Thames Cable Car
Would TfL have pursued the Garden Bridge project if the Thames Cable Car hadn’t gone ahead?

They’re often both damned as Boris Johnson vanity projects – but recently-released documents have revealed how TfL’s ability to fund the Thames Cable Car sparked City Hall discussions about building the controversial Garden Bridge.

In the interview, former TfL planning director Michele Dix reveals that a Royal Docks developer offered to sponsor a transport project – which enabled the scheme, which carries Emirates airline branding, to go ahead in the first place.

The proposal for a privately-operated bridge across the Thames, which would have run from Temple tube station to Gabriel’s Wharf on the South Bank, collapsed last month after costing over £37m of public funds.

Former mayor Johnson had backed the scheme after being approached by actress Joanna Lumley with the idea. His successor Sadiq Khan initially supported it, but withdrew guarantees to cover running costs after commissioning Labour MP Margaret Hodge to review whether it offered value for money.

Now transcripts from Hodge’s review are being released into the public domain under the Freedom of Information Act.

The interview with Dix sheds new light on just how the cable car, which charges premium fares and has struggled to attract regular users, came to be built in the first place.

Garden Bridge
The Garden Bridge was finally cancelled in August

She told Hodge that she was called to a meeting with Johnson, Lumley, former TfL boss Sir Peter Hendy, Johnson’s deputy Sir Edward Lister and City Hall transport boss Isabel Dedring to find out “how we’d raised money for the cable car”.

But she does not name the developer that funded the early work on the cable car, which was originally supposed to be entirely privately funded. But just as with the Garden Bridge project, it ended up soaking up millions of pounds in public funding – £14m from TfL’s rail budget and £8m from the European Union, together with a £36m ten-year sponsorship deal from the Emirates airline.

In 2011, London’s first mayor Ken Livingstone told Labour party supporters that he rejected a cable car scheme because it would not be financially viable. The scheme, as built, is only likely to finally cover its costs if a new sponsorship deal is agreed when the Emirates one runs out in 2022.

Dix told Hodge:

I was called to a meeting with Peter to meet Joanna Lumley, I think the Mayor was there, and Isabel, Ed Lister, I think Thomas Heatherwick was there, but I can’t remember.  

And at that meeting it was to say, “We’ve got this idea about how you could take this idea forward”, and the reason that we were invited to the meeting is because we had done the cable car.  And what they were interested in is how we’d raised money for the cable car, because the cable car was one of these projects that was originally ‐ there had been ideas for a cable car in the vicinity of the Greenwich Peninsula, but we had no money for a cable car, but it was consistent with a package of crossings in that area, it would provide the pedestrian/cycling link to complement the Silvertown Tunnel.  

But there was no money until there was an offer of sponsorship by a developer in the Royal Docks for a scheme.  

And the response to that sponsorship was, “Do you want to sponsor something like a cable car?” and in the end that’s what we did, we got sponsorship for the cable car so that we could take that forward.

We obviously did the development work and we got the planning permission and we got an 8 million grant from the EU and then the rest of the money came from the sponsorship, so there’s lots of criticisms of the cable car about its use, but because it’s  paid for, so if you want to use the cable car you pay for that trip, it’s actually all revenues cover its costs and there’s not many parts [of the transport network] where that’s the case.

If you said it was just part of your Oyster Card system and part of a zone, you’d probably get more people use it but less revenue, and then you’d be criticised for it not covering its costs.  

So it was trying to do two things, provide a crossing for local people, provide a crossing until such time as other things could be built, use money that people were wanting to give us in order to provide a crossing. Importantly, it provides resilience to the Greenwich Peninsula, so when something happens to the Jubilee Line you can get across to the DLR.

But it was that experience they wanted to understand, “Well how did you do that?”  

So we went to the meeting and I explained what we had done on cable car and how we had taken it forward, how we’d got the powers, et cetera.  

And the interest was in sponsorship.  And then we were asked, if we were to be involved in helping promote a bridge, what would we do?  

Despite Dix linking the cable car with the proposed Silvertown Tunnel – which, if approved, will not permit pedestrians or cyclists to use it – TfL was initially resistant to suggestions that it should alter the fares structure on the Emirates Air Line to allow easier access across the Thames.

However, in documents recently released by the Planning Inspectorate, Newham Council has said it would accept a revised fares structure on the cable car as a substitute for a planned “cycle bus”, which TfL has offered local councils in an attempt to show it is providing something for all transport users with the scheme.

The London SE1 website has been following the release of the Garden Bridge transcripts. London Reconnections is making the transcripts searchable.

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