Stella Smith: A major lesson of the Garden Bridge is you have to respect the opposition

A charity has to be able to demonstrate it is providing a benefit that outweighs costs, writes our columnist

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

So farewell to the Garden Bridge. The image of trees gracefully arching over the Thames in central London are to remain only an artistic impression. There is a great deal of debate about how the project got so far and how the Garden Bridge Trust, the charity set up to build and run the bridge, spent £37m of public funds without actually constructing anything. While that discussion simmers, a brief review of the initiative provides a case study on what not to do when setting up a charitable enterprise.

First, the trust's dependency on a few sources of funding, particularly from the government, was a risky strategy. Any successful charity needs diverse funding streams. The wider the range of people willing to invest and put their name to a project, the more credibility the project has and the more attractive a proposition it becomes.

Developing relationships with a range of people is essential. For the trust to apportion blame to the Mayor of London for the failure of the project is disingenuous: if a charity fails because funders do not support it, that is not the fault of the funders. No matter how great a project is, people are not obliged to fund us. If the Garden Bridge was not getting the necessary support, a wiser response would have been for the trust to sharpen its relationship-building skills and reconsider its proposition.

A charity has to be able to demonstrate it is meeting a defined need, providing a benefit that outweighs its costs, but the need for the Garden Bridge was never clear. The challenge of crossing the Thames was solved some time ago and there was no public clamour for another bridge, even one with a herbaceous border. The trust claimed the bridge would attract tourists, but it seemed a huge price to pay for the privilege. The overriding perception was of a solution looking for a problem, a "nice to have" rather than something that was really needed.

The idea for a garden bridge came about nearly 20 years ago and was very much of its time. In 1998, Titanic was showing at the cinema and we hardly knew what the internet was, let alone Facebook. Fast forward to 2017, with 24-hour news on Brexit, the Grenfell Tower tragedy and terrorist attacks, and a garden bridge seems at best frivolous: one cannot help feeling there are more pressing priorities for public money. When we get too enamoured of our own project, we lose perspective. Times change, people move on, the public mood shifts. Our initiatives must be relevant to today.

Perhaps, though, the trust's greatest mistake was its clumsy response to community opposition. The way in which the project seemed to march forward - regardless of the views of local people - looked high-handed and arrogant. If you ignore resistance it intensifies, so you have to listen. That does not mean you have to agree, but you have to show respect, especially when the criticism comes from such a key group of stakeholders. It is conceivable that if the trust had spent more time listening to people, it might have got the support it needed.

In any case, this vision of the bridge is now history, but at least it has provided lessons to the charity sector on what not to do. I just hope that's not all we get for the £37m.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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