Don’t eat the bad fruit from the Garden Bridge tree...

...the failure of ‘a’ charity is not a failure of ‘charity’. One high-profile failure pushed by big name backers simply does not equate to the public losing trust in charities as a whole.

The Charity Commission has released its report on the Garden Bridge Trust, with Commission Chair Tina Stowell pronouncing that the debacle ‘represents a failure for charity’ that ‘risks undermining public confidence in charities generally’. This flawed narrative is not only detrimental to the sector as a whole, but misses the point.

Unfortunately, the Garden Bridge scandal is just the latest chapter in an increasingly warped discussion about ‘trust in charity’ which masks the real issues. Delving into the details of the case can illuminate what’s really going on here.

Politicians playing fast and loose

Right from the get-go many critics were questioning the usefulness of the Garden Bridge project. We now know more about the role of Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London and the head of TfL, in pushing the project forward. There were also ‘unorthodox’ tendering practices and Chancellor George Osborne circumvented official oversight channels within the Department for Transport (DfT) to pledge £30m funding for the project.

A central factor in the collapse, according to the Charity Commission’s recent report, was the failure of the Greater London Authority (GLA) to underwrite the future maintenance of the bridge as originally agreed, because the political administration had changed. Trustees might have done more to assess this risk, they were not in control of it, and it ultimately had nothing to do with ‘charity’ – it was about politics.

What should we be talking about instead?

In hindsight, it’s clear this was a vanity project that wasted millions in taxpayers’ money. But it was not driven by ‘charities’ or ‘the charity sector’, and its major flaws weren’t even necessarily down to charity law or governance. It failed because it was driven by the ambitions and decisions of certain politicians, agencies and ‘the great and the good’. The legal form of charity was, if anything, apparently abused as a way of isolating policymakers and politicians from risk and responsibility. That’s the real scandal here.

The Commission is wrong to use its analysis of the disaster of the Garden Bridge Project to attribute its failure to charity. They missed an opportunity to highlight the perils of politicians using the legal vehicle of charity for vanity projects. They also dodged the chance to point the finger of blame squarely where it belongs. At Boris Johnson, the author of the project, Chancellor George Osborne for circumventing official channels to pledge public funding for the project, and at TfL for refusing to underwrite the project going forward.

Uncomfortable questions for the Charity Commission

At the time of the 2017 review, critics questioned whether the Commission failed to monitor the charity properly – particularly given its unusual mission and proximity to political decision-making. More fundamentally, the basic question of whether the charity actually delivered public benefit seemed to be lacking. Also, whether there was an insufficiently robust assessment of external political risks or influence that might impede on trustees’ robust and independent decision-making.

From a broader point of view, this is also about the effects of putting a publicly-funded infrastructure project outside the established oversight and compliance mechanisms for commissioning and delivering public infrastructure projects. Charity law is arguably not the ideal realm for this type of oversight, and the Commission by its nature and due to its perennial lack of resources may have been ill-equipped to do the job.

So what’s really driving the narrative about ‘charity failure’ and ‘public trust in charities’?

The Commission’s final report obliquely offers lessons for policy-makers to think twice about setting up a charity from scratch to deliver a single infrastructure project. Are they avoiding calling out the project’s high-profile backers by name for fear of retribution or of being seen to be political? The irony is that this subtle whitewashing of political accountability simply invites questions about whether the Commission’s leadership pulled its punches (and yet may still be) for political reasons.

At its core, this is a story of politicians and public figures with grand ambitions making bad choices about the organisational vehicle to deliver a massive infrastructure project. It is emphatically not about ‘a failure of charity’ writ large. Politicians seeking to pass the buck for their bad decisions isn’t a new phenomenon. But a regulator blaming an entire sector, legal framework and moral ethos for those bad decisions surely plumbs new depths.