The collapse of the Garden Bridge project in London has sparked fevered discussion in the capital. However, it has similarly served to reignite the debate of how public funds are being used and, perhaps more significantly, where transport infrastructure is being built.
Last week, the £200 million project to build a Garden Bridge in central London was abandoned. Despite Joanna Lumley’s ambition to create a “floating paradise” in the centre of the English capital, the project had become financially unsustainable, especially after Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, withdrew public support.
In April, Margaret Hodge, chair of the public accounts committee, had written a report recommending that the project be scrapped. £37 million of public money had already been invested in the scheme and the mayor’s decision to withdraw further public funding has essentially put a halt to the proposal.
When the idea was conceived, George Osborne, the then chancellor, committed £60 million of public money to the scheme with the remainder intended to arrive from corporate donations. However, the Garden Bridge trust failed to raise the necessary private investment – only securing £69 million in private pledges, leaving a deficit of at least £70 million, with no fresh pledges since August 2016.
Advocates of the project had argued that it would add economic value to the capital, serving as a tourist attraction as well as a useful pedestrian link but critics have questioned its purpose as well as the reasons behind using public money to fund a project that, when completed, would be privately operated.
In this sense, the bridge not only serves as a symbol of the difficulties of successfully blending public and private enterprises but perhaps more significantly exposes a wider issue relating to the gap in infrastructural spending between the North and the South, with London receiving what critics feel is a disproportionate share of public money to fund infrastructural projects aimed at further enhancing the economy of the capital.
Within recent years, discussions around new transport projects such as HS2, Crossrail, the third runway at Heathrow have placed further emphasis and focus on the capital. In July, plans to electrify the Leeds-Manchester railway were shelved just a few days before a new £30 billion Crossrail 2 scheme in London and the south-east was announced.
Whilst these policy announcements have been seized upon by opposition parties as a tool to berate the current government, analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) revealed that the stark split in infrastructure spending reflects a broader trend. London receives 54.2% of total transport spending – with the gap amounting to approximately £1,600 per person. The total spend on Crossrail alone (£4.6 billion), for instance, exceeds spending on all current projects in the North (£4.3 billion).
Solutions are not simple. A rail line will not suddenly generate a more balanced economy; another runway will not suddenly absolve an area of all its economic frailties; extra spending won’t necessarily help create the oft-mentioned “northern powerhouse”. Furthermore, developments such as Crossrail 2 should not be eschewed if they are perceived to have wider national economic benefits. However, these schemes have to be pursued in a manner which examines how the nation can benefit holistically in the long term, rather than narrowly focussing upon short-term benefits. Nor should they be funded at the expense of separate regional developments such as the electrification of the TransPenine way or HS3.
Unfortunately, politics and time are rarely compatible. And it will take time for Britain’s economy to be more united; parties need to cooperate so that changes in government or alterations to cabinets do not result in delays to the unifying process. London will always be Britain’s driver of growth – it would be foolish to work against the capital – but if projects such as the Garden Bridge cannot even connect the North and South banks of the river, what hope is there for the nation more generally?