GARDENERS’ QUESTION TIME

Maybe a glorified paddling pool was the most fitting tribute to our ‘Queen of Hearts’; the Diana Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park, which opened to an underwhelming fanfare in 2004, was, like the public image of the woman it was supposed to be a tribute to, an impressive triumph of style over substance. In the years immediately following the premature death of the former Princess of Wales, many such fanciful schemes were suggested, some considerably abstract and bearing little obvious relation to the woman herself. Perhaps the unintentionally hilarious statue of Diana and Dodi in Harrods was at the forefront of the minds concocting these prospective memorials.

Joanna Lumley, an actress who doesn’t seem to act very much anymore, suggested a ‘floating paradise’ as one more bizarre tribute to Diana barely a year after events in Paris; this somewhat vague concept eventually morphed into the notion of a bridge that also doubled up as a garden – with or without the Diana brand attached to it. Following her successful campaign to gain Gurkhas the right to settle in the UK, Lumley suddenly had a public platform that proved immensely attractive to politicians hoping some of Purdey’s star quality would rub off on them. One such politician was the ex-London Mayor Boris Johnson. Riding high on the PR victory of the 2012 London Olympics, Bo-Jo gave the green light to what became the London Garden Bridge project.

Ah, yes – the Garden Bridge. It is now officially an ex-bridge, bereft of life and all that. The ambitious (if rather impractical) idea of another shortcut across the Thames that would serve as a novel rural facsimile in the heart of the capital looked good on paper, yes; but the proposed location wasn’t a part of London in desperate need of another bridge and the locals whose lives would be disrupted by its protracted construction weren’t even consulted as Boris took it upon himself to be the project’s salesman; when he gained planning permission in 2014, Johnson’s record in facilitating the ongoing despoiling of the capital’s skyline by constantly ruling in favour of developers over opposition didn’t give cause for optimism.

Initially, the public were told the bridge would be financed by private investors, but the struggle to raise the required funds necessitated the diverting of taxpayers’ money into the project – a total that now stands at around an estimated £46.4m. As Chancellor, George Osborne promised Boris £30m from the public purse, and a chunk of that squandered cash found its way into the black hole of the Garden Bridge courtesy of David Cameron; Dave ignored the advice of his civil servants by throwing more taxpayer’s money at it when the failure of recruiting enough private investors revealed a £56m shortfall in the accounts of the trust set up to handle the lucre.

The Garden Bridge had its critics from day one; they viewed it as an expensive vanity project that could be to Cameron’s Government what the Millennium Dome was to Blair’s. Its proponents, such as chairman of the trust, Lord Davies, claimed the Bridge would be a ‘beautiful new green space in the heart of London’; but it’s not as though Central London, for all its traffic bottlenecks and overcrowded pavements, doesn’t already have an abundance of spacious parks and green squares to breathe in – most of which have been part of the London landscape for well over a century.

The Garden Bridge could well have gone ahead as a felicitous white elephant for Japanese tourists if enough private investors had been prepared to pay for its construction as well as the projected £3m a year needed for maintenance once open; but for so much public money to have been squandered on ‘a public space’ without public consultation is outrageous, especially now the whole thing has been abandoned.

A review into the project chaired by Dame Margaret Hodge was severely critical of the methods of raising money for it and also of Boris Johnson for his inability to justify the public expense; Hodge’s conclusion was that it would be better to call time on the Garden Bridge before any further costs were unwittingly incurred by taxpayers. Johnson’s successor as London Mayor Sadiq Khan has finally pulled the plug on it following the findings of the review, though some say he could have spared even more expense had he done so earlier; his predecessor claims Khan has killed the Bridge out of spite, saying ‘The Garden Bridge was a beautiful project and could have been easily financed’, though his own failure to finance it without regular recourse to the public purse hardly backs up his response to the Mayor’s belated decision.

As another cheerleader for the Garden Bridge, even Lord Davies admitted earlier this year that the project was not currently ‘a going concern’. The trust still hadn’t purchased the land on the South Bank of the Thames that would serve as the bridge’s southern landing and no private investors have been persuaded to part with their pennies for a full twelve months. The total provided by private investors is alleged to be around £70m, though how much of the public money wasted on the project was spent on courting potential private investors is unknown.

Ultimately, the London Garden Bridge can join a list of other intended attractions for the capital that never made it beyond the drawing board, though some came closer to succeeding. Watkin’s Tower, London’s planned answer to the Eiffel Tower in the 1890s which, had it been completed, would still be taller than the Shard, made it as far as 154ft before being abandoned and then demolished, eventually making way for Wembley Stadium. But it’s interesting to note that one of the proposed ideas for the Wembley site prior to the partial construction of the Tower was a replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza, in which food would be grown in hanging gardens. Perhaps the committee responsible for the Garden Bridge should have studied their London history books beforehand.

© The Editor

LOCAL VOTES FOR LOCAL PEOPLE II

LondonSo, as they say, the polls have closed and the results are in. How does the return to public office of once-disgraced ex-Tory Minister Neil Hamilton (capturing a seat for UKIP at the Welsh Assembly) reflect the political map of the country? Well, let’s start up at the top. The Liberal Democrats have embarked upon their road to recovery…by maintaining their reliable dominance in the Orkneys and the Shetlands. Not a great surprise, really. After all, former Liberal leader Joe Grimond held one of the most distant Parliamentary seats from Westminster at Orkney and Shetland for over thirty years and was a lifelong supporter of Scottish Home Rule. With the loss of their traditional fan-base down in the West Country, the faraway Scottish isles remain one of the last outposts of liberalism in the UK; had the Lib Dems lost there, they may as well have gone the way of the Whigs. Mind you, the Scottish mainland wasn’t as accommodating, where the party was pushed into fifth place by the Greens.

Nicola Sturgeon and her one pair of earrings (it took a woman to point that out to me) claimed a third straight win for the SNP in the elections to the Scottish Parliament on Thursday – even if, for the first time, the win didn’t give them an outright majority. That’s not really news, though; nobody expected a Nationalist collapse just as nobody expected the bad losers of 2014’s Independence Referendum to stop carping on about another vote on the same subject. One suspects they’ll keep carping on about it, however many times Scotland goes to the independence polls, until they eventually get what they want.

The biggest shock north of the border by far was the fact that the new opposition to the SNP is none other than the Conservative Party. Yes, you heard right. The Scottish Tory has been on the brink of extinction ever since the calamitous 1997 General Election, yet by building on their electoral disaster in Scotland last year, Labour have unexpectedly been replaced by the Tories in second place. It’s certainly a remarkable turnaround in Tory fortunes as well as an embarrassing indication of just how far Labour have fallen in what was once one of their key heartlands, with new Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale faring no better than her hapless predecessor Jim Murphy. Whatever the Labour PR machine says in the days following this latest kick in the tartan goolies, there’s no glossing over the fact that the party is perilously close to being completely finished in Scotland.

Labour remarkably failed to win any of the nine constituency seats in Glasgow, something not even Jeremy Corbyn’s fiercest critics anticipated. Yes, it may be true that the decimation of Labour in Scotland took place while Ed Miliband was at the helm of the national party; but Jezza has managed an impressive achievement by being even less appealing to the Scottish electorate than Red Ed. It’s certainly hard to imagine Labour returning to power without the strength in depth that Scotland traditionally gave them, so the council seats they retained in England seem little more than a mere short-term bulwark against Corbyn’s critics. The fact that HM Opposition tends to gain rather than lose seats between General Elections, a tradition even Michael Foot upheld (as the media keeps reminding us), leaves Labour stuck in an uphill battle to reconnect with voters beyond London and the big northern cities, with Sadiq Khan’s predictable mayoral victory over Zac Goldsmith in the capital reflective of the party’s metropolitan popularity.

At least Labour continues to control Wales, though a 24% swing to Plaid Cymru in the Rhondda leaves Labour facing a considerable hole in its previously-impregnable Welsh fortress. There were also seven regional Welsh seats won by UKIP, including the aforementioned return of Neil Hamilton, celebrating his triumph as usual with his minder…sorry, wife…by his side. The Lib Dems polled badly in Wales, losing all but one of their seats there as well as their Welsh leader Kirsty Williams, whereas the Tories were sandwiched between Plaid Cymru and UKIP, an unappetising snack if ever there was one. Mind you, at least the media focus on the local elections has enabled the Government to bury a bit of awkward bad news following one more post-Budget U-turn, this time on the plans to convert all schools to academies.

Have we really learnt anything from this batch of elections that we didn’t already know, then? The Conservatives suffered less than a party in government usually does; and Labour didn’t experience the national disaster some had predicted, even if falling behind the Tories in Scotland is a once-unthinkable humiliation. Not quite ‘as you were’ in that particular case, but more or less ‘as you were’ everywhere else. Roll on June 23.

© The Editor