What happened to South Yorkshire's Angel of the North?
The Steel Man's failure to launch
By Victoria Munro and Ella Robinson
Imagine, if you will, the “perfect” man, one with all the qualities men are expected – rightly or not – to embody. Most likely he’s strong, chiselled, outdoorsy. He’s definitely tall. Maybe he even has his own place in the countryside.
Unfortunately, as the truism goes, nobody’s perfect. So he’s also almost a decade late and has quite a lot of other people’s money.
The Steel Man is, at this stage, a largely hypothetical sculpture of a steelworker, designed by former steelworker-turned-artist Steve Mehdi, and intended to tower over the M1. In the early 2010s, the sculpture was pitched as the region’s answer to the Angel of the North. It would be “seen by more than 65 million people a year, providing a lasting economic and cultural benefit for generations to come”. It was also called the Yorkshire Man of Steel but had to change its name, Steve told The Star six years ago, due to a threat of legal action from Warner Brothers, the owners of the better-known Man of Steel: Superman.
If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of this metallic Yorkshire ubermensch, it’s because a litigious film studio turned out to be the least of his worries. Back in the tail end of 2013, the BBC reported that Steve was “confident there’ll be shovels in the ground in 2014” and that construction would finish a year later. As will be evident to anyone who has driven along the M1 recently, this was not the case.
The project’s last post on its dedicated Facebook account was all the way back in January 2020 – and it’s not hard to understand why. For six months prior, almost every peep it made was immediately greeted by a flurry of furious comments from people who had donated to the project, wondering why their Steel Man had stood them up. “I don't think the Man of Steel is ever going to happen,” reads one comment, flirting dangerously with a threat of legal action from Warner Brothers. “I cannot help feeling that we have been ripped off and some reassurance from this site would be appreciated. You do not keep any of us up to speed.”
No reassurance was forthcoming, and the discrepancy in speed between those behind the wheel of the project and many of those who had paid to put gas in its tank remained glaring. In fact, no one would hear anything at all for another three years.
In May, just shy of five years since the last announcement on The Steel Man website, an update appeared, entitled “A new challenge begins”. A bold choice, given they had arguably yet to finish conquering some of their previous challenges. The team was “delighted to announce the beginning of a new era,” having secured some free steel from a sponsor, which they had tasked another sponsor with turning into a 4.5m model. This would be the third and largest model ever made of the Steel Man, following 2m and 1m models built a full decade earlier. Previous models were, it seems, intended as proof-of-concept or to practise the intended construction method; the purpose of doing it again is foggier.
The Steel Man’s naysayers, venting their frustration on Sheffield Forum, were not assuaged. “This latest news fills me with no positivity,” one wrote, suggesting it had been announced “to try and ward off any unwanted scrutiny”. No one, they insisted, was going to be fooled. “I think most people will read this and see the same as me… smoke & mirrors, nothing more!!”
The announcement estimated construction of the model would take between three and four months and promised more updates in the coming weeks, although none have materialised on the website so far. A little over three months later, I fire off an interview request to the email address on the official Steel Man website. In the meantime (and it will be a far longer meantime than expected), I ring up the sponsor building the model: NEC Ltd, which stands for Nuclear Energy Components, in Bradwell.
The incredibly friendly man on the phone confirms they are indeed hard at work on the model. Well, he’s not personally, but there’s “a guy who comes in and does a bit of welding on Wednesdays” and often “Steve comes in to do a bit of helping out” too. He’s not sure what’s happening the following Wednesday but reckons if I come from about 11am onwards, I have a good chance of catching one or both of them.
Five days later, Wednesday morning arrives. I have yet to hear anything back from the Steel Man project. However, I do get a call from my good pal at NEC Ltd, who sounds like he has just received the bollocking of a lifetime. He did not, as it turns out, “have authorisation” to let me come see the model, but he gives me his boss’s phone number so we can talk about it. I will absolutely be giving him a call.
Allow me, as briefly as possible, to fill you in on the trials and tribulations that got us to this point. The original planning permission for the Steel Man sculpture was granted by Rotherham Council in 2012. The sculpture was originally offered to Sheffield but the council politely declined, perhaps intuiting they would soon have enough of their own overdue projects to contend with, without adding anyone else’s into the mix.
At the time of the BBC segment near the end of 2013, the project was reportedly pretty flush with cash. They had just been pledged £1m by an anonymous donor, who their website describes only as a “local businessman,” and estimated that the total cost of the project would be £3m. However, it is unclear from their accounts exactly where that huge donation ended up. The charity tied to the project, Yorkshire Icon Ltd, had no assets as of 1st July 2014. A subsidiary private company, Yorkshire Man of Steel Ltd, didn’t even exist until 2015 and, by the following year, only had assets of a little over £1,000. There’s a possibility the donation was quietly withdrawn – or perhaps it was spent, during a design process that turned out to be far more complicated than they first realised.
The Steel Man website notes that “the overall budget to build the sculpture continued to expand, with no obvious solution in sight”. A major problem was the land they had been given permission to build on, a former landfill known as Kimberworth Hill. Building foundations on landfill is not cheap and in 2015 – when the project was forced to re-apply to Rotherham Council for planning permission, after the old permission expired – council officers noted that the team had been unable to start work “in part due to the ongoing mitigation of ground gas” from said landfill.
Evidently, the project had also hit a ceiling on the amount of money it could raise from local businesses. It was time for the public to chip in. In December 2014, the now-defunct Yorkshire Man of Steel website, accessed via the Internet Archive, mentions something called the Heart of Steel: a 2.5 tonne sculpture of a heart, which would one day beat in the Steel Man’s cold chest, bearing the names of 150,000 people from across the region. Since getting a name engraved required a minimum donation of £20, this meant the Heart of Steel would raise at least £3m, minus a 10% cut for the British Heart Foundation, if entirely filled.
And the team’s efforts to raise more money didn’t stop there; their next port of call was the public purse. In April 2016, the project received £106,000 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to develop plans for a visitor centre. According to the planning application submitted to Rotherham Council for said visitor centre – “The Interpretation Hub” – the future of the Steel Man hinged on its existence. The sculpture’s maintenance would cost an estimated £20,000 a year, which was not a sum Rotherham Council was going to pay itself, thank you very much. Luckily, it was believed that a canteen and shop in the Hub would make around £18,500 every month.
At the time, Steve Mehdi is quoted as saying that the funding from the National Lottery was a huge boost for the Steel Man and “a validation for all the companies and people who have supported the project” since its inception. “The passion of our community never ceases to amaze me,” he added, “which affirms the reasons why this project is so important to the heritage of our region and the people who helped to create it.” Of course, the money was only development funding. In order to get the significantly larger sum of money needed to build the Hub, the team would have to “apply for a full grant at a later date”.
I get in touch with the National Lottery Heritage Fund, pointing out that the Steel Man isn’t on their list of projects they’ve funded. A spokesperson confirms that they did work with Yorkshire Icon Ltd some years ago, on a complex project which experienced a number of difficulties and delays. “Unfortunately, concerns over extended timescales, unsecured partnership funding and increasing costs were not resolved,” so a decision was taken to withdraw. “The projects we invest in must be able to demonstrate they offer best value for money and have the ability to survive in the long term.”
By the summer of 2017, the charity Yorkshire Icon Ltd was thousands of pounds in debt and only rescued by coming to an “agreement” with the British Heart Foundation in September 2018. “This partnership is expected to generate significant future donations,” states the charity’s annual accounts from the following year, “and the Trustees anticipate that the company will return to positive funds in future years.”
In August 2018, the Heart of Steel was finally unveiled at Meadowhall shopping centre. At the time, Steve told commenters on Facebook that it would stick around for a matter of months, so those who wanted to spot their name should get down fast. Once again, it appears this timescale was too optimistic: it remains at the shopping centre to this day.
The Heart of Steel netted the project some great publicity – Dan remembers having to write something about the mum of the Arctic Monkeys drummer donating, back in his days at The Star – but it also marks the point where the project began to lose the hearts and minds of the public, at least according to comments on its Facebook page. Some were enraged that their name had been accidentally missed off, while others complained that the text – a maximum of 1mm in height – was insultingly small. The British Heart Foundation website helpfully suggests people might want to “take a magnifying glass or use a phone camera to help see your engraving”.
Responding to criticisms on Facebook at the time, the Yorkshire Man of Steel account explained that, if the names were larger, the project “would have to reduce our funding campaign,” and that it was a moot point anyway, as it would one day be hidden inside an immense sculpture. The Heart of Steel “was never meant to be a visual thing,” they added, but rather a way “of giving the public an opportunity to play an important role in our project”. All would become clear “in the next week or two”. (Continuing the general theme of such promises, it does not appear that it did.)
For a little while, it seems that finally having the Heart of Steel in place did provide a boost to the project, since the annual accounts from 2018/19 note that the majority of the charity’s income was “as a result of donations made in the Meadowhall retail centre”. Despite this, “following a challenging trading year,” by 30th June 2019, Yorkshire Icon Ltd was £48,000 in debt. Given the pandemic quickly followed, the situation seemed unlikely to improve any time soon.
In 2020, the trustees made a decision “to reduce activities for the time being to focus on encouraging supporters through social media and other publicity instead”. Text on the Steel Man website, which is un-dated but written after the start of the pandemic, promises a “global crowd funding campaign” to come, although this does not seem to have begun at the time of writing. Nonetheless it points out that the Heart of Steel “has achieved enormous success” on its own, raising more than £2.5m “to help fund life-saving heart research”.
When I get in touch with someone from the British Heart Foundation, they tell me the Heart of Steel has actually raised more than £1.6m so far, although they are keen to stress that this is “an incredible achievement”. “If all 150,000 names are filled,” they add, “the heart will have raised over £2.4million to help fund the BHF’s lifesaving research.” So far, the heart contains around 80,000 names and they are still accepting donations for new engravings, although the price has gone up to £30.
They also helpfully reveal the terms of the agreement signed in 2018, in which BHF “took over the management of the Heart of Steel” and became responsible for collecting donations and engraving the new names. As a result, instead of collecting 10% of the proceeds as they did previously, BHF now receives 90% and gives the remainder to Yorkshire Man of Steel.
That brings us back to the present day, and my efforts to understand whether the future of the Steel Man is, as haters might suggest, merely “smoke and mirrors”. I call the number helpfully supplied to me by my friend at NEC Ltd and find myself on the phone with Vince Middleton.
If, like me, you have done nothing for the past few days but go mad poring over the annual accounts of Yorkshire Icon Ltd, this is a hugely exciting development. Vince Middleton, a chartered engineer and director of Hope Valley Industrial Ltd, has assumed the status of a minor celebrity in my mind. In 2017, the charity had a board of ten trustees but, in the years since, that group has whittled down, with even Steve departing in early 2020. Vince is one of the few remaining.
He’s also on holiday in the Lake District, and not very pleased with me at all. How did I get the number for NEC Ltd, he wants to know, to which I reply that it’s publicly available on their website. As far as visiting today to see the model, that is out of the question. “No one’s there today,” so the only thing I’d be able to get is a picture, and that’s not something they’re ready for right now.
The model will be ready, he tells me, “sometime towards the end of this year,” which I can’t help but notice is a little longer than three to four months from May. I ask him what the next step will be once it’s done and all he’ll say is that they’re “in discussions with various people at the moment”. His phone signal is not great, unsurprisingly, and the conversation is a bit of an uphill battle.
Is there a chance I could speak with Steve? No. One of the other trustees? Also no. “Basically a lot of it is resting on me at the minute to try to get the thing progressing.” The longer I work on this story, in fact, the more emphatically this message is conveyed to me: nobody other than Vince can possibly answer questions about the Steel Man. Even if I were to ask a question Vince didn’t know the answer to, requiring the information to be supplied to him by another member of the team, it would have to come from his mouth. And he’s in the Lake District until Tuesday, after the article comes out.
This leaves me at something of a dead end, in terms of actual fact-finding, since I have already cast a very wide net in terms of trying to speak to people. Almost as a last gasp, I send another email to the Steel Man address, again offering to interview someone – anyone – about the project. Amazingly, this time I get a reply. Even better: it’s from the sculptor, Steve.
He explains that, tragically, an interview will not be possible, a position he refuses to budge on at any point in our future dealings. He no longer has “an official role in the project,” he explains. “I spent 13 long years at the helm, taking a lot of the load, and some criticism, but no longer.”
He apologises that he was not able to receive me at NEC Ltd earlier today. “The build is not straightforward and requires a lot of input. There simply wasn’t time today to show it off.” Vince, it emerges, has misled me about no one being there, a betrayal our relationship never really recovers from. Building the model, Steve adds, has unfortunately “been slow going, due mostly to how busy the fabricators are with other work”.
Almost as an aside, he points out that it has also been a number of years since Sheffield Council enlisted a public sculpture from Alex Chinneck – reportedly Sheffield’s largest art commission ever. “No-one seems quite sure what happened to the project, since no-one’s talking about it, but everyone is still very interested in The Steel Man.”
Still, I should rest assured that the team continue to forge ahead with their new campaign, although “there really isn’t very much news”. They will of course be happy to speak to me, just as soon as they “have a clear message to put out and something for everyone to look forward to”, so he hopes I’ll bear with them for “a few more months”.
Unfortunately, one of the main ways that journalism differs from large public projects is that our deadlines are really not flexible. But his point about the Alex Chinneck commission makes me wonder, is the endless delay of the Steel Man actually usual for projects like this?
Neil Carstairs, associate director at Arup, the company that helped build the actual Angel of the North, very kindly agrees to speak with me on short notice, despite the fact he’s never even heard of the Steel Man. As he recalls, the time between the site being allocated and the angel finally spreading her wings was eight years, although this includes the competition to select an artist and the entire design process. When it comes to the fabrication and erection of the sculpture, it took about a year, or not far off that anyway.
“No project goes completely smoothly,” he admits, but what helped was that Anthony Gormley, the artist who designed the angel, was being “realistic” about what could be done with the amount of money they had. “When the prices came back in for construction, there was only one price within budget and that required a change to the internal structure. We could have had a sculptor who said ‘no, it must be exactly as I designed it’ but he knew, if we did that, the job would be dead.”
Differences between the Angel of the North and the Steel Man include the fact that Gateshead Council actively commissioned the sculpture, rather than just accepting the plans, and that the project relied on public funding from the Arts Council and the National Lottery. Neil recalls that the budget was “in the order of £1m,” which is the equivalent of about £1.8m in today’s money. “An engineer,” Neil tells me, “can do for a pound what somebody else can do for ten, just with a few extra zeros in this case. We’re always focused on getting things done economically.”
In the end, the benefits the Angel of the North brought in for the area outdid this sum several times over. Before the angel arrived, Gateshead was “very much seen as a poor relation” to nearby Newcastle. “It was basically transformed, from somewhere best known for a car park to somewhere that supported the arts.”
Later on in the day, as I continue to struggle to interview someone who has ever had any involvement with the Steel Man, my phone rings. It’s someone from the project, calling me for an off-the-record chat. It’s come to their attention that my efforts to work on this story have not stopped, apparently someone from the British Heart Foundation has dobbed me in.
Of particular concern to them is that I’m bothering the trustees. Well, I point out, a little defensive, I’ve only spoken to one current trustee. Everyone else was a past trustee. I am highly conscious of the fact that I am, at that exact time, about halfway into a 45-minute walk from the former home address of a solicitor last involved in the project in 2018 to what I hope might be his current home address. If I was Steve’s ex-girlfriend instead of a reporter, people would be advising him to call the police.
Perhaps we could meet up and they could finally answer some of the questions I – and other people – have about the project? Only, again, it would be off-the-record. Not much help for the article, I point out. Tuesday then, on Tuesday I can go and meet Vince at NEC Ltd and finally see this model, even though I’m not allowed to see a picture of it now, less than a week earlier. No can do, I tell them. My deadline is my deadline.
Could I email Vince some questions and he could reply in writing? That seems to go down a lot better, although I’m told to get the address off Vince himself, who will be calling me soon. In the end, Vince sends me a text, again offering to let me come visit on Tuesday – clearly there has been a miscommunication here – and I again have to explain that that is just not going to work.
There’s a famous quote about journalism, by Janet Malcolm, which states that every journalist “who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible” and I can’t help but think of it at this moment. I’m not made of stone – or steel rather, ha ha – and I’m not actually trying to be horrible. It’s clear that people have worked really hard trying to get this project to fruition. Who am I to throw dirt on their dreams?
I’d had an idea of the piece I might write in my head but maybe, with the right questions to Vince, this could be a very different kind of story, one that puts people’s suspicions to rest. Maybe we could make some headway — figure out exactly how long there is until we get this sculpture.
My phone pings. That must be Vince.
Never mind. On the plus side, my guilt has evaporated.
In fact, as I continue to power walk to the possible home of a solicitor who I do not, in the end, manage to find, I even begin to get a little indignant. The Steel Man project spent months, years even, courting press attention – they do not now have the right to complain that they have the attention of the press. People have donated sums of money to this project, they at least deserve to be given some idea of what is actually happening after all these years. I’m not convinced by pleas that if I just wait a little longer, then all will become clear, because I can see such promises have been offered many times before and come to nothing.
Besides, Vince is wrong to think that I have come away totally empty-handed. While no one directly involved with Steel Man has been willing to speak to me, other organisations, ones with more of a commitment to transparency (and a press team) have responded. Rotherham Council, for example, confirms there are no planning permissions for either the sculpture or the visitor facilities at this time, although their spokesperson adds that the council “would be happy to discuss new applications for these proposed developments” if the Steel Man team are forthcoming.
Personally, I’d still like to see the Steel Man assume pride of place above the M1. After all the time I’ve spent obsessing over him, I’d even spend a tenner or two in the gift shop. For the project behind him to regain the trust of their supporters, however, they’re going to need to open up a little in future. I look forward to reading all the exciting updates about this project I’ve been assured are coming in the next few months – presumably in The Star.