According to the latest Charity Commission press release published on 9th April “Garden Bridge project was a ‘failure for charity’ that risks undermining public trust”. The truth is that one can point in at least four directions as the source of undermining public trust over this catastrophic series of events and the charity itself is arguably only one small part of this undermining of public trust. Indeed the undermining of public trust was largely only made possible by the other two or three areas. I would argue that the first of these was the charity commission itself who allowed a private company founded by very powerful people with rather unrealistic ideas to become a charity and therefore to gain credibility in the public setting. Had they refused to do grant them this status, the prospect of this problem taking place would have diminished very significantly. This is because along with the wider credibility that an organisation gains from being recognised as a charity, it can also potentially obtain an additional benefit from the public sector. If the Government (Transport for London) Department and Mayor of London (Boris Johnson) combined handed 43 Million Pounds over to a private company with no guarantee of the job being completed there would have been a great deal of questioning. Indeed less than three years later the same Government Department granted a contract involving a much smaller sum to Seaborne Freight but refused to hand over any money until the arrangement was in place! Yet giving such huge sums to a favoured charity can be seen by Ministers and Mayors as being a lot more credible, even if the charity is unrealistic on some levels. The fourth area of failure is of course the Trust itself. However wheras the Mayor of London and Transport for London and Charity Commission are public bodies, it is the directors of the trust who arguably are least accountable, even after they became Charitable Trustees. The funds involved amount to £53.5m of which £10.5m came from non public sources, £24m from Transport for London and £19m directly from the Mayor of London. Both of these latter sums were called for and endorsed by Johnson although clearly he would have needed to persuade Patrick McLoughlin to come up with half of the Transport for London payment, the other half would have come from funds directly available to Boris as Mayor at the time.
The Garden Bridge Trust company was established on 30th October 2013 and it was adopted as a charity by 8th January 2014 which represents 47 working days which is a very fast response by comparison to many other charities. Add to that the fact that three of the four charitable objects which were set out by the Trust relate to the construction of the bridge itself and the impact on its surrounding area seems to raise all sorts of questions. Based on my decades of charitable activity it is very hard to see how these three objects were approved by the Charity Commission as being charitable objects. The first object states as:
The charity’s objects are restricted specifically to the following:
4.1 To provide and maintain a garden style footbridge spanning the River Thames (the Garden Bridge);
However the final one was:
4.4 To advance public education, training and retraining, in particular with regard to horticulture, arboriculture and associated sciences and the history, culture and architecture of London.
Clearly if the last object was the only object, it would be an acceptable basis for a charity but then of course it would not have justified the building of a bridge. However the charity commission needs to consider much more carefully such requests as indicated in the three objects which all relate to the building of a bridge. It seems very important that the Charity Commission along with Boris Johnson and Patrick McLoughlin are held to account with at least as much focus as the 11 Trustees and Directors of the Bridge Trust.