Legal action in the High Court today took a step nearer over plans to obliterate public open space on which to build the landing for a 366m pedestrian ‘garden bridge’ over the River Thames.
The legal challenge to the garden bridge has been taken by a Lambeth resident who claims the decision last month by London Borough of Lambeth to vary a lease of the public open space was unlawful. The open space was created as part of the Jubilee Walkway along the River Thames, and was opened by HM Queen in 1988. The variation of the lease by Lambeth Council would enable its obliteration by a 8,500 sq ft building for the bridge landing, including 4,000m2 of commercial space.
Lawyers for Jenny O’Neill, who lives close to the site on the South Bank in Lambeth, are arguing that Lambeth Council failed to properly consider the loss of the public open space or its status as an Asset of Community Value, a new designation under the Localism Act intended to protect such assets from disposal. They also claim that Lambeth Council acted improperly and ultra vires in seeking to directly gain a “windfall income stream” from the commercial development of open space for which it is a custodian.
The plans for the Garden Bridge show it spanning the River Thames between Temple tube station on the north bank and the Queen’s Walk on the south bank. Construction on the £175m bridge, which would be managed by the Garden Bridge Trust, was due to start last year but has been delayed by numerous setbacks including a £32m funding gap on construction costs.
Ms O’Neill, who lives close to the site, has consistently opposed the development, and made both written and oral representations to the planning committees and other meetings with councillors.
Initially registering 80% approval with the public in 2013, when the details of the Garden Bridge were largely unknown, the most recent and comprehensive poll shows that over 60% of Londoners don’t want the bridge built. The plans are opposed by local residents and councillors, Kate Hoey MP, and representatives from all parties on the GLA. Concerns include the impact on views of St Paul’s, the impact of an estimated 7m visitors on the already busy South Bank, and the use of £60m of public funds from TfL and the Treasury towards the project.
New Mayor of London Sadiq Khan last week spoke in support of the Garden Bridge, but demanded greater transparency and a reduction in the number of days the privately owned bridge would be closed for corporate and sponsorship events. He also promised not to divert any further public funding towards the project. The previous Mayor Boris Johnson promised to issue a guarantee underwriting the £3.1m maintenance costs, which is a requirement of the planning permission and the Port of London Authority approval. However, the guarantee was never issued by Mr Johnson, and cannot be issued by Mr Khan without potentially diverting millions of pounds of additional public funds.
Ms O’Neill is a former community education worker, and a member of Thames Central Open Spaces, a group formed to campaign against the Garden Bridge. Ms O’Neill on why she was bringing the case:
“The impact of the Garden Bridge will be devastating on local residents, on the South Bank, and on London. The best views of the City and St Paul’s will be compromised from Waterloo Bridge and entirely blocked along the South Bank, one of the great promenades of Europe and London’s most popular walking area. With football-match sized crowds blocking the riverwalk, and long queuing times predicted, even Transport for London admit it will become ‘very uncomfortable’ on the South Bank, and could end up dangerous.
But it is the absolute loss of 30 mature trees a beautiful piece of green open space opened by the Queen that I object most to. Around 800 people live close to the site in social housing, most without gardens. The South Bank and its precious green space is our garden, which we proudly share with Londoners and visitors from around the world.
We stand to lose our South Bank garden in return for a private bridge with no right of way, closed once or twice a month, and with restricted access. But even this is not guaranteed: with £3.1m annual running costs – four times the cost of maintaining other London bridges – we all may end up picking up the tab.
I have been particularly aggrieved at the manner in which this proposal has been handled by Lambeth Council, with one councillor taking the decision in private, despite numerous promises that this would be a public decision taken at a public meeting where the public could make clear their opposition. The manner in which Lambeth have sought to avoid its responsibilities towards Assets of Community Value and its role as our custodian of open space is despicable.
Decisions as important as this need to be taken properly and got right, for Londoners now and for coming generations.”
Bernadette Hillman, Head of Planning London, Shakespeare Martineau, acting on behalf of Jenny O'Neill said:
“Take a second look at the project, beyond the hype, designs and CGI visuals, and it is clear that this project remains shrouded in legal complexities that need serious rigour applying to them by way of a thorough review.
The groundswell of public support, coupled with the insight given by multiple experts associated with this project, are testament to the fact that this project needs a clear and comprehensive audit that can lay bare the ongoing uncertainties surrounding the proposal. In particular the funding gaps and role of private and public sources, the restrictions over private use, constraints on public access, the status with Lambeth and Westminster councils, not to mention the physical and urban repercussions this will have at either end of the bridge.
We are asking the court to quash the decision and to send the project back to Lambeth Council for much more careful consideration. This needs to happen before significant changes are made and actions that have been based on inaccurate information and insight become irreparable.”
1. The Evening Standard’s ongoing poll has had nearly 4,500 respondents, 61% against the Garden Bridge. 13,000 people have signed petitions against the bridge which have been submitted to Lambeth Council.
2. The Garden Bridge was granted planning permission in December 2014 by Lambeth and Westminster Councils, subject to 46 planning conditions, including agreeing a s106 legal agreement with both local authorities which would include a guarantee from an appropriate body to underwrite the £3.1m annual running costs of the bridge. Whilst Mayor of London Boris Johnson agreed to provide such a guarantee in June 2015, subject to details to be agreed, but the guarantee has never been finalised and remains outstanding. Other approvals are still required from the Port of London Authority and the Maritime Marine Organisation. There remains a funding gap of £33m on the £175m construction costs.
3. The land on which the Garden Bridge would arrive at the South Bank was opened by the Queen in 1988 and belongs to Lambeth Council, with a long lease to Coin Street Community Builders to maintain it as public open space free from commercial activity. On 24th March 2016 Lambeth Council entered into negotiations with Coin Street Community Builders and the Garden Bridge Trust to vary the lease to enable a 68m X 17m South Landing building to be constructed on the site. The building would contain stairs and lifts plus 8 toilets for the expected 7 million visitors annually, as well 410m2 of commercial space. Lambeth Council and Coin Street Community Builders propose to share the windfall income profit from this element of the bridge.
4. Ms O’Neill is crowdfunding the action at www.everyclick.com/tcos