Dame Margaret Hodge, the former head of Parliament’s spending watchdog, has been asked by Mayor Sadiq Khan to lead a review into the Garden Bridge project.
As Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Dame Margaret repeatedly made headlines for her robust scrutiny of ministers, civil servants and senior business figures.
The Barking MP also gained an international profile after tackling US giants Starbucks, Google and Amazon about the low levels of tax paid by their sizeable UK operations.
On Thursday Mayor Khan’s office announced she would use her considerable expertise to review the procurement and tendering of the controversial £185m footbridge which will link Temple with the Southbank.
Opponents of the bridge have criticised what they see as its adverse impact on views of the river, while others have questioned why the project was awarded to Heatherwick Studio despite it having less experience in designing bridges than rival bidders.
Although intended to be mainly funded by private donations, the Garden Bridge has benefited from £60m of City Hall and central Government funding, in addition to a guarantee issued by former Mayor Boris Johnson to underwrite its maintenance costs in perpetuity.
Despite being critical of the project before his election as Mayor, Mr Khan has since refused to pull City Hall’s support for the bride arguing that scrapping it would cost the taxpayer more than allowing it proceed.
Mr Khan’s office says the Hodge review will “look in detail at the procurement process around the project, and whether required standards have been met around transparency and openness going back to the beginning of the project.”
The terms of the reference for the review include assessing whether value for money has been achieved for taxpayers, investigating the conduct of Transport for London and Greater London Authority officials and setting out any lessons which could improve “the conduct” of future projects.
A report will be presented to the Mayor which Mr Khan has committed to publishing “in full”.
Announcing Dame Margaret’s appointment, Mayor Khan said: “Margaret Hodge is hugely respected for her work scrutinising some of the UK’s largest and most high-profile publicly funded bodies.
“There’s no better qualified person to get to the bottom of the procurement process around the Garden Bridge, and establish whether Londoners have been getting value for money since the project began.
“I am absolutely clear that no new London taxpayers’ funds should be committed to the Garden Bridge, but I’m also determined that the Garden Bridge review helps the project achieve higher standards of accountability and transparency it has so far been lacking.”
Commenting on her new role, Dame Margaret said: “It’s not a project that I have previously had an opinion on either for or against, but given the millions of pounds of public money allocated to the project, it is clear that there needs to be far more transparency around how funds are being spent.
“The planned bridge is a major project in an iconic part of London, and there are clearly questions that remain unanswered around issues like procurement.”
Today’s announcement has been welcomed by Labour and Liberal Democrats on the London Assembly.
LibDem AM Caroline Pidgeon commented: “I welcome this latest review into the Garden Bridge which I hope will pick up from the excellent inquiry undertaken by the London Assembly.
“However the Mayor cannot hide behind this latest review as an excuse for not taking any action. ”Although it was not his decision to start this project he increasingly makes excuses and apologies for the mess first started by Boris Johnson.
“It is time Sadiq Khan finally said he will not underwrite any taxpayer funded bailouts for the maintenance of this project.
”His current stance of providing a permanent taxpayer bailout to pay for the maintenance of the bridge while claiming to never provide any further public funding for the project is utter nonsense and indefensible.”
Labour’s Tom Copley said: “The Garden Bridge has been dogged by scandal and a lack of transparency since its inception, so I welcome the Mayor’s appointment of Margaret Hodge to conduct a review into the project.
“This is a marked contrast with his predecessor, who did nothing to clear up the murkiness surrounding it. The London Assembly found major issues with the lack of openness and transparency in the procurement process.
“Large sums of taxpayer’s money have been committed to this project, and so it’s vital that the public have confidence that their cash is being used properly, not being fritted away frivolously on a Boris Johnson vanity project.”
Conservative AM Andrew Boff commented: “Personally I would scrap the Garden Bridge tomorrow if I were Mayor.
“The London Assembly has closely examined every aspect of the Garden Bridge project, and the procurement process was never the real issue.
“Ultimately we’re left with a Mayor who was originally opposed to the Garden Bridge, then in favour so long as no more taxpayer money was spent on it, now he has chosen to waste time and money on a review.
“Given he has held every position possible on the Garden Bridge he should just pick one and finally make a decision.”