A Centuries-Old Tax Has Kept London’s Bridges, Charities Standing

There is a reason that, despite the nursery rhyme’s claims, London Bridge is not falling down. A special tax has been raised for centuries to maintain and, at times, replace the bridge. Surplus from the tax has also been used to assist area nonprofits in recent years.

The City Bridge Trust’s (CBT) primary responsibility continues to be the maintenance of London Bridge and four other bridges CBT has constructed or acquired over the years, Blackfriars Bridge, Southwark Bridge, Tower Bridge and Millennium Bridge. Grant making has corresponded with the ebbs and flows of the financing needed for the bridges, said David Farnsworth, chief grants officer. Grants jumped from about £15 million in recent years to £20 million ($30.8 million U.S.) this year, which Farnsworth described as a “happy coincidence” corresponding with CBT’s 20th anniversary of awarding grants.

U.S. charities that tout their longevity have nothing on CBT, which has lineage that can be traced to 1097, when King William Rufus (William II), second son of William the Conquerer, started a special tax to fund repairs to London Bridge. A pot grew over the centuries from bridge tolls, property taxes and rents, according to Farnsworth, reaching an asset base of about £1 billion.

Two factors opened CBT up to awarding grants beginning in 1995, a surplus of cash and an interest by the City of London Corporation, CBT’s sole trustee, to provide an additional benefit to Greater London, according to Farnsworth. “It’s an awareness of the city historically,” Farnsworth said. “It’s been a great source of trade and money. In a way, this was a way to distribute that money to other parts of London.”

CBT works on five-year cycles in establishing the needs of London, collaborating with community stakeholders and politicians and utilizing focus groups and economic and social research to identify trends. Small and medium-sized charities have, traditionally, been CBT’s focus, though the trust does not overlook a larger organization’s application if grantmakers think it has provided a great service to London, Farnsworth said.

The common thread through CBT’s grant offerings has been focusing on London’s disadvantaged communities. CBT’s trustees use an annual deprivation index, a ranking of London’s 32 boroughs, as a crude measure of need in the city, according to Farnsworth.

“You do very much feel it, the sense of custodianship and stewardship,” Farnsworth said of CBT’s history and current role. “Because you are working across centuries, you feel like you’re a speck of humanity here for this period. It gives a sense of longevity. There’s a universal quality to it…I think also, though, what’s important is it’s not like you feel like you’re in a museum. It’s about reinvention. You hold onto the universal thread, but a world city is a living organism. You are constantly responding to the city by where it is at that time.”

Improving accessibility for citizens with disabilities was an early and continued priority of CBT. Environmental initiatives have, too, been a focus, Farnsworth said. CBT offers free eco-audits where leaders are seeking to reduce the organization’s carbon footprints and waste.

CBT’s role in London has expanded from grant maker to community facilitator in the wake of the 2008 global recession. CBT has found itself chairing local government meetings and facilitating connections between public, private and nonprofit sector representatives in recent years, according to Farnsworth. “There is quite an interesting moment in London and the UK,” Farnsworth said. “The reduction in central government funding to local government means that, on average, most of the London boroughs are reducing spending 40 percent. That is putting more pressure on local groups and local charities.”

Muscular Dystrophy UK (MDUK) has received nearly £200,000 from the trust since 2002, according to Thomas Osborne, trust fundraising officer. That funding has most recently gone toward MDUK’s work experience and employability program for young disabled individuals. “City Bridge Trust has really shown that they recognise (sic) and understand the issues facing young people moving into employment today, particularly those living in London,” Osborne said.

MDUK has worked with a grants officer from CBT to look at advancing the program. In addition to offering continued funding, CBT has assisted in providing contacts and facilitating partnerships between MDUK and charities doing similar work, according to Osborne. “They see a real opportunity to make a difference to young disabled people’s lives in London by not only supporting projects such as ours, but also by reaching out to their corporate contacts and encouraging them to offer opportunities also,” Osborne said. “It is this sort of engagement with an issue from a major funder such as City Bridge Trust that will bring about real change.”