Plans for a garden bridge over the Thames could be put in jeopardy after local councillors broke with their party leadership to demand renewed scrutiny of the decision to hand a section of the South Bank to a private trust.
A group of councillors in Lambeth, the local authority on whose land the south side of the £175m bridge would be built, have rebelled against their Labour leadership to challenge the decision made last month to support the scheme.
The application to formally call in the decision, seen by the Guardian, accuses the council leader, Lib Peck, of allowing no oversight or accountability in giving the land in one of London’s most busy tourist districts to the Garden Bridge Trust (GBT), the charity behind the the Thomas Heatherwick-designed project.
The submission calls the decision unaccountable and argues it was not properly scrutinised, either legally or by councillors. Endorsing the project, which has a £30m shortfall in the private donations needed to build it, exposed the council to potentially significant costs in a period when it was making significant cuts, it adds.
The submission from the unidentified councillors is based in part on an internal Lambeth document, also seen by the Guardian, which hints at significant political and legal pressure for the council to approve a project heavily backed by the government and London’s mayor, Boris Johnson.
In this document council officials warn the leadership that blocking the bridge could lead to an expensive legal challenge. “Whether any such challenge is likely to succeed is debatable, but where large sums of money are at stake the threat of legal challenge is likely to be used as a means to bring the parties back to the negotiating table,” it warns.
The request to call in the matter is understood to have been refused in the first instance as it was lodged too long after Peck’s decision was made. However, the councillors involved plan to apply again when the land transfer actually takes place. If successful, it could delay for several months initial work on the bridge, which is due to start early next year.
It marks another hiccup for a project touted by its proponents, including the actor and GBT trustee Joanna Lumley, as a new icon for the capital that should be embraced by everyone, but which has nonetheless attracted significant opposition.
Those sceptical of the planned structure, stretching from the South Bank to Temple and featuring 270 trees and thousands of other plants, argue it is a waste of public funds for a section of the Thames already replete with crossings and, on the south side, full to bursting with tourists.
While the GBT has pledged to raise £115m of the cost from private donations – it has so far reached £85m – the remaining £60m will come from public funds. Of this, £30m is a grant from the Department for Transport, with another £30m from Transport for London (TfL), £20m of which is a loan repayable over 50 years.
While Westminster council, on the north side, has always backed the bridge, Lambeth appeared to scupper it in September by pulling out of negotiations because of concerns about the public money involved. In November Peck reversed this decision, citing the decision to make part of TfL’s grant into a loan.
The project still faces several obstacles, including a complex and ongoing planning process. The relevant land owned by Lambeth is already leased to a community housing group, Coin Street, which must approve its transfer to the GBT, an issue understood to be causing divisions within the organisation.
There is also mounting opposition in the Greater London Authority, where the leaders of all four parties represented – the Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems and Greens – are against the bridge.
Delays could prove problematic for the GBT both in terms of attracting the remaining private donations and keeping construction costs under control.
Work was initially due to start in the new year, but is now billed as happening in the spring. The internal Lambeth document detailing the legal worries also outlines the council’s understanding that if work does not begin by March the GBT may have to renegotiate building contracts, increasing costs.
The trust said delay clauses were standard in such contracts, but it could not comment further.
A trust statement said the project was making strong progress, with preparatory work due to begin in the spring, and construction of the bridge itself in the summer. “This is the timetable we are working to, with the agreement of Lambeth council.”