Over the last few days news has emerged regarding two very different Government sponsored projects which were each high profile, albeit for different reasons and which have now been curtailed, also for different reasons. Both led to the potential for large sums of public money to be spent, one of which we have been told will now cost us nothing, although it is very early on in the termination cycle to be certain of this and the other of which has cost us a huge amount that has been spent in a very unclear and unaccountable manner. So the two projects demand more public explanation than currently exists. In one sense neither has any direct bearing on the residents of Sussex or our Sussex politicians, but in another as taxpayers and as people who are concerned about how the Government and its officials operate we have every reason to be better informed.
The most recent of the two cases is the Seaborne Freight contract which had reportedly cost nothing but was due to cost around £14m a year had it taken place and the first was the Garden Bridge Trust which was cancelled some time ago but is now being disclosed as having cost us £43m according to a recent report. This sum was partly matched by £10.5m which came from a range of private sources. Both of these schemes involved the same Government Department, the Department for Transport that awarded Seaborne Freight a contract to reopen a roll on roll off ferry service between Ramsgate and Ostend and paid £19m to the Garden Bridge Trust to create a new bridge across the River Thames! Had the ferries been launched the Seaborne contract was said to be worth £13.8m but because it was cancelled over the last few days, the claim is that the DfT has paid nothing out and will not need to do so. The balance of public funds supplied to the Garden Bridge Trust have come from Transport For London that paid £24m and they have claimed that the sums paid out were lower than they had anticipated! There are similarities between the two projects as in both cases, although some planning has taken place, there is little indication of any work having taken place.
In the case of the Garden Trust we have now been told that a sum of £21.4m was paid to a French based construction company which has a British subsidiary called Bouygues UK that is described on its website as “one of the country’s leading construction companies. The company focuses on sectors where it is particularly well positioned to add value through its technical expertise, skills and experience, drawing on the talents of the wider global Bouygues Group where relevant. Through its construction teams and its development business .. is behind some of the UK’s most significant projects”. The company over the last three years had an average turnover of £500m and a loss of £30m so presumably our money has helped to reduce its debts. What is not clear is where the rest of the £32m has gone and given that 80% of the money is public money, it seems worthwhile finding this out. It also seems strange that such a large sum was released to the Trust without some meaningful safeguards, however the reason admitted by Boris Johnson is that he signed a directive in early 2016 to reduce the checks and balances. The directive was signed at the same time as he was deciding which side of the referendum he was supporting. According to his responses he cannot recall why he signed the directive so perhaps recalling back that far is a challenge for someone as busy as Boris. One wonders if that would act as a reasonable argument for asking the rest of society to recall why we voted as we did and perhaps asking us to reconfirm our views!
In the case of the Seaborne Freight contract, although the Government claimed it would only pay for the work if the ferries arrived and departed on a regular basis, one of the elements of the scheme was to dredge Ramsgate harbour and it was widely reported that this would take 12-16 weeks, so given that the contract was cancelled a week ago and that Brexit is due in 6 weeks, this would suggest that 5-7 weeks dredging has taken place. It seems concerning that a building company that has built no bridge has received £21m while a dredging company that has dredged half of a harbour has not been paid a meaningful sum!
PS – following on from the writing of this article for the Argus it was then disclosed here that our Government has spent £800,000 of public money (some 6% of the proposed Seaborne contract) on the due diligence checks, which is amazing considering that nothing that the checks revealed had anything to do with the contract being cancelled!