of our concerns.

I have highlighted below our main concerns about your conclusions, focusing only on matters relating to the work of the Trust.

Public support and consultation
You say you “found a lack of connection to the local community south of the river”, citing the opinion of Kate Hoey MP to support your assertion that the Trust did not engage properly with the local community and that local views were treated with disdain.

It is unfortunate that you chose to ignore my letter of 1 December 2016, which set out the many and varied community engagement activities we have undertaken. Similarly, it would have been useful if you had asked us about our extensive consultation when we met. I would happily have taken you through the detail of the more than 50 occasions where local communities had the opportunity to engage in shaping the project. It is also worth noting that Ms Hoey was involved in consultation on the Bridge, specifically, chairing a major meeting with the Trust and CSCB tenants in September 2015. It is unfortunate that her involvement wasn’t viewed as providing a useful channel to local people, although of course she has refused offers to meet with the Trust on behalf of her constituents to gain a full understanding of the project and the details upon which we were consulting.

Without having conducted – and published - a valid survey exercise in coming to your conclusions on this point, we must reject your conclusions here in the face of the evidence of work done by ComRes in July 2015 which shows over three quarters of Londoners support the Bridge being built. It is worth noting that this work complies with the guidance and standards set by the British Polling Council and the Market Research Society for survey exercises.

If you had in fact intended to conduct your own informal polling exercise through this review, I question your decision to focus almost entirely on speaking to known opponents of the project. You did not meet with any of the project’s supporters nor did you meet with any of the project’s funders who plainly support the project. In addition, you fail to explain that planning permission has been obtained, through democratic process, from both Lambeth and Westminster Councils. We would have been very willing to put you in touch with local supporters of the project – residents, local employers, charities and others – if only you had sought to take a balanced approach to your informal survey.

Construction contract
When we met, we explained to you the basis of the Trustees’ decision to enter into the construction contract with the Bouygues Travaux Publics/Cimolai S.P.A Joint Venture.

Our contractor was working under a pre-construction services agreement, which is quite usual in the industry, in order to clear the conditions of planning and prepare for construction. The Trust entered into a fixed price (in GBP) contract with the Joint Venture, with the contractors committed to constructing the Bridge within budget and before the required completion date. Signing the contract allowed the contractor to engage a larger workforce to ensure all planning conditions were met in the timescale, thereby reducing the risk of cost escalation.

We have always ensured that we had the necessary resources to meet our obligations and that there were exit points throughout. Given that it is a highly specialist area, I am not clear how you came to your conclusion about this being a “risky and premature” decision without seeking expert advice or input, particularly as you said yourself during the meeting, “I’m not an expert on this”.

Related to the contract, you also cite Brexit and its impact on the exchange rate as a likely contributor to cost increase. This is incorrect and irrelevant. The contract is a fixed cost, lumpsum value, design and build contract in GBP, which means the risk of exchange fluctuation – whatever the cause – is with the contractor.

You express scepticism over whether the Trust will be successful in finding donors willing to fund the project, though there is no evidence in your report to support this conclusion. As we explained when we met, we simply cannot approach funders when we are coping with the uncertainties created by third party delays, including your own review.

At no point in your work did you seek to investigate the Trust’s fundraising activities further, or indeed meet with any of the Directors of our Fundraising Committee. You did not take the opportunity to receive a presentation of the project, its design, its rationale and its potential to
provide sources of income. You report that the Trust has obtained no new pledges since August 2016, but fail to acknowledge that it was the following month that your review of the project was announced, which had a direct impact on fundraising activity.

While you repeat your claims about philanthropists being unlikely to associate themselves with the project, you also fail to consider that the uniqueness and prominence of the Garden Bridge in central London makes it very attractive to corporate donors. It is disappointing that you did not
choose to meet any of our existing funders – philanthropic or corporate - to understand their reasons for supporting this project and more broadly, what drives them to become involved in projects such as this.

Your suggestion that the fact certain pledges are anonymous “significantly contributes to the fragility of the commitments” is unsubstantiated and incorrect. In fact, one of our most loyal supporters, who has underwritten our operational costs, is anonymous and wishes to remain so indefinitely. It is perfectly normal in the philanthropy and charity sectors for funders to stipulate anonymity for a variety of different reasons, including the desire to support a project away from the spotlight.

Operations & Maintenance Business Plan
When we met, you had been provided with an outdated version of the Trust’s Operations and Maintenance Business Plan. We explained that the Business Plan is a live document going through various iterations and receiving input from external experts. I am unclear as to why none of this is acknowledged in your report.

You make sweeping statements about the philanthropic sector. As noted above, it might have been useful if - prior to coming to such unfounded conclusions about their likely intentions and drivers - you had taken the opportunity to speak to some of our funders, particularly the one who has already contributed a £2m pledge to the Trust’s endowment fund.

You suggest the assumptions in the Business Plan are “ambitious to say the least when compared to the rest of the market” but provide little evidence of anything comparable to the Garden Bridge. The Business Plan has been put together following discussions with several institutions on the South Bank and surrounding areas. It includes a broad range of income streams and is
based on conservative estimates. It is also in line with the Mayor’s request to keep the Bridge open to the public as long as possible and keep the number of closures to 10 afternoons/evenings per year. It is a robust plan which we are confident will successfully cover the Bridge’s maintenance costs.

Selection of Trustees
You claim that the choice of Trustees led to a lack of confidence and support in the Trust and the project but fail to provide any evidence of this. We explained when we met that in putting together the Board we developed a skills matrix and selected Trustees based on the skills and experience required on a Board with responsibility for delivering such a complex, high profile project.

You say it is unclear to you why a Trustee with involvement in a Business Improvement District is not conflicted by being on the Board, but having a trustee from Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB) would create a conflict. You did not accept our explanation but do not explain why.

The south landing point of the Garden Bridge is on land currently on a long lease to CSCB, which provides it with an income source (through, for example, pop-up events) which will be affected by both construction and operation of the Bridge.

A Business Improvement District is a defined area in which a levy is charged on all business rate payers in addition to the business rates bill. This levy is used to develop projects for the benefit of the local area. Northbank works with partners to deliver a range of projects to improve area-wide
safety, sustainability and vibrancy. Investment has enabled daily activity to focus on, for example, reducing antisocial behaviour, support and advice for rough sleepers, and enhanced street cleaning.

I hope this makes the distinction clear, but for the removal of any doubt: a Trustee from CSCB would be conflicted as a Board member as we have been in detailed commercial negotiations to build on their land for over three years and the organisation will see a direct benefit from the Bridge. There is a clear and obvious difference between this and having a Trustee who is also
involved in the work of the Northbank Business Improvement District some of whose members are simply to be affected by the Bridge.

Scope and methodology
The terms of reference for your review asked you “to assess the public sector contribution to the Garden Bridge project and whether value for money has been achieved; to investigate the conduct of Transport for London (TfL), the Greater London Authority (GLA) and other relevant authorities; and to set out any lessons that should be learnt in order to improve the conduct of potential and approved projects in the future”.

The terms of reference did not, as you asserted both in the report and in the media, include offering a recommendation on “whether building a Garden Bridge over the River Thames is a good idea” or whether the project should go ahead. But your report does of course make a clear recommendation. You also state that you worked alone with the part time support of a GLA official. There is no suggestion that you drew on any other expertise on any of the topics that the report covers. It is a great shame that, upon changing your position on offering a recommendation about the future of the project, your methodology was not also strengthened to offer a more appropriate level of technical expertise to provide a robust evidence base upon which to ground your conclusions. Because of this, we simply cannot accept your recommendation. Rather, as the Mayor has said consistently, “the taxpayer will be better off if the bridge is built” and the many benefits of the project delivered, which would of course also mean that the £20m loan is repaid.

A report of this type would typically set out the reasons for selecting the people you have consulted. This is absent from your report and it is clear from your published list that you have engaged with a very selective – largely opponent – audience. I would like to offer a single, but significant, example of where your work might have benefited from additional technical advice. Value for money is a technical concept with specific methodologies for making relevant assessments that generally involve a detailed exercise with large teams of experts from a variety of disciplines. TfL’s Strategic Outline Business Case considered the upfront commitment of £30m each from DfT (via HM Treasury) and TfL and was prepared using the agreed standards and
format for business cases, as set out in HM Treasury’s Green Book, which provides guidance for public sector bodies on how to appraise proposals before committing funds to a policy, programme or project.

Since the May 2014 business case was considered and published there has not been another Green Book business case commissioned, so I am unclear about the evidence upon which your finding is based. To put it bluntly, it does in fact appear to be based almost entirely on your own opinion and the word of others who have expressed a view, rather than on the word of those with technical expertise in this field.

Following our meeting it was clear to me, as I wrote in my letter of 1 December 2016, that this was a huge and complicated task for one person and that you needed additional technical and other resource to master the complexity and scale of the project. It is regrettable that no such resource was sought.

Report publication
Finally, I found your approach to publication of the report discourteous, particularly as the Trust was a willing participant in your review. I understand that some interested parties, including journalists, had early insight into publication, while those with responsibility for delivery of the
project were not offered the same courtesy, having no warning of either the publication of your report or your decision to alter the scope of your recommendations. This put the Trust in a position by which we were unable to provide timely briefing of our funders and key stakeholders.You will understand the importance of our relationships with such critical supporters of the project and, for someone with your extensive experience in the public sphere, I find the lack of respect and disregard for the impact of your findings unacceptable.

Yours sincerely
Lord Davies of Abersoch
Chairman, Garden Bridge Trust
Cc. The Mayor of London