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Garden bridge across London’s River Thames hits troubled water

The planned Garden Bridge over the River Thames has hit troubled water.

Thomas Heatherwick/Heatherwick Studios

When then London mayor Boris Johnson unveiled plans for a garden bridge across the River Thames in 2013, the idea seemed inspired.

The pedestrian footpath would be a kind of "oasis of calm" with winding trails, 270 trees, 27,500 ferns and grasses, and 72,000 flowers. Construction would create more than 200 jobs, private donations would cover most of the £150-million ($241-millon) costs and the government pledged to kick in £60-million. The project even had the star-powered backing of actress Joanna Lumley and famed designer Thomas Heatherwick.

This wouldn't just be a bridge, Mr. Johnson declared. It would be an "iconic piece of green infrastructure."

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The bridge isn't looking so inspired anymore. Construction is nearly two years behind schedule, costs have soared to £185-million and the new London mayor, Sadiq Khan, has ordered a review to decide whether the project is worth it.

There has also been a groundswell of local opposition, with community groups launching petitions and filing a court action to try to block the bridge. Opponents say the pathway will restrict views of St. Paul's Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament and cause overcrowding on city streets around the bridge entrances.

"There are already nine bridges spanning two miles between Westminster and London Bridge, seven of which can be crossed by foot; that's more than plenty," said the Thames Central Open Spaces, a community group opposed to the bridge.

Another blow came on Tuesday in a report from the National Audit Office, an independent agency that reviews public spending for Parliament. The NAO was asked to look into the status of the project, which is managed by the Garden Bridge Trust, and how the £60-million in government funding was being spent (half of the money comes from the Department of Transport and half from the city of London).

The report noted that the trust had yet to secure land on the south side of the river for the bridge and it said the organization may not be able to pay for the £3-million in annual maintenance costs. It also found that Department of Transport officials weren't convinced the bridge was even needed.

"The department's view was that the bridge was predominantly not a transport scheme and did not align with any of the department's specific policies," the report said.

The NAO also raised concerns about the government's financial backing of the bridge, noting that ministers kept making commitments despite concerns among bureaucrats about the risks. Critics have argued that the bridge was a vanity project for Mr. Johnson, backed by his colleagues in the Conservative government. Mr. Johnson is now a Tory member of Parliament and a senior cabinet minister.

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"There remains a significant risk that the project will not go ahead," the report concluded. It added that if the bridge isn't finished, taxpayers will have lost £22.5-million in pre-construction costs.

In a statement released Tuesday the trust said it welcomed the oversight from the NAO.

"It is right that there is scrutiny of the project because it involves public money and transparency is good for us at an uncertain time," the trust said. "The Garden Bridge Trust has made strong progress with its partners in discharging nearly all its planning conditions, completed detailed pre-construction work, and has nearly £70-million of private money raised with more announcements in the pipeline."

The trust acknowledged that it is still seeking £56-million in donations. It added that part of the £60-million in government money was a loan and that the final taxpayer commitment will be £20-million. "London's Garden Bridge will be a stunning new public garden and a vital new pedestrian crossing," the trust said.

That hasn't satisfied opponents to the bridge.

"It is an unnecessary expenditure and will have little benefit to Londoners," said Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats. The TaxPayers' Alliance called on the government to stop funding the project.

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Transport Minister Tariq Ahmad said the government remained supportive of the bridge. "Ministers took into account a wide range of factors before deciding whether or not to make funding available," he said in a statement. "The taxpayer, however, must not be exposed to any further risks and it is now for the trust to find private-sector backers. We will consider the NAO's findings carefully."

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