Confusion and secrecy "cast shadow" on Garden Bridge contract

The procurement process for the design of London's proposed Garden Bridge was "unfair", and the designers who lost out to Thomas Heatherwick should be reimbursed for their time, a political oversight body has concluded.

Artist's impression of the Garden Bridge. Image: Supplied
Artist's impression of the Garden Bridge. Image: Supplied

The Greater London Authority Oversight Committee's report into the design procurement of London's proposed Garden Bridge, released today, is the culmination of four scrutiny meetings and intensive investigations.

In February 2013, Transport for London (TfL) invited three companies to tender for the design contract for a "pedestrian footbridge" from Temple to South Bank. The three organisations were Marks Barfield, Wilkinson Eyre and Heatherwick Studio. In April, Thomas Heatherwick's Heatherwick Studio was awarded the contract, valued at £60,000.

It has since been revealed that London's mayor Boris Johnson (who is also chair of TfL) and his team met several times with Thomas Heatherwick prior to the procurement process beginning to discuss the concept of a garden bridge. That included a meeting in San Francisco to discuss corporate sponsorship of a bridge with Apple executives, which both Johnson and Heatherwick attended.

The report, which has the support of six of the nine committee members, found that the mayor "should have been more upfront about the range and nature of contacts between his office, TfL senior management and Heatherwick Studio".

It also says there were a series of procedural errors in the procurement process, and the final published audit failed to address the original objective.

The report states that the evidence gathered on failures of process led the committee to "conclude that the objectivity and fairness of this procurement process was adversely affected by these actions, which casts a shadow on the ultimate outcome".

Len Duvall, chair of the committee, said the whole process was "badly handled from start to finish".

"TfL started work without a clear idea of the extent of its eventual involvement, which led to confusion among staff and managers in the early stages of the project. The Mayor's Private Office was less than honest about where he was, what he was doing there and why," he claimed.

"In fact, the situation probably appeared worse than it actually was – due to the secretive and defensive nature of various responses from TfL and the Mayor. Also, because there was confusion about the purpose of the bridge, the two other companies tendered for a pedestrian bridge contract. This was unfair – only Heatherwick Studio was fully aware of the desire for a 'Garden Bridge'.

"What should be a great tourist attraction, has been tainted by the dodgy design procurement process. Whether the Garden Bridge can overcome its controversial beginnings, will remain to be seen."

In his foreword to the report, Duvall emphasised that the investigation was into the procurement process, rather than the concept of the bridge itself, saying the principle of a Garden Bridge is "sound".

The recommendations include:

- TfL to consider reimbursing the unsuccessful bidders from the Garden Bridge design contract to compensate them for the time and expense incurred in preparing their proposals for a pedestrian bridge.

- The Mayor's office should compile written records of all meetings the Mayor holds with external bodies, including clarity about what capacity he is there in.

- Where major, priority projects are commissioned by a future Mayor and are not in the Mayor's Transport Strategy, that the Mayor implements them by directing the TfL Board.

- The TfL Audit & Assurance Committee should publish audit reports in full, not just the summary and conclusions as is now the case.

The report is the view of a majority of the Committee including Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green London Assembly Members. The GLA Conservatives did not support the conclusions of the report.

Transport for London has not yet responded to a request for comment on the report's findings.

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