Greenwich planning chair who approved Morden Wharf joins firm working on project

Morden Wharf
Morden Wharf was approved last year on Stephen Brain’s casting vote

853 exclusive: The Greenwich councillor who approved the controversial Morden Wharf development on his casting vote as chair of planning is now working as a consultant for a company involved in the project.

Stephen Brain stood down as a councillor at May’s election, eight months after he broke a tied vote to allow the 36-storey, 1,500-home scheme on the west side of Greenwich Peninsula.

He is now working as a consultant for Lowick, which worked on community engagement on behalf of the developer, U+I.

The company offers its clients “expertise in the politics of cities, their leaders and their diverse communities – particularly those under Labour Party control”.

As chair, Brain broke a 5-5 tie among councillors on the project, which will bring towers of 21, 25, 30 and 36 storeys to the riverfront. Formal approval was issued by Greenwich Council at the end of June.

Local residents’ groups had objected to Morden Wharf, as did Greenwich & Woolwich MP Matt Pennycook. They said the scheme was too close to industrial uses and that local infrastructure would struggle to cope with a development hemmed in between the river and the Blackwall Tunnel approach.

Greenwich’s conservation officer had also raised concerns, saying that the scheme would intrude on historic views from locations such as the Old Royal Naval College. The council’s urban design officer said the proposal was “out of scale”. Historic England later said it did not believe views would be damaged.

Stephen Brain at Greenwich Ikea launch
Brain, right, with council leader Danny Thorpe, then-mayor Peter Brooks and Scott-McDonald at the start of work on east Greenwich’s Ikea in 2017

Brain, 69, became Greenwich’s chair of planning in May 2020 after a behind-closed-doors vote among Labour councillors. The role pays £18,542 on top of the usual councillors’ allowance of £10,415, and involves chairing meetings of the council’s four planning committees, including the main planning board which approved Morden Wharf.

The Peninsula ward councillor already had a combative reputation after rowing with residents on social media and this continued in planning meetings. His first major decision – a casting vote on the Kidbrooke Village development – led to a surprise rejection, with him criticising part of the scheme as “backdoor ghettoisation”, comments he took back when the proposal was later accepted.

Brain clashed with residents in meetings about developments on the Charlton Riverside – inviting critics to send him abuse – and even had a public row with a fellow councillor on a Zoom meeting to decide a minor development in Blackheath. He later announced his departure in the middle of a planning meeting.

But it was his casting vote on Morden Wharf that caused the most ill-feeling, when he branded criticism of the scheme “a bit bourgeois”, likening it to objections to Greenwich’s Ikea store – a development he opposed himself. He said that supported the new jobs that Morden Wharf would bring.

Morden Wharf render
U+I’s plans for Morden Wharf include 1,500 homes in towers of up to 36 storeys

Referring to concerns about views from Greenwich Park, Brain said: “Henry VII’s palace isn’t there – it was knocked down by future generations. Queen Anne’s house was a new development. The Royal Naval College was new development. The Observatory was new development.

“The philosopher Heraclitus writing in 550BC said change is the only constant, and that was echoed by Disraeli, who said nothing endures but change, and that is why I will be supporting this application.”

After approving the scheme, Brain said: “I’m sure there will be ramifications from this, I shall seek a bodyguard to get me home as I’ve got to go home on public transport tonight.”

Pennycook later said he was “incredulous” that councillors had approved “luxury towers” on the riverside. Counted by unit, 69 per cent of the homes would be for private sale with 21 per cent for London Affordable Rent, available to people on housing waiting lists.

Lowick was founded by Kevin McKeever, a former Labour parliamentary candidate. The company also works for U+I on Faraday Works, its project to transform the former Siemens cable factory by the Thames Barrier. It said that Brain was employed to give advice and would not be lobbying his former colleagues.

Zoom screengrab
In 2020 Brain was involved in a row with fellow councillor Mehboob Khan in a meeting held over Zoom, to the clear exasperation of other attendees

A Lowick spokesperson told 853: “Stephen Brain joined us in late May 2022 after standing down as a councillor at that month’s elections.

“He brings a wealth of insight into the structures and dynamics of local government in Greenwich and across London. Discussions and contract for his appointment took place after he left his role as a councillor.

“Unlike all of our rival consultancies, we do not employ sitting councillors as a matter of ethics. To be clear, Stephen Brain does not lobby members or officers in Greenwich or any other borough, rather he provides advice and insights based on his experience as a councillor.

“Lowick is the pre-eminent consultancy offering political and consultation advice in the Royal Borough [of Greenwich]. Our current schemes include Morden Wharf and Faraday Works.”

Brain did not respond to a request for comment. News of his appointment came a week after former council leader Danny Thorpe, who is still a serving councillor, joined the housing association Clarion as its head of public affairs.

While Morden Wharf was endorsed by the planning board last September, formal approval was only issued at the end of June, after the necessary legal agreements were signed.

Only outline approval was given for the residential parts of the scheme, so U+I will have to return to the planning board at a later date with detailed proposals.

But work can start straight away on alterations to the site’s Southern Warehouse to accommodate retail and business uses; as well as improvements to the site’s jetty, the river wall and Thames Path.

The scheme will also include a park, nursery, healthcare facility and £2.5 million for a bus route to be diverted into the site. There are also plans to split the cost of a Thames Clippers pier with the developers of the Enderby Wharf site next door, which is also likely to see large towers built.

In January, U+I denied that a statue of an “everyman docker” planned for the site was based on one of the company’s directors, despite Instagram messages from the company’s chief executive, Richard Upton, implying that it was.

U+I was bought by Britain’s biggest commercial developer, LandSec, at the end of last year, with Upton stepping down in May. The company is now being merged into the wider LandSec business.


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