Johnson's Bridges to Nowhere: Six Lessons from History
With Boris Johnson’s promise of great infrastructure projects, Will Jennings looks at the Prime Minister’s track record for what could lie ahead.
During the 2019 General Election campaign, people would frequently point at Boris Johnson’s period as Mayor of London to illustrate his seriousness as a leader, and his ability in managing complex issues and acting as political figurehead.
However, Johnson’s period as Mayor was littered with disastrous decision-making, leaving a trail of debt and damage.
From an appalling “deal” with West Ham over the Olympic Stadium, to the purchasing of three unusable water canon later sold for scrap with a £300,000 loss, and leaving us with 1,000 expensive and clumsy buses which have benefited nobody except the designer Thomas Heatherwick.
But it’s another project by the same designer, in partnership with Johnson’s family friend Joanna Lumley, that represents his real legacy as Mayor of London.
The Garden Bridge was intended to become a grand project which Johnson hoped he would be known for; a new Thames pedestrian crossing crowned with two unlikely copses of trees, an Instagramable memorial to his mayorship. However, four years after its announcement, and with £43 million of taxpayer money expended without a single JCB deployed on its construction, the bridge was cancelled.
Its absence, and the messy trajectory from idea to disappearance, make the Garden Bridge a powerful symbol of Johnson’s time as Mayor and is a case study for lessons in how a Johnson Government may behave, especially in the north of England where the Conservatives have achieved a unique electoral victory and promised to invest.
For the ‘Community’ – But Which One?
A stated “gift” to Londoners, the Garden Bridge was to be located not where a crossing was actually needed and had little vocal public support.
The privately-owned bridge would not have been open all day, frequently closed for corporate hire, with heavy surveillance and a queuing system for access.
Planning documents said it would help the “local community”, but with the local co-op housing residents mounting legal action against the project, it became clear that the intended community was of nearby corporations using the bridge in marketing, and luxury property developments selling multi-million-pound apartments to offshore investors.
LESSON 1: Look beyond Johnson’s spin of doing things for people or community and look to see who genuinely benefits from his decisions.
Environmental Pretence: Greenwash
In an era of climate breakdown, arguably all Government policy should be viewed through an ecological lens.
CGI images portrayed the Garden Bridge as an ecological Eden, promising fresh air and birdsong. In reality, Johnson’s Garden Bridge would have seen 15,000 tonnes of concrete wrapped in Glencore-mined metals which would have destroyed an existing public park and removed a series of grand plane trees in favour of a Disney-like “green experience” of planting which wouldn’t absorb a fraction of the carbon dioxide emitted on its construction.
LESSON 2: The look of green is not enough with our precarious climate, and we must not allow Johnson to cover up environmentally damaging decisions with greenwash trickery.
Transparency: The Charity Blanket
Infrastructure would normally be managed and constructed through the Government or local authority, but Johnson shipped responsibility for the Garden Bridge to a new charity without political agency or oversight.
Charities are not subject to Freedom of Information requests, which led to opponents and journalists struggling to get true information on funding, costings and programme updates.
LESSON 3: There is a risk Johnson will devise similar strategies to divert Government spending into arms-length or charitable bodies, removing scrutiny, oversight and democratic agency.
Costs – Who Will be on the Hook?
Initially, the cost of the Garden Bridge was announced at £60 million – all funded from private donations.
By the time of its eventual cancellation, the bridge costs were “north of £200 million” including £60 million from the Department for Transport and Transport for London, with the public ultimately liable for the annual £3 million maintenance.
LESSON 4: Look out for Johnson announcing grand gestures without details or costings, knowing that increases or debts will only become evident further down the line, after he is no longer Prime Minister.
5. Using and Abusing Journalists
The Garden Bridge PR campaign, as well Johnson’s time as Mayor of London, relied upon uncritical support from London Evening Standard newspaper. It relentlessly promoted him and his vanity project, to the frustration of readers who knew to look behind the spin.
It took a few ethical journalists in the national press – particularly the work of Will Hurst in The Architects’ Journal – to shed light on the ongoing debacle and bring it to public awareness.
In return, Johnson called his critics the “Taliban of beauty” and slandered Hurst, claiming his four years of critical and award-winning Garden Bridge investigative journalism was “a stream of abuse” motivated by a personal dislike for the designer.
LESSON 5: Johnson could seek to shut out and attack journalists who try to uncover truths, while aligning tightly to media which supports him unwaveringly.
6. The Good News: He was Defeated
With Johnson now leading a Government with a large majority, the processes and decision-making which led to the Garden Bridge could be wrought across a much wider area and with far greater financial and environmental risk.
The good news, however, is that the public, journalists, experts and politicians tirelessly worked together to untangle fact from spin, and ultimately force the halt of the Garden Bridge.
It is that solidarity, ethic and clarity of awareness through the lessons learnt above which will be critical as Johnson seeks to impress himself into the landscape and communities of the north.
LESSON 6: The absence of the Garden Bridge should serve as both a warning from history and a powerful sign that people can take back control to prevent damage being inflicted upon their homes and community by the new Prime Minister.
Will Jennings is a writer and artist and one of the many successful opponents of the Garden Bridge. He tweets @willjennings80