The battle over the Garden Bridge continues. The issue of public toilets has flushed out a questionable land deal with Coin Street Community Builders. This latest dispute has seen Lambeth Council officers backing Joanna Lumley’s scheme, in open rebellion to their councillors and the public.
Forget the dodgy procurement process, the huge amounts of public money being thrown at the scheme, the strange and questionable links between the Mayor and the promoters of the bridge, and the massive environmental damage this huge concrete structure will cause. Now things are getting really dirty.
Although Lambeth Council approved planning permission for the Garden Bridge last year, the approval was subject to 46 conditions, most of which need to be met before work can get started. These conditions have been working their way though Lambeth’s planning department since last summer. Now, things are coming to a head over the sticky issue of public toilets.
When the Garden Bridge Trust first submitted their plans, they originally proposed no toilets at all. This is for what they say will be the biggest tourist attraction in London and second biggest in Europe. Councillors objected and made providing toilets a condition of planning permission, but Councillors are still unhappy with the Trust’s proposals.
Toilets are a serious matter. The Garden Bridge Trust estimate that 7m people will visit the tourist attraction every year, and many of these people will need to pee. If the Garden Bridge won’t provide enough toilets to meet the calls of its customers, then people will pee somewhere else if they are to avoid an embarrassing journey home.
There are already 26 million visitors to the South Bank every year and the area is quickly becoming an open air public toilet. People piss in front gardens and in stair wells. The Jubilee Gardens Trust, which looks after the small park just down the river from the site of the proposed Garden Bridge, installed 14 public loos but even that isn’t enough to hold back the tide. They still report that they have problems with people relieving themselves in the bushes close to a children’s playground. Lovely.
In fact the situation has got so bad, that the British Toilet Association has raised the alert. It highlighted the South Bank as one of the worst places in the country for public toilet provision to a Parliamentary Committee in 2008 (that was when the area had a mere 14 million visitors a year).
Taking the piss
After councillors on Lambeth’s Planning Committee objected to the lack of any toilets, the Garden Bridge Trust proposed 8 unisex loos. This is for the 7,500 people that will be on or queueing to get on the bridge at peak times, not to mention the 8,000 walking past.
Toilet provision is the subject of much study in the world of planning and there is even a British Standard for toilets which sets out the needs for different types of buildings (pubs, theatres, football stadiums, museums etc). In the case of the Garden Bridge an ‘exhibition centre’ or ‘assembly building’ with that amount of flow would require around 30 cubicles.
Last month Councillors deferred finally signing off on the planning conditions to give the Garden Bridge Trust the opportunity to think again about their piss poor offer.
Now these are exactly the kinds of issues that planning departments are supposed to sort out. Planners are there to think through how buildings are used and to plan the facilities needed.
However, despite all of this, Lambeth’s planners appear to have gone on some sort of bizarre industrial action against their own councillors, standing resolute in their determination to do nothing.
When the Bridge comes back to the planning committee on 8 March, little will have changed. The Garden Bridge Trust simply propose to split their 8 unisex toilets into men’s and women’s sections and put in a couple of urinals. In response, council officers will tell the committee that they “maintain that the previous toilet offer was considered acceptable”. In other words, they are telling their councillors (and the British Toilet Association) to bog off.
This is an extraordinary position for the officers of the council to take. Their job is to implement the decisions of the planning committee, not to tell them to get lost. In most places such insubordination would be unthinkable, but this is Lambeth.
In fact this is just another example of Lambeth Council officers twisting every argument in favour of Joanna Lumley, forgetting their duty to look after the interests of all Lambeth residents.
I have to say I feel slightly absurd writing this article. People visit buildings, people need to piss, why can’t planners and developers give us a pot to piss in, and then we wouldn’t need to think about it.
This is where the story gets really shitty.
The Garden Bridge Trust have enough space to build more toilets, but they need that space as part of a highly questionable land deal.
The bridge is more than just a bridge. The plans include buildings on the South side of the river which include areas branded ‘flexible space’.
The ‘flexible’ space is in fact not that flexible at all. It has been given permission by Lambeth Council to be used for commercial space. Of course, 400 square meters of shops on one of the busiest tourist spots in the world will be a giant money spinner, but none of that money will be going towards the running costs and maintenance of the bridge (that £3.5m tab is being picked up by us, because Boris Johnson has agreed to underwrite all of the maintenance costs with our cash).
Instead the space is being gifted to Coin Street Community Builders in return for the land they are giving to the Garden Bridge Trust. That land was given to Coin Street by the Greater London Council (aka the public), for the purpose of providing some open space for the 800 tenants who live in affordable housing on the South Bank, most of whom don’t have gardens.
Under the terms of their lease Coin Street aren’t allowed to use the land for commercial purposes. However, their freeholder, Lambeth Council, three years ago secretly agreed a variation in the lease to allow Coin Street to Coin in on the Garden Bridge. And now, they are set to go behind closed doors again to extend the lease to 200 years.
Does Coin Street need the money? No, it already gets millions a year from car parks that they run on sites also given to them 30 years ago to build more affordable housing, but still remain carparks.
Perhaps one reason for this land deal is that nearly a decade ago Coin Street applied for and won planning permission for a 100% luxury housing development, the 600ft tall Doon Street Tower.
Since then, Coin Street Community Builders have been stuck up shit creek struggling to pull together the finance to get their project off the ground. Ironically it may be a lack of toilet facilities that gets them out of this hole.
The story might make one vomit, if there was a toilet to vomit in.