“Whoever wants to conceal a big scandal, best stage a small one.” (Friedrich Dürrenmatt)
Is there any better evidence of the UK government’s inability to build bridges with Europe than the fact that it can’t even agree on building a bridge across the Thames?
It’s a scandal that £53.5m (£43m of public money) has been wasted on the failed scheme of the Garden Bridge across London’s River Thames – without a single piece of construction work having taken place and at a time of austerity when health care, for example, could have used the money better. Who pocketed £53.5m?
Transport for London (TfL) has querulously pointed out that the eventual cost was “significantly lower” than it could have been. In other words, much more could have been pocketed before the project was abandoned. Serious questions remain about how the project was able to consume so much money, and the extent to which the then London mayor, Boris Johnson, talked it up with his cronies.
In 2017, Sadiq Khan, the current Mayor of London, said Londoners should be “very angry” about the amount of public money already spent on a scheme that had become increasingly controversial. He added, “I have been clear since before I became mayor that no more London taxpayers’ money should be spent on this project, and when I took office I gave the Garden Bridge Trust time to try to address the multiple serious issues with it.”
Khan asked a former Commons public accounts committee chair to investigate whether the bridge represented value for public money. Published in April 2017, the report recommended that the plan be scrapped. It identified multiple failings and argued that the business case for the bridge was “incredibly weak” and based on unconvincing evidence, and said it had been given special treatment under the support of Johnson as mayor.
Now if this doesn’t resemble that other public scandal – Brexit – what does? “Value for public money”? “Case incredibly weak”? “Based on unconvincing evidence”? Boris was partly responsible for this fiasco too, the current cost of which to the British economy is £40 billion a year.
Against this background, the government is prioritising mental health services. The NHS has just announced that there will be an additional £2.3 billion investment a year by 2023/24 which will support some 350,000 more children and young people, and at least an extra 380,000 adults over the next five years.
Boris’s £43m of public money could have been put towards this far more worthwhile initiative in the likely event that a great many politicians will need trauma counselling when HMS Brexit finally runs aground.
Of course, by then the skipper on the bridge and all her dodgy lieutenants will long have abandoned ship.