When described, the proposed Garden Bridge suspends in our minds as a mythical and enchanted intertwining passage between Temple and the South Bank; an escape from the racket and pollution; a tranquil sanctuary; a pedestrian’s paradise. Without doubt, this is an image that may momentarily fill any of us with anticipation.
However, would you pay £60 million to experience it? It appears not, with a growing number of Londoners and commentators questioning its validity and relevance. ‘Thames Central Open Spaces’ argues it is not needed, is in the wrong place and is detrimental to local residents. It appears that Temple Tube would be shut for 6 months causing travel headaches and, in a particularly Kafkaesque move, more than 30 established trees would be cut down and precious green space on the South Bank would be sacrificed to build it.
It is essential to highlight what the Garden Bridge would imply for each and every tax payer in this country. Indeed as the weeks go by, welcomed opposition to the Garden Bridge is blossoming and rightly galvanizing debate.
Despite initially being presented as privately funded, this £175 million project designed by the ever popular Thomas Heatherwick and supported by national treasure Joanna Lumley, will require £30 million from City Hall and £30 million from a benevolent Treasury. The escalating cost does not stop there, with maintenance charge projections costing the taxpayer £3.5 million each year.
With this extensive use of public funding, one would expect at the very least an efficient bridge that carries out its most basic function of connecting us from A to B. However, it appears that the Garden Bridge is not intended for this type of movement. Instead its focus is to create in the words of Joanna Lumley ‘a tiara on the head of our fabulous city.’ Now I admire Joanna Lumley as much as the next person, as an actress she quite literally is ‘absolutely fabulous’ and her work to promote the plight of the Ghurkhas was superb. But that shouldn’t mean that every cause she supports is right or should be sanctioned without scrutiny or question.
For the most part, the Garden Bridge will not be a true public right of way, denying the access of cyclists and contradicting network of safe cycle routes in 2013. Groups of 8 or more crossing the Garden Bridge are prohibited unless permits are obtained -hardly a welcoming tourist strategy. Alongside this, the current opening hours between 0600 and 0000 are likely to change in the future with inevitable closure of the entire bridge for corporate days and events. In what way is this publicly funded suspended garden catering to the needs of the people who have put it there?
The key element, though, is the opportunity cost.
Why not spend this money on infrastructure that is so desperately needed to support burgeoning housing development in east London, simultaneously assisting economic growth and business development into previously poorly-served areas, as my colleague Andy Silvester has written about here. Surely the long awaited plan for a pedestrian bridge at Nine Elms that would complement the development of 20,000 new homes is a greater priority and healthier use of funds than the self-indulgent ‘vanity project’ of the Garden Bridge. This lavish spending of taxpayers’ money on a tourist attraction just 300 metres from another perfectly good bridge is irresponsible. Even as a tourist attraction there remains significant questions - according to Westminster planners “there can be little doubt that the garden bridge will cause significant harm to established views of importance.”
I cannot help but ask, if you were to question a thousand Londoners what their top priorities are for a better way of life what do you think they would answer. Better housing, improved transport links, more policing, less traffic? Most certainly not excessive and decadent spending on a glorified garden that could easily undergo construction without a real public debate.
This is a project that needs to be given some hard pruning before its seeds take root and bolts into a tangled and ugly mess for the taxpayer.