A huge statue of a flat cap-wearing “everyman docker” could appear on top of a warehouse at Morden Wharf in Greenwich, where a developer plans to build towers of up to 36 storeys high.
U+I, the company behind the scheme next to the Blackwall Tunnel, has denied the “worker” is based on one of the company’s senior executives – despite messages on Instagram from the U+I’s boss implying that it is.
The company won planning permission for 1,500 new homes on the site in September, despite opposition from local MP Matt Pennycook and local residents’ groups. The scheme passed on the casting vote of Stephen Brain, the chair of planning, after councillors tied 5-5 on the proposal.
Among those who voiced concerns was the council’s own conservation officer, although Historic England later said it had no objections.
Early designs for the site included a sculpture of a girl, which would be placed on top of the site’s southern warehouse, part of which is now home to the Brew by Numbers brewery taproom as well as the MDM Props factory, which has made the new sculpture.
When Greenwich Council approved the scheme last year, the rooftop sculpture had disappeared from the plans. But 853 has been shown images from the Instagram feed of Richard Upton, the chief executive of U+I, showing a man with a flat cap sat on top of the warehouse instead.
A close-up shows the man has a striking resemblance to Martyn Evans, the creative director of U+I, which stands for “united and industrious”.
Alongside the close-up, Upton paid tribute to Evans: “We are united and industrious… I love this man, a massive burning flame within @uandiplc.”
One commenter asked him: “Will there be little ones available? I really quite like the idea of a mini Martyn perched on my shelf.”
“I’m not sure that is entirely healthy,” Upton responded.
“Is that a full life sculpture of the great man?” asked another.
“Larger than full scale for a larger than life spirit,” Upton said.
There was also a comment from Evans: “Oh lord… thank you.”
Another image shows Upton with the head of the full-size statue, planting a kiss on its lips.
Evans is credited with helping turn the old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane into a shopping and eating-out destination in the 2000s. He later joined the board of Upton’s original company Cathedral Group, which merged with another developer, Development Securities, in 2015 to form U+I.
He spent three years away from the company working for the Dartington Hall Estate in Devon, before returning to U+I in February 2019.
Evans also spent nearly two years as the non-executive chair of Brick by Brick, the ill-fated developer set up by Croydon Council, which is being wound up after the Labour-run town hall effectively declared bankruptcy in 2020.
U+I says that public art is a key part of its developments, which include a sculpture of Nipper the HMV dog at another of its key London developments, the Old Vinyl Factory in Hayes, built out of the old EMI record pressing plant.
A spokesperson for U+I said the sculpture was not of Evans, but an “everyman docker”, inspired by a 1937 photograph taken outside the Sea Witch pub, which occupied the site until it was bombed in World War II.
“Morden Wharf was where some of the world’s first submarine cables were made, where ships were manufactured by innovative steam-driven machines, where soapworks and ropeworks thrived,” she added.
“The site’s history and heritage has informed the architecture and landscape of Morden Wharf. U+I also want to celebrate the human story. Among dock workers in the 1930s, union activism increased wages and won new rights and protection.
“A new sculpture will represent one of these dock workers, as pictured in archive photographs outside the Sea Witch pub that formerly stood on the site but was destroyed in the Blitz.
“Public art is a cornerstone of U+I’s approach to placemaking and as part of their commitment to supporting local creative business MDM Props, which is based at Morden Wharf, they have commissioned them to realise this piece.”
The spokesperson said she could not comment on “what Richard has said tongue-in-cheek on his personal Instagram”.
She added that the artwork was not part of the planning permission – meaning it would need to be approved by the council before installation – and it had not yet been decided where the sculpture would go.
Known for his plain speaking, Upton founded U+I’s predecessor company Cathedral in 1998. The company has a reputation for taking on difficult sites and turning them into mixed-use developments combining housing and business.
Morden Wharf is one of its biggest current projects, alongside a major scheme at the former Mayfield railway station in the centre of Manchester.
The company is also hoping to redevelop the old Siemens factory site on the Charlton-Woolwich border as Faraday Works. However, another major scheme, to revamp the old London Fire Brigade headquarters in Lambeth, was rejected by the government last summer after a planning inquiry.
After two years of losses, late last year the company was sold to Landsec, one of Britain’s biggest landowners, which is looking to redevelop Lewisham shopping centre with housing and retail. Landsec’s other holdings range from the Piccadilly Circus lights to Bluewater shopping centre.
Updated at 4.20pm to make clear that a new statue would need planning permission.