Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Spencer.)
It is nice to get started a bit early, which means I do not have to rush through my speech to fit it into the time. I hope other hon. Members wish to contribute.
I want to use this opportunity to lay out the issues around the garden bridge project, which is unfortunately now known by most Londoners as the vanity project. A Transport Minister will respond to the debate tonight, but it is certainly not a transport project. Lord Ahmed should be the answering Minister, but he is in the House of Lords. I welcome the Minister who is here and hope he understands his brief in the wider context.
I pay tribute to all those to all those who have worked so hard to shine a light on the failings of the garden bridge project: Thames Central Open Spaces; the Waterloo Community Development Group; and a cross-party group of members of the Greater London Authority who did their best to get to the truth, especially Liberal Democrat Caroline Pidgeon, Labour member Tom Copley and Conservative Andrew Boff. They are from different parties but are united on the issue. I also pay tribute to the local councillors for Bishop’s ward, which is just across the river from the House, particularly Councillors Mosley and Craig, who have been brave enough to stand up to their own Labour council to represent strongly the views of their local area.
A great deal of the information I will use tonight had to be dragged out of public bodies by freedom of information requests. I pay tribute to the work of journalists such as Will Hurst from the Architects’ Journal, Peter Walker from The Guardian, Theo Usherwood from LBC and Hannah Barnes from “Newsnight”, who have done so much to ensure that the information, which should have been public in the first place, is transparent.
Many of us in London have been incredibly disappointed in London’s Evening Standard. From the beginning, it has ignored any criticism or alternative view of the project and has been the official mouthpiece of the Garden Bridge Trust, which is perhaps not surprising, because at one time its proprietor was shown as a governor of the trust, although that is no longer the case. It is sad that a paper once known for its fearless reporting has on this issue acted as the cheerleader without recognition of the widespread opposition from Londoners.
I thank the hon. Lady, who is a very good friend, for giving way. When the Evening Standard gave its support, did it consider making room for hedgehogs on the garden bridge?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s work on supporting hedgehogs. Perhaps he shares my view that, if there were fewer badgers, we might have more hedgehogs, but that was not a consideration in any discussion to do with the garden bridge.
I am not a nimby and I am not afraid to support unpopular causes—I support some popular ones too, as we saw recently. For example, I supported the London Eye from the beginning when many Members of the House thought it was wrong—they opposed the London Eye because they did not want to be overlooked when they were out on the Terrace. The London Eye was delivered without a penny of public money. It was painstakingly argued for by the two brilliant architects David Marks and Julia Barfield, who are my constituents. They spoke and discussed it with every group to win their confidence. We are going back some years now, but most importantly at that time, the London Eye was the catalyst for regeneration on that part of the South Bank. A specific trust was set up so that a percentage of the profit goes directly to keep the area policed and cleaned. The Garden Bridge Trust has behaved so differently. Its consultation, if it existed at all, can only be described as lacklustre. It treated local views with disdain, acting always as if anyone who objected was some kind of stupid. I was very disappointed when another constituent of mine, Joanna Lumley, who I have huge admiration for, at various times almost disparaged people who had genuine objections.
Now, I have to admit that when I first heard about a garden bridge across the Thames I, probably like most people, thought “Oh, that sounds really nice.” When described, the proposed garden bridge leaves the impression of being an enchanting mythical passage between Temple and the South Bank, an escape from noise and pollution, a tranquil hiding place. Who would not have thought that that was a nice idea? When we look at the reality, however, we see that it is very different. It will land in my constituency on a beautiful site overlooking the Thames that has 29 mature trees and wonderful views of St Paul’s. The site is an asset of community value dearly loved by locals and visitors. This public open space will be lost to a huge concrete visitor entrance-retail centre building manned by security guards. This area was won through a long and hard-fought battle by the local community through the 1970s and 1980s to secure green open space beside the river for the benefit of local residents, local workers and visitors.
Once I had really looked into the garden bridge proposals, I realised that even if the concept seemed nice, it was in the wrong place. There were other parts of the river where a transport crossing was far more needed. More crucially, there is the cost. This is not simply a local issue or even a London issue. It carries national significance in respect of the use of public funds and the delivery of a major infrastructure project in a specific location to the value of £185 million. In my view the arguments are very, very weak in respect of its need, supporting business case and, especially, location. Other areas of London have a significant need for investment of this sort, as do so many other important regions of our country.
On the regions, at the same time in 2014 that the Department for Transport was providing £30 million of public money to back the bridge, despite the £185 million scheme not having the required £100 million of private sector funding, Hull had £100 million of private sector funding to electrify the rail line to Hull. The Hull scheme was submitted to the Department for Transport and has sat in the Department for over two years, even though it had to provide only £2.4 million of public money. Does that not show that the regions are losing out again when it comes to transport investment by this Government?
My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for her constituency in London, but does she agree that no other city or region of the UK would qualify for the level of Government attention and initial expenditure the bridge has received?
I absolutely agree. I stick up for London. I believe that London, being a great capital city that is loved by the people who live here while being very open to tourism, does sometimes need special arrangements, for example policing. This, however, is something very different. Perhaps the problem for my two hon. Friends is that they do not have Joanna Lumley living in their area.
Let us look at the cost. When the garden bridge was first announced, it was claimed it would not require a penny of public money. Very soon after, the former Chancellor announced £30 million of support and Transport for London also came up with £30 million. So, £60 million of taxpayers’ money has been committed to a project that came out of thin air. It had never been discussed with anyone before it was announced, unless in private discussions between Joanna Lumley, the former Chancellor and others.
From the beginning, those supporting the Garden Bridge Trust behaved as if they knew they had support in high places—and of course they had. The report in February by Project Compass, the not-for-profit procurement intelligence service, goes into great detail on how the procurement process was handled. The tender originally asked for broad options for a pedestrian bridge between Temple and the South Bank, and it made no mention of a garden/living bridge element. As a result, only the Heatherwick Studio bid responded with not just a garden bridge proposal, but a design drawing and actual location plan of the garden bridge. That had not been called for in the tender spec, yet Heatherwick Studio received the highest mark for its understanding of the brief.
A single person in City Hall—Richard de Cani, the then manging director for planning for Transport for London—assessed the technical and commercial evaluation of the three bids. Usually, subjective judgments in public tender documents have a team of assessors to ensure impartiality, but this is the same Richard de Cani who we now know used to work for Arup—the same Arup that in another flawed tendering process, as outlined by Project Compass, won the contract for the Temple bridge part of the garden bridge and has been given more than £8 million.
It gets worse. Where has Mr De Cani gone back to work? Arup, of course. Arup seems to like ex-City Hall staff, because it has recently appointed as its new global transport leader Isabel Dedring, the former City Hall deputy head of transport. She was personally involved with nearly all the meetings prior to the tendering process with Thomas Heatherwick. So, both of the officers directly involved with the entire process have now left City Hall and gone to be employed by the garden bridge engineer and lead consultant, Arup. That could be a coincidence, but I think that most fair-minded people would think that it is very strange. Even Greater London Authority’s internal audit head, Clive Walker, admitted that the procurement had been neither open nor objective.
There is a question mark over the procedure, and yet the National Audit Office could do nothing about it. It responded to me by saying that it was not in its remit to look into TfL behaviour, and that that was the responsibility of the GLA oversight committee, supported by locally appointed auditors. Ernst & Young is the GLA’s locally appointed auditor and it was also appointed by the Mayor to run the investigation into TfL, but—believe it or not—Ernst & Young is listed as having donated £500,000 to the bridge, and an Ernst & Young partner also sits on the board of the Garden Bridge Trust. The GLA oversight committee looked into that, and its chair described it as a “dodgy design procurement process” and suggested that TfL reimburse the two other applicants, WilkinsonEyre and Marks Barfield.
I think that the NAO should be able to investigate public money used by TfL. I am glad that it has agreed to look into the £30 million given by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer via the Department of Transport and how it has exercised control over the money.
The model under which the GBT operates sets a dangerous precedent—this is why this should be of interest to all Members—that allows public bodies to effectively offshore major infrastructure projects by leveraging charitable vehicles, under the oversight of the Charity Commission, to avoid the transparency and scrutiny preserved for governmental bodies via the NAO. The House will be interested to know that since July 2015, £26,720,292 has been paid to the GBT, with absolutely no accountability for how it has been spent and no visibility of its accounts.
The current Mayor stated when he came to office that £37.7 million has already been spent by the trust, but:
“Nothing has been achieved to date”.
More recently, he stated on LBC that the figure was now £42 million, yet he himself had stated that he did not want a penny more of public money. It would be interesting to know why another £5 million to £6 million has been spent since he came to office.
Recently, Lord Davies, the chair of the Garden Bridge Trust, stated on “Newsnight” that a significant amount of spend had been on two contractors, namely Arup and Bouygues, which is a French company and there are slight variations in how it is pronounced. No visibility has ever been provided over those contractual arrangements, or legal clarity provided as to whether there are clauses to return public money in the event that the project is cancelled.
I believe that contracts should not have been entered into until the land arrangements on both sides of the river had been secured because it exposes taxpayers’ funds to risk. The land deal still has to be negotiated and Coin Street Community Builders, who hold the long lease from Lambeth, are not happy with the terms of agreement even now. A judicial review has been filed. The money for that was raised by small donations across London. Quite suddenly, just a few weeks ago, the GBT changed its dates for filing its accounts, originally due on 31 July, to 31 December. Again, this lack of transparency is very worrying.
This project is at risk not just of never happening, but of being a colossal white elephant. It is nicely depicted in a cartoon in this week’s Private Eye, with a big white elephant over the Thames. We now know—it has been admitted by Lord Davies on “Newsnight”—that it is going to cost £10 million more, up to £185 million, and will be further delayed by a year even if the GBT gets what it wants. It now has to raise between £52 million and £56 million just to build the bridge, up from the original estimate of £32 million. Additional money is needed to support the running costs at £3 million per year, while the insurance is £15 million, but only £9 million has been offered as surety by the Department for Transport.
I understand—the Minister will want to go into it—why the Secretary of State agreed to continue the underwriting, but I welcome the fact that the Department did not say that it was going to increase it in any way. There was a danger of allowing it to continue, with increased amounts each month. In fact, that did not happen, which is to be welcomed. I still think that this is a ridiculous waste of public money.
The GBT’s own press release from June 2016, just a few months ago, admits to spending £22.7 million of public money solely on pre-construction activities—progressing the design, obtaining licences, permits and planning approvals, which are still not final, including stakeholder and community consultations—but no further information was provided. A number of leading construction experts have said that they cannot understand how that could have amounted to anything more than about £1 million.
I genuinely cannot understand how the Government, whether it be the Treasury or the Department for Transport, can feel comfortable with the truly remarkable amount of money already spent by the GBT. I find it hard to explain to my constituents, many of whom would be the kind of people the new Prime Minister addressed from the steps of Downing street on her first day in office, precisely how £40 million pounds of public money has already been spent on a bridge that is going to be closed regularly for private functions, that will not allow cycling and that will be subject to all sorts of rules about what can and cannot be done on it. As I said, the bridge is in completely the wrong place.
I thank the hon. Lady for what she has said. Having come here to listen to her, I am increasingly against this garden bridge project. Is it true that the beautiful view of St Paul’s created by Canaletto will be destroyed by this project?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I am glad to hear that he has come to this debate with an open mind. Yes, as I am going to mention later, that is indeed one of the most dreadful things that will happen. It might not seem that important, but once it is no longer there, we will realise it and miss it. The wonderful views of St Paul’s from Waterloo bridge will be ruined. That will happen without a doubt if the garden bridge is built.
I also find it difficult to understand why this new Government are giving money and underwriting a project for a charity whose donors and backers too often remain unidentified. The public do not discriminate as regards which pot of money the funds come from; to them, it is all public money. There is, however, a list of donors and a breakdown of the funding up to August 2016, and what is remarkable is how many of those donors are anonymous—anonymous this and anonymous that. Why do they want to be anonymous? Some people might decide that they want to be. Strangely, however, £12.6 million is described as being “confidential until launch announcement”. Is that real money or is it a pledge from someone? It is all smoke and mirrors. I shall say more about donors in a few moments. Because of that, and because of the way the trust’s accounts have been dealt with, I welcome the Charity Commission’s investigation, which it has confirmed to me in writing.
Let me say a quick word about the business plan, which has been examined admirably and in great detail in a report entitled “Operational Viability of the Garden Bridge” by Dan Anderson, who is a director of Fourth Street. Some Members will know of Fourth Street, which has done great work for the National Trust and other public bodies. The report draws attention to all the flaws in the business plan, and I commend it to anyone who wants to understand more. In paragraph 4.2, Mr Anderson makes this crucial point:
“It is worryingly worth noting that the Garden Bridge Trust has a perverse incentive to spend money as quickly and not as efficiently or cost-effectively as possible. That is, the Trust has a powerful incentive to ensure that it reaches a ‘point of no return’ (in financial terms) as quickly as it can so that planning, land acquisition and/or legal challenges do not ultimately thwart the project.”
I think that that must be a very large part of the explanation of how such an extraordinary sum could have been spent before construction has even started.
Others, too—apart from the Government, Transport for London and City Hall—need to examine their behaviour in respect of this project. A cosy little cartel has been operating, with everyone blaming everyone else. The almost zealous support that has been given to the Garden Bridge Trust by Lambeth council is disturbing. The chief executive has attended meetings with the Mayor’s head of staff, David Bellamy, and the trust. The council’s leadership has never allowed a proper, full debate in the council and a vote, and has ignored local councillors’ views. Council officers and members have proceeded for three years without any policy basis. Their transport plan does not even mention the garden bridge, and there has been no policy paper from Lambeth explaining why the council should support it.
Lambeth could stop this project tomorrow if it wished. Coin Street Community Builders, of which I am a huge supporter, should have said no to the change in its land lease from the beginning. It, too, could stop this tomorrow if it wished. The Mayor of London, coming new to the project, should have put a stop to it, or at least consulted local politicians. It is just not good enough for him to say, “So much money has been spent that we must carry on.” He could stop it tomorrow if he wished. Will the Minister tell us who will pay the £3 million running costs? Will he confirm that it will not be the taxpayer, and will he confirm categorically that there will be no more public funding for the bridge?
Lord Ahmed had stalled everyone who objected to the bridge. No one could manage to see anyone in power except representatives of the Garden Bridge Trust, who seem to have been able to do so whenever they wished. Lord Ahmed has now written to Councillor Craig saying that he will meet local councillors, but I ask him to come and look at the site, and speak to the people who really know the area and the problems.
Having talked privately to many of those who are involved in all the different aspects of the project, I know that there is huge unease. I know that there is unease in the Department for Transport, I know that there is unease in Lambeth, and I know that there is unease in Coin Street. I know that most of those people —with the exception, probably, of the former Chancellor—would like the project to be stopped, but no one wants to be fingered as the person responsible for actually saying no.
I appeal to all the potential donors to think carefully about whether they want to be associated with the project. I believe that the reputation of many of them will be damaged by their support for this folly. As the critique of the business plan states, the garden bridge must be loved as much by the public as by its creators, or the business model will fail. Given how unpopular it is and how much has been exposed by freedom of information requests, I have to say that if I were a trustee of a body that was thinking of donating to the Garden Bridge Trust, I would be thinking again. It is ironic that this may be the only way in which we may now be saved from a complete waste of public money, even more of which will be wasted as time goes on, and a deeply flawed project which, as I said earlier, will ruin the most wonderful views of St Paul’s from Waterloo bridge, as well as making congestion on the South Bank—which is already at dangerous levels during some weekends—much worse.
Charitable trusts and private donors should now stop their support and look elsewhere for projects more in keeping with their objectives. That is what I would like to see happen.
This has been put forward as a wonderful new tourist attraction for London. It is a tourist attraction, but it has been dressed up as tourist infrastructure; it has been dressed up to get Government support when other brilliant tourist attractions in London have done this through private money. It is an inappropriate use of taxpayers’ money and, worse, it was promised from the beginning that it would not be.
We have to ask who has sold us down the river and how we can ensure that no more damage will be done and no more public money will be wasted. This Garden Bridge Trust project must be stopped by someone, and I would like to hear the Minister say he will do his utmost to make sure not a penny more will be spent and that we will find ways, when this project fails, as I believe it will, to get that public money back.
In my very brief contribution, let me start by paying warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). It says a lot about her and her priorities that when she is offered what is apparently a prestigious large-scale project in her constituency, she instead considers its effect on ordinary people in her community, and her mind is made up partly because of that. I also pay tribute to her for the forensic way she has tried to get through the murk of the financing of this project. She has obviously made some progress, but some murk remains; there is still a lack of clarity.
My ears pricked up at the sound of the £30 million from the Government. The Transport Minister who is in his place will know that I have been campaigning for just £100,000 for a transport project on the M56 to put in police and Highways England safety cameras. Sadly, the Minister declined that expenditure. Yet at the same time we can find £30 million to pour into a black hole, which my hon. Friend tells us is a vanity project, with several big-name backers but no clear benefit to the community. Will the Minister tell the House in his response whether he thinks that £30 million spent on a vanity project garden bridge in London is better expenditure than £100,000 on motorway safety cameras in Cheshire? Is the garden bridge receiving this level of public money simply because it is in London rather than the north-west of England?
I am afraid my hon. Friend seems to be straying into the Brexit argument about figures written on the sides of buses, because I do not necessarily think this is an either/or. I am massively in favour of my hon. Friend getting all the money he needs for his part of the world, and he has made the case very strongly, but he must not think it is because of the garden bridge that he is not getting it. I ask him to let his spirits soar with the imagination of this marvellous project which will be immensely beneficial to London and the country. Tourists will flood in to see this beautiful creation. Have a little imagination. Chester is a beautiful city—I admire it and love to visit it. Come and visit London and see, hopefully, our marvellous garden bridge.
My spirits soar every time I hear my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound). My point is simply that there seems to be a reason why £30 million of public money is being given to this project despite the immense lack of clarity that my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall has exposed, despite no clear end to the project, and despite very little financial and accounting responsibility and oversight.
I completely take on board my hon. Friend’s point. Does he agree that, by all means let us have vanity projects, but let us have them when we have done the bread-and-butter stuff? In my constituency, we have got £10 million for a major link to the port and railway, but meanwhile tens of millions of pounds are being spent on these vanity projects.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall’s excellent exposé has revealed, we are not even sure how much this vanity project will cost. I simply ask the Minister for some clarity: does he believe that this £30 million is—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Spencer.)
Much as I support the campaign of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), I am concerned that we are getting away from the main points that have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall. I simply want to ask the Minister whether he believes that this would be £30 million of public money well spent, and whether that amount would ever have been spent anywhere other than in London.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I must remind Members that this is quite a narrow debate on the garden bridge in London. Other projects might be very interesting, but the Member in charge is the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), and Vauxhall is in London. It would be good if we could keep to that subject.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have listened carefully to what you have said. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on her speech and on the questions that she has asked. We all deserve to get answers to them. I appreciate that London is the capital city and that it rightly gets more money as a result, but I recently learned that the new Crossrail station at Canary Wharf was costing £500 million —and getting a roof garden; there is obviously a thing about gardens going on—which is more than double the cost of what my city of Hull needs for rail electrification and for all the road transport schemes that we have been arguing for for many years. It would therefore be helpful if the Minister told us what prospect there is of closing the gap, given the ratio of 6:1 in relation to funding for London compared with other parts of the United Kingdom. That seems quite out of kilter, especially if the Government really are committed to the northern powerhouse and to rebalancing the spend on infrastructure all around the country.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on securing the debate on this important topic. I am sorry that I am not my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, whose responsibility this is in the Department for Transport, but I understand that a meeting has been arranged and that she will be seeing him shortly.
I recognise, as do the Secretary of State and all my ministerial colleagues in the Department, that the garden bridge is a subject that divides public opinion—it is dividing opinion tonight on Benches just a few feet away from each other. Its supporters argue passionately that it will be an iconic and beautiful addition to the London cityscape, while its opponents argue that it is an unnecessary eyesore and that no public money should ever have been put into it.
Let me start by explaining why the Government decided to support this iconic and novel project in the first place. The previous Mayor of London was approached some years ago with an idea for a completely new type of bridge: a footbridge that was also a park, and a place where people could cross the river as part of their journey or stop and enjoy the surroundings and wonderful views of London and the river. The Mayor and Ministers at the time considered that this could be an innovative and iconic project for our city, but they did not—they still do not—consider that the project should be wholly funded by the taxpayer. However, they agreed to help with some funding to kick-start the project and stimulate private sector funding. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer therefore announced in the 2013 autumn statement that the Government would provide £30 million towards the project as long as the Mayor contributed a similar amount, and as long as there was a satisfactory business case to show that the project would deliver value for money for the taxpayer.
The Garden Bridge Trust and Transport for London produced a business case in early 2014, which the Department for Transport analysed carefully in exactly the same way as it does for any transport project. The analysis showed that while it was a highly unusual project and one with a wide range of possible benefit-cost ratios, there was a reasonable chance that it would offer value for money for the taxpayer. We therefore agreed to release the £30 million of funding that had been pledged by the Chancellor, but importantly we attached several conditions to our funding, including a cap of around £8 million on the amount of Government money that could be spent on pre-construction activities, which was designed to limit taxpayer exposure in the event that the project did not proceed. A requirement was also included for TfL to draw up a detailed funding agreement with the trust governing how the money would be used.
Over time and in response to requests from the trust, the cap on the Government’s exposure was increased in stages to £13.5 million as circumstances changed and as it became clear that more money was needed to get the project to the point at which construction could start. The trust then asked the Government earlier this year to underwrite the project’s potential cancellation costs. Let me be clear that that was not a request for additional funding; instead, it was a request to be able to use some of the £30 million that we had already committed to pay the project’s cancellation costs should that be necessary. Without such an underwriting guarantee, the trust said that the project could not continue. After careful consideration, the Department agreed in late May to provide a time-limited underwriting guarantee but, again, with various conditions attached, including a requirement for the trust to provide more regular reports to the Department on the status of the project and the steps that it was taking to address the risks.
Over the summer of this year, as a result of further delays to the construction timetable, the trust asked whether the underwriting guarantee could be extended beyond the September deadline. The Department agreed last month that it could, but in such a way that the risks are more fairly shared between the Government and the bridge’s private sector backers. To be precise, the Government will now underwrite £9 million of the cancellation costs, should they arise, with the private sector required to underwrite any such costs above that level. The Government therefore continue to support the project and wish it well, but we have made it clear to the trust that not only public money should be at risk should the project fail.
The challenge now for the trust is to focus its efforts on getting private sector backers to take on some of the risk. We have also reiterated that the Government have no intention of putting more than the £30 million originally pledged into the project—that is a cap.
My understanding is that it would be a joint undertaking, but I will check the detail of any financial arrangements and report back to the hon. Gentleman.
As I was saying, the bridge must be predominantly funded by the private sector. As things stand, at least two thirds of the funding will come from private donations.
I understand that there are many concerns about the project, some of which I will talk about. The hon. Member for Vauxhall has already articulated a number clearly and in detail. The Garden Bridge Trust was set up in 2014 to manage the construction of the bridge. This experienced group of trustees has complete control over development and fund raising. The Department for Transport and TfL speak to the trust regularly to discuss progress and concerns. A significant amount of work has already been achieved on this complex project, which involves many different interested parties, and a huge amount of progress has been made. The land must be secured, permission to use the river obtained, and all necessary land planning conditions secured. A large ship, HQS Wellington, will also need to be moved. Those are all complex tasks that will take some time to achieve. There is still much work to be done before construction can start, but most issues are expected to be resolved soon.
The Minister might not know something that I became aware of today. A considerable part of the constituency of the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on the South Bank—a tree-lined avenue—will have to be demolished. The question therefore is: are we going to lose a tree-lined avenue, and will that be the equivalent of what we are going to get on the garden bridge?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The hon. Member for Vauxhall said that 29 trees would be removed, but the Garden Bridge Trust would argue that they would be more than replaced by the increased number of trees that would be part of the planting.
I am aware that many concerns have been raised about the bridge, and who would be able to use it and when, so let me clarify some points. While the bridge will principally be a footbridge, it will be open to all, although cyclists will be asked to dismount when crossing it. That is consistent with other footpaths in this area, such as those along the South Bank, and is simply to ensure the safety of pedestrians.
The Minister might be aware that the Ramblers, an organisation that is not known to oppose anything that will help people to be able to walk, has made it clear that it opposes this, because one condition of going on to the bridge will be that people will not be able to be led in a group, so it would not be able to take its groups across the bridge. Many different conditions have been put in place. This is not just going to be a garden or a bridge, and it certainly cannot be called a garden bridge.
I was aware of the Ramblers’ objections, but the bridge is certainly planned to be open to all. It will include step-free access and there will be no charge to use it. I am aware of a media report that there will be bans on large groups, but I understand that that is not correct, although they will be encouraged to phone in advance to find out the best times for a large group to visit. There is no ban on large groups. The bridge will be closed at midnight, in line with local attractions and transport facilities. Again, that is consistent with other parks in London, although some of them close earlier, at dusk.
There will also be some days, or parts of days, when the bridge is closed. These days will be limited. The purpose will be to ensure that income can be generated to ensure that the maintenance of the bridge is self-funding. There will be a maximum of 12 of those days through the year. There are concerns about the use of the land on the South Bank, which have been clearly articulated in the House, and I certainly sympathise with residents’ concerns about the loss of some of the trees in this area. However, the Garden Bridge Trust plans to plant more than 270 trees on the bridge, as well as thousands of bulbs and plants, to create a tranquil place, which I hope would be used by residents in the area.
I understand the concerns that the hon. Lady has clearly articulated about how the trust is being run, how public money is being spent and how much transparency there is around this project, but there have been several reports on and investigations into this project. The London Assembly has reviewed the procurement process, the National Audit Office has reviewed the project and is currently reviewing the Department’s grant control measures, and the Charity Commission is looking at how the trust is run as a charity. We have never sought to make any secret of these investigations. I can go further by saying that the fact that they have taken place demonstrates the robust scrutiny that has been applied to this project to ensure it is being run properly and that we get the best value for money for the taxpayer.
None of this scrutiny would have taken place just because the NAO decided to do it. These things have happened because local people, local councillors, myself and others who are campaigning were so concerned about what was happening that we asked the NAO and Greater London Authority members to investigate. The investigations are still going on, so this has not been completed. The fact that this is being investigated is not any sign that there are not huge problems, and I think that all sorts of things will emerge when the process is finished.
I recognise that there are many questions to answer, but the idea that this project has not had scrutiny at local council, London Assembly or national body level is not quite fair. The procurement process itself has certainly been reviewed, and no significant faults found with it. The hon. Lady mentioned that the trust has not published its accounts, but the trust has made lots of information about its expenditure public on its website. The trust has a funding agreement with TfL, which is available online, and it will be publishing its annual report and statement of accounts later this year.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. I must say that Earth has nothing to show more fair than the view from some of London’s bridges. Does he not agree that, over the years, London’s bridges have had houses, markets and shops on them? People have traded on them. They have been not just thoroughfares or tarmac arches in the sky, but glorious and marvellous examples of how to live, work and sell in the space above the river. Can the Government not be a little bit more proactive and positive and say that this is going back to one of the great glories of our city when there were occupied bridges and floral arches from one bank to the other—what a marvellous vision? I urge the Minister to articulate his views more strongly.
I would always struggle to match the oratorical flourishes and style achieved by the hon. Gentleman. I certainly agree that, when we see magnificent bridges around the world including in London, they are inspiring sights. I recognise entirely his wise words about the views from London bridges. As one looks up and down the river, the views are positively marvellous. Whether they are the best views in the world is a little open to question. I suggest that some of those could indeed be in the Harrogate area.
We all have our individual favourite views. We have had interventions and speeches across the House this evening with people championing particular transport investments in their areas. Everybody here has projects that they wish to see progress locally, but I hope that no one doubts the Government’s commitment to investment in transport. It is very hard to play off one scheme against another for comparison purposes, as we would be comparing different modes of transport in different regions. The bottom line is that Members are always right to speak up for their areas. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), who is no longer in his place, they are also always right to speak up for hedgehogs.
The scheme to which I referred in Hull—electrifying the train line—involved private sector money. It was not going to cost the Treasury or the Department for Transport; the money was there from the private sector, yet the plan has been sitting in the Department for two years waiting for a decision.
I understood the hon. Lady’s point. All I can say is that some projects are very complex as they have a mixture of public and private finance, and in some cases, it takes a very long time to get projects out of the development phase and into construction. That is a comment not on the individual project that we are talking about here, but on projects overall.
In conclusion, although I recognise and understand the concerns raised by the hon. Lady and other Members in the House today, the garden bridge is a unique and exciting project. The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) has asked whether I could be much more euphoric in my language. Well, it is certainly an opportunity to showcase the ambition, creativity and talent that exist in this country. We see it in so many examples, and transport is one area in which we lead the world.
The Minister has said very little about some of the important criticisms that I made of the procurement process and the fact that scrutiny from City Hall was done by a company that was involved with the garden bridge. Can he tell us, in the secrecy of this Chamber, that he has no concerns about some aspects of the project? If, as we hope, the bridge project fails, will he lose any sleep?
I see this as a project that could well enhance this magnificent capital city. It has to be done correctly. I have not been involved in the process up to now. As the hon. Lady knows, the Minister who was responsible is my noble Friend Lord Ahmad. Would I lose sleep over it? Well, if it is done correctly, it could be an opportunity to enhance what is already a wonderful part of our wonderful capital.
I see many examples around our country where people are a little cautious, perhaps a little sceptical, about projects, but sometimes when those projects come to fruition or start being built, people row in behind them and realise just what they can be. This could well be one of those cases. I hope we will have a project to show that London is a thriving, creative, bustling, ambitious city with all the talent in the world. It will show that London is open for business, and the Government wish it every success.
Question put and agreed to.