The row over the tender process for London’s Garden Bridge has escalated after it was found that Transport for London officials met the designer four times ahead of the official start of the procurement process.
No other firms had been invited to tender before February 2013.
But documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request by the Architects Journal and reported on by the BBC, show designer Thomas Heatherwick first met officials on 24 September 2012, along with the London Mayor Boris Johnson.
Last year we reported how one critic said the procedure was "back to front”, seeing Thomas Heatherwick appointed designer for the £175 million project.
The actress Joanna Lumley, who has championed the project, wrote to Mayor of London Boris Johnson – whom she says she has known since he was four years of age – in 2012 to urge him to back the plans.
Ms Lumley, who in her 2004 autobiography described the designer’s work as “of incomparable originality” congratulated Johnson on his re-election, and said: “Heatherwick and I would very much like to meet you in the near future to talk most earnestly about the idea of a bridge.”
Critics of the bridge claim that a subsequent invitation in 2013 from Transport for London (TfL) to Heatherwick Studio to be one of three firms to submit designs – the winning one, it transpired – circumvented usual procedures, with Michael Ball from the Waterloo Community Development Group describing it as “back to front.” -
At the second meeting on 17 December 2012, Mr Heatherwick had a "next steps" meeting, followed by a planning proposal meeting on 31 January 2013 and yet another meeting followed that on 1 February 2013, again with Boris Johnson attending.
Will Hurst, managing editor of the Architects Journal said he thought "the process smells very bad".
He said: "What alarmed me was that Wilkinson Eyre and Marks Barfield [the other two firms invited to take part in the procurement process] were outscored by Heatherwick on bridge design experience.
"I thought how on Earth can that be fair given that Heatherwick had only designed one tiny bridge in Paddington. The other two firms had designed many, many bridges."
A spokesman for the Mayor of London said: "An audit of Transport for London's procurement process has already found that it was open, fair and transparent...
"Work on building the bridge is due to begin this year and is widely supported by Londoners."
Last year we reported how among further concerns is that TfL’s invitation to tender did not contain a reference to a “garden bridge” – rather, it asked for “design advice to help progress ideas for a new footbridge crossing of the river Thames.”
That has led Michael Ball from the Waterloo Community Development Group to note: “There’s no mention of a garden, or indeed a garden bridge, so Heatherwick wasn’t being procured to design a garden bridge. How on Earth did this slide to become the main gig?”
Prof Christopher Bovis, an expert on procurement who has advised the UK government and the European Commission on fair process compliance, said: "The procurement process of the Garden Bridge is littered with procedural irregularities. It is not one of the best examples of a procurement process in the UK."
The three firms involved have declined to comment and there is no suggestion that Thomas Heatherwick was at fault.
The public will be liable for the bridge’s annual £3.5m maintenance bill – on top of an initial £60m towards construction costs from the Department of Transport and Transport for London.
The Garden Bridge Trust has said it has raised £85 million in additional funding and £20 million of TfL’s costs will be repaid over a 50 year period.
Joanna Lumley says that she is the person responsible for the decision to exclude cyclists from the proposed Garden Bridge, arguing that their presence would prevent it from being ‘a peaceful place to walk’. The bridge will also be closed between midnight and 6am with groups of more than eight people having to apply for permission to visit.