Garden Bridge failures risk undermining public trust in charities, says regulator

The Garden Bridge project was a “failure for charity” that risks undermining public trust and confidence in the sector, according to a critical Charity Commission report.

The regulator’s report looked at the role of the charity Garden Bridge Trust, which was set up to manage the collapsed project, that saw £50m of public funds spent on plans to build a garden bridge across the Thames in London.

Although no mismanagement was found the regulator raises serious questions about how a newly created charity was given responsibility for spending such a large sum of money.

Transparency concerns are also raised, particularly around the charity’s accounts for the year ending 2017, which were filed 143 days late and only included enough details to ensure it is compliant with the charities statement of recommended practices (SORP) for financial reporting.

“We have made clear to the trustees that the charity has not displayed the level of transparency and accountability that we would expect, given the nature and profile of its work,” states the Charity Commission’s report, which brands the project a “high profile and expensive failure”.

The report states: “Even though the Commission finds that trustees complied with their legal obligations and that there was no mismanagement, the fact that £50 million of public funds were spent by a charity and produced no demonstrable public benefit or impact represents a failure for charity which risks undermining public trust.

“For charities in these situations, transparency and accountability should go beyond complying with basic financial reporting requirements to being able to explain how and why decisions are being made in such a way to best deliver the charity’s purpose.”

The purpose of the regulator’s report is also to look at wider lessons the charity sector and government can learn from the project.

Policy makers are urged to think carefully before handing the running of such a high profile, large project to a charity. If they do adopt this strategy, policy makers need to ensure that “appropriate accountability mechanisms, checks and balances” are in place, says the regulator.

“We would advise policy makers to think very carefully before setting up an entirely new charity to deliver a singular public project or purpose,” states the report.

“We consider it unlikely that the public would expect risks that are inherent in a major public infrastructure project to be outsourced to such a charity.”

Charities also need to ensure they “embrace external scrutiny” with Garden Bridge Trust trustees’ failure to effectively explain how and why decisions were being made among concerns raised by the regulator.

Charity Commission chair Baroness Stowell said: “Londoners and taxpayers will legitimately feel angry and let down by the waste of millions of pounds of public money on a charitable project that was not delivered.

“I understand that anger and am clear that this represents a failure for charity that risks undermining public confidence in charities generally.

“While the charity was not mismanaged, the public would also expect, as I do, that the right lessons are learnt from this case, so that we don’t see a similar failure arising in future.”

An initial report by the Charity Commission released in March 2017 also found that the Garden Bridge Trust was compliant with charity regulations.

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