George Osborne ‘avoided official channels to fund garden bridge project’

Posted On: 
17th January 2016

George Osborne sidestepped official channels to offer Boris Johnson the funding for his garden bridge scheme in London, parliament’s spending watchdog has found.

The Observer reports that the finance given for the infrastructure project may not have been ratified if normal processes had been followed.

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The National Audit Office (NAO) said the public money distributed for the initiative is potentially at risk, and there is a “high degree of uncertainty” regarding the scheme’s value for money.

The Chancellor granted approximately £60m of taxpayers’ cash to the bridge. With private donations added, the project itself is thought to cost £175m.

Sir Amyas Morse, of the NAO, in a letter to MPs said of the project: “It is important to note that the results would not in normal circumstances suggest a compelling value for money case.

“The department’s own quantitative analysis suggested that there may or may not be a net benefit and, especially once concerns over deliverability were taken account of, the project might well not have met the department’s normal threshold for allocating its finite funds.

“In this context it is important to recognise the wider context, particularly: the initial funding commitments were made by the Chancellor to the Mayor of London, without the DfT’s involvement.”

The letter added: “The garden bridge is expected to be predominantly financed through private donations.

“However, public money was transferred at an early stage in order to allow expenditure on pre-contract award activities with a view to kickstarting fundraising efforts.

“While this rationale is clear, the timing puts the public sector… at a higher risk than private finance sources of funding proving abortive.”

Meg Hillier, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, had tasked the NAO with examining the Department for Transport’s decision to provide £30m to the project.

This came alongside £30m donated from Transport for London.

The watchdog found that the money had been agreed because Mr Osborne had already pledged to cough up the funding.

The NAO stated “should the project fail, the department is at risk of having obtained no substantial benefits in return for its grant”.

Labour MP Gareth Thomas called on the Chancellor to justify the use of public coffers to invest in the bridge.

He said: “At a time of deep public sector cuts, this money could have been spent on countless other projects where the business case has already been proved.”