A garden bridge over the Thames has been approved by the mayor of London but doubts remain over who will meet its substantial annual running costs.
The bridge has attracted criticism for the £60m of public money it will cost to build, despite initially being privately financed. It will have estimated running costs of £3.5m a year, which Westminster council has asked Transport for London (TfL) to act as guarantor for as a condition of granting it planning permission.
The London mayor, Boris Johnson, has insisted TfL will not do so but nevertheless expressed confidence on Friday that construction could begin next year. “The garden bridge will provide a fantastic new landmark for London whilst supporting regeneration and economic growth on both sides of the Thames,” he said. “It will create a stunning oasis of tranquillity in the heart of our city and boost our plans to encourage walking in the city.”
The 367 metre (1,200ft) crossing from Temple to the South Bank with a public space and garden was the idea of Joanna Lumley and has been designed by Thomas Heatherwick, who created the petalled Olympic cauldron.
A number of concerns have been raised about the bridge, including the £30m that TfL and the Treasury will each pay towards the project, whose overall projected costs are £175m. Critics have claimed it is in reality a private space, not a public one, because it will close one day a month for fundraising events, as well as every day between midnight and 6am; cyclists will not be allowed to ride over it and groups of eight or more will have to request a formal visit.
St Paul’s Cathedral has argued that the bridge would have “irreversible impacts on some of the most iconic views [of the cathedral]”. With visitor numbers expected to reach 7.1m a year, peaking at 30,000 on Saturdays for a bridge with a capacity of 2,500 people, safety concerns have been raised.
Michael Ball, director of the Waterloo Community Development Group warned that the South Bank could not take the strain of further visitor numbers and said the Metropolitan police should have been asked to investigate the capacity of the bridge to take the strain. “We already have 22 visitor attractions on the South Bank; it’s one step too far,” he said.
Despite Johnson’s announcement, Ball said the question mark over the annual running costs meant it was not a done deal. “We are not quite where Boris wants everybody to think.”
Wai-King Cheung of Thames Central Open Space, another group campaigning against the bridge, said: “The decision is no surprise but [deputy leader of Westminster council] Robert Davies categorically stated garden bridge won’t be built unless a guarantor can be found to pay for maintenance costs in perpetuity.
“Boris has refused to allow TfL to commit to this, therefore the Garden Bridge Trust has the huge task of finding a public body or a very unwise benefactor who is able and willing.” The group was considering a judicial review.
A spokesman for the mayor said: “The Garden Bridge Trust has clear plans in place to secure funding to cover all maintenance and operating costs for the bridge and the mayor has made it clear that TfL has no intention of picking up the bill. TfL will work with Westminster, Lambeth, the Garden Bridge Trust and a range of other organisations to agree the most appropriate way forward.”