One of my first planning committee meetings, back in 2002, was to approve the London Eye as a permanent fixture on the capital’s skyline. I recall a sense of pride and uncertainty in the room. Initially thought to be just a temporary structure, it’s easy to forget the early controversy that surrounded it. Many opposed its size, quirkiness and its location opposite Westminster’s iconic palaces and democratic heart.
A few months ago, Lambeth’s planning committee considered an application for the Garden Bridge. I’m sure they had a similar sense of trepidation as I had 13 years ago. Were they giving the go ahead for a project destined to become a fabulous addition to the Thames for generations to enjoy? Or an expensive project promoted by a London Mayor in a rush to leave a legacy before his term comes to an end in less than a year’s time?
There remains a very important unanswered question: how will the bridge be paid for? No matter whether you’re for or against, it is difficult to justify Transport for London (TfL) funding the project to the tune of £30m. The Mayor characterises the Bridge as a transport scheme in order to raid TfL’s coffers. The Bridge may do many things, but how can it be argued it will significantly boost walking? It is in the wrong place for that, sandwiched between two other crossings. And as cyclists will be banned, it will do nothing to get people out of their cars and onto bikes. So while it might have other merits, it is surely wrong for TfL to issue a blank cheque, particularly given the financial pressures they face from the Chancellor.
The London Assembly have rightly called for the Mayor to cancel TfL’s contribution and are now turning their attention to the Mayoral candidates who may oversee its construction.
So what is Lambeth council’s role?
First, we are the independent planning authority. We granted permission in December 2014 but this was conditional on the fulfilment of 45 specific terms. It means that the bridge can go only ahead if the planning committee is satisfied that the Garden Bridge Trust has complied with all these conditions. Those conditions range from construction, provision of toilets and plans to accommodate the number of potential visitors. The Judicial Review that followed the decision led to the Mayor underwriting the maintenance of the bridge should the business case fail. It did not query any aspect of Lambeth’s decision making and we will continue to work by those high standards.
Second, the south landing of the bridge will need to touch down on land we own, currently leased to Coin Street Community Builders. The terms of the lease would need to be varied if the bridge is to go ahead. Over the next few months, I need to be convinced that Lambeth residents will be advantaged, not disadvantaged, by the renegotiation. The Mayor’s £30m contribution from the public purse will be uppermost in my mind.
It is true that Lambeth could pull the plug on the project now by refusing to enter into negotiations. But that feels very alien to a Lambeth that has increasingly played a bigger role in shaping our city. London is an ambitious city, known for giving space to big ideas and creative projects. Lambeth spent far too many years in the past being known as the place where such ambitions were blocked rather than realised.
The Garden Bridge is a creative idea but I am clear it can not come at any cost. A trick has been missed on its location, and with a more flexible approach by the Garden Bridge Trust an alternative could have been found. Critically, Londoners know that public finances are stretched – they feel it every day. Ultimately the London Eye succeeded, winning over hearts and minds early on, because it was funded entirely from private sources. The Mayor and future Mayoral candidates should learn from that fantastic project.
In the meantime, Lambeth will continue to challenge and shape the Garden Bridge to see if it can become the Eye of the future.