The Garden Bridge: A great headline, but a costly folly

It is unlikely to garner too many headlines, but today sees the Transport Select Committee debate funding of river crossings in "the regions." It is one that reminds us that, in the Capital at least, our priorities when it comes to bridges and tunnels are completely out of whack. 

I have written about the proposed Garden Bridge on these pages before.

Originally costed at £150 million, to be funded by private contributions, the Garden Bridge will link the Temple on the north bank of the river with Bernie Spain Gardens on the South Bank. Now, there’s little practical use for the bridge. The Temple abuts Blackfriars Bridge on one side and Waterloo Bridge on the other, so the likelihood of anybody using it for purely practical reasons is unlikely – particularly as both of those bridges are serviced not just by taxis, buses and have space for bicycle travel. Thanks to the bend of the river, the gap between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge on the South Bank is even shorter. There are 7 pedestrian crossings in the stretch from Westminster to the City of London, and one more – which will preclude cyclists, the fastest growing mode of transport in London – is simply unnecessary, regardless of how assuredly pretty it will look. It will have no public right of way, it will close at night, and you won't be able to cycle on it.

But what is particularly striking is the fact that this Garden Bridge is now set to cost taxpayers at least £60 million - £30 million from a newly generous Treasury, and £30 million from City Hall. Taxpayers could also be hit by a £3.5m bill for annual running costs.

Critics have begun to emerge from the bushes (sorry). Even the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have their doubts – and there are certainly questions on the environmental impact of the bridge.

But on a purely practical basis, where we do need additional river-crossing capacity is far further east, away from the tourist hotspots of central London. As London expands, new housing for the millions of people working in the city will need to be built, and unless we relax restrictions on the green belt or on height and view restrictions in central London, the vast majority of that housing is going to have to be built in east London. So unless we undertake an overdue liberalisation of planning, new property in east London looks like the only realistic way we’ll see house prices in London remain even remotely affordable for people on average to low incomes. But as Andrew Adonis has pointed out at length, the only way this will happen is if the transport infrastructure is in place.

Currently, we rely on just two tunnels east of Tower Bridge before we get to the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford. That’s plainly not enough to facilitate road travel across the two sides of the river – both tunnels are gridlocked, or worse, at rush hour. The Emirates Cable Car (cost to taxpayers: £24 million) has been precisely as useful as anticipated – in one week last year, it was shown to carry a grand total of four commuters. Allowing commuters to traverse the river in east London would create exactly the kind of economies of scale that would allow business to boom in an area that has for too long been deprived.

The point is this – if London is going to seriously address the cost of housing in the city, it needs to build out. That requires infrastructure, and infrastructure spending. In a time in which there is not a particularly plentiful pot from which to draw that spending, you have to spend it very wisely indeed. If you’re going to build a bridge, it must deliver real value – not in abstracts like “tourist numbers” but in clear benefits for Londoners and for London. It’s hard to see that in the Garden Bridge – it’s easy to see in plans for an East London crossing like the proposed Silvertown Tunnel or a bridge between Greenwich and Newham to relieve pressure on the Blackwall Tunnel.

We haven’t shown much forward planning when it comes to river crossings in London. Let’s hope the Transport Select Committee think hard about how not to make the same mistakes elsewhere. 

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