Where it all went wrong for the Garden Bridge

The project to build a ‘Garden Bridge’ across the Thames in central London, which was killed off in its current form this week, is a waste – of time, energy and taxpayer’s money. But the principal reason not a single hole has been dug for this bridge is because its backers spectacularly failed in their lobbying – and this failure says a lot about the importance of having a decent campaign strategy.

The bridge itself was not doomed from the start. Cities across the world often build infrastructure which is hardly vital but looks good (and draws in tourists). Having a giant ferris wheel opposite the Houses of Parliament may not help many people get from A to B, but the London Eye is now a fixture of the London skyline. But three mistakes made this project unlikely to happen.

Firstly, the campaign to get it built got the tone all wrong. The bridge was to be built with public money, albeit with greater private funding. Despite this, however, on certain occasions the bridge was to be shut to the public – to host private events that would help pay for its construction. Ordinary men and women whose taxes paid for the bridge would not be allowed on it whilst corporate parties, probably from financial services firms because who else could afford it, quaffed champagne in public view. In post financial crash London, this jarred; more importantly it poisoned the debate over the construction of what on the surface seemed an uncontroversial, mostly privately-funded addition to London’s riverside.

Secondly, the campaign’s mystifying decision not to get local residents onside made things worse. Although the Garden Bridge Trust managed to get planning permission on both sides of the river, a noisy, effective campaign from those living near the Southbank caused Lambeth council to have second thoughts. The bridge had plenty of high-profile (and even popular) supporters, particularly Joanna Lumley. But Lambeth council does not answer to Ms Lumley.

Perhaps one of the problems with Lambeth Council was that it was Labour run. This highlighted the third and biggest mistake the Garden Bridge Trust made, which was to only engage with well-disposed, powerful supporters – all of whom appeared to be Conservative. Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor, was a particularly vociferous supporter. No attempt appeared to have been made to obtain cross-party support for the bridge. This was an astonishing oversight for a multi-year infrastructure project: did nobody at the Garden Bridge Trust ever think that voters in London may return a Labour mayor?

For a while their links to the Conservatives helped the Garden Bridge Trust. The National Audit Office revealed that both David Cameron and George Osborne had intervened when in government to push the project forward. Mr Osborne, as editor of the capital’s only newspaper, the Evening Standard, is still a vocal supporter. But these cosy, chummy relationships with the Tories meant that soon as Sadiq Khan won City Hall for Labour in 2016, the chances of the bridge being built moved from shaky to virtually dead.

There were no downsides for Mr Khan in halting public support for the bridge. He could cast himself as a thrifty fiscal conservative, taking difficult decisions over every penny spent. Attacking privileged access for the rich caught the public mood. And he could happily put the boot into the legacy of Mr Johnson. Even so, Mr Khan bought himself political cover by asking a respected Labour colleague, Margaret Hodge, to review the bridge’s value for money. Ms Hodge’s devastating report had two effects: the first to strengthen Mr Khan’s hand, the second to chip away at private financial support for a clearly doomed project.

So, the bridge won’t be built (at least not anytime soon). The whole expensive fiasco, which has cost over £30m in public money, is an object lesson in not tying the fortunes of a campaign with a long-term objective to one politician or political party. It is a lesson in understanding who will be able to help or hinder you achieving your aim, and ensuring that at the very least you have built relationships with these people. Most of all, it is a lesson in making sure that any campaign you begin isn’t fundamentally flawed from the outset.