Professor John Stewart – a personal tribute

Emeritus Professor John Raine

My first encounter with John was in 1978 while I was working as a public finance researcher at the Department for the Environment’s Building Research Establishment.  John had recently served as a member of the Layfield Committee on Local Government Finance, and was subsequently commissioned by the Department as one of four leading thinkers to prepare scenarios for the future of local government in England & Wales – John’s assigned subject being the future financing of local government.  The four commissioned scenarios were then presented and discussed at a special conference to which I was privileged to attend, and where John delivered one of the most fascinating and inspiring talks that I had ever heard.  I followed up by reading a number of John’s academic and practitioner-oriented journal articles, all of which I found really thoughtful, elegantly written and refreshingly original. 

So, when in Summer 1979 I happened to spot an advertisement for a lectureship in public policy at the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham, (and knowing this to be the department of which John was Head, and with it now becoming clear that the future for public policy research within government would be more limited under the new Thatcher government at Westminster), I had no hesitation in preparing my application.  I was pleased to be shortlisted and all the more so when, on entering the interview room, I found that my Appointments Board would indeed be chaired by JDS.  He led the interview process in his typically gentle, respectful but deeply interested and enquiring manner, and that evening I was absolutely delighted to be offered the post – one that seemed such a perfect fit for me – focused on the interface between theory and practice in public policy and administration, and particularly dedicated to the local level.  Indeed, INLOGOV proved to be an institution in which I quickly felt much ‘at home’, and where I happily spent the succeeding thirty-six years of my career – including eight as head of department, (and where I continue to enjoy helping out on a part-time basis after formally retiring in 2015). 

Very shortly after my induction at INLOGOV came the new Conservative government’s ‘Local Government, Planning and Land Bill, 1980’, a huge piece of legislation and one which heralded a number of significant changes to the financial arrangements for local government, though sadly not those that John and the Layfield Committee had so carefully advocated.  Instead, the new Parliamentary Bill sought to introduce a raft of new strictures and restrictions on local authorities, including on council direct labour organisations, their town and country planning powers, their financial powers and much more besides.  Being the new member of staff, John asked if I might organise and lead a series of seminars and conferences on the new legislation around the country.  And this I did, commencing with a major conference in London, with the then Secretary of State, Rt Hon. Michael Heseltine, as the key-note speaker.  Undoubtedly, however, the high note of the conference was the contribution made by John himself, who delivered a masterly critique of the Bill’s proposals, greatly appreciated by the packed conference hall, and surely providing the Secretary of State with a very clear message about the reaction of local government to the changes he was intending to make. 

Thereafter, and once the Bill had become an Act of Parliament, INLOGOV became hectically busy running courses and seminars on the new legislative requirements and providing consultancy support around the country as local authorities began instituting the various changes now expected of them.  It was, for INLOGOV both an exciting, and financially very positive, time, although for local government it could only be seen as a significant lurch in the direction of a new, more centralist, era.  John, however, remained characteristically cheerful and positive – continuing to present the case for localism, and with an increasingly large evidence-base that he was now accumulating from all his visits to local authorities around the country and further afield. 

John was always very proud of the Institute he had founded at Birmingham and cared deeply about its fortunes, his staff and their work.  His office door was rarely shut, and he walked the corridors on a daily basis engaging in depth with everyone whose door happened to be open or whom he encountered in the corridors or in the kitchen area.  He actively encouraged staff to drop into his office for chats and to stay and talk with him for as long as they could.  He maintained a deep interest in all the work of staff and in their welfare, and he was always able to make helpful suggestions as to policy issues on which they might wish to pick up, about papers they might like to write, or seminars they might perhaps take a lead in arranging.  In my experience, so often his conversations would begin with him asking ‘Well, how’s John?’ and then followed on with ‘And how’s the Institute?’ – genuine questions that reflected his on-going affection and care for the organisation he had founded and for the team he had brought together to share in his mission. 

He was indeed an inspiration not only to all his staff but to the thousands of individuals in local (and central) government with whom he interacted, whether as teacher, researcher, consultant, adviser or simply friend.  For his lectures he would typically position himself on the corner of a desk at the front of the room, with his script invariably comprising a single sheet of A4 with perhaps just three or four key words scribbled in one corner as his prompt.  His time management was immaculate.  He always managed to pitch his talks superbly for his different audiences, always leaving plenty of time for discussion and debate – for his responses to questions were always as inspiring and thought-provoking as the preceding input. 

He also greatly enjoyed his travels around the UK, visiting almost every local authority (by train, for he did not drive), and then, after each visit, preparing and circulating to all Institute staff as well as his visit hosts a summary paper of all that he had learned and reflected upon as good and less good practice and about the key issues for further consideration and reflection.  Moreover, his productivity in writing for publication (often as co-author with his longstanding academic colleague, Professor George Jones at LSE) was hugely impressive, with regard to both the scholarly and professional journals, as well as through his considerable output of single and joint-authored books.  Indeed, he provided a model for us all at INLOGOV in balancing so effectively his commitment to the pursuit of scholarship in public administration with the other important role for the department in promoting better practices and increased effectiveness within our public service organisations. 

At a personal level, I was also especially appreciative of all John’s support and encouragement when, at a time of crisis for the Institute, in 1995 – following the sudden and untimely death of Professor Kieron Walsh, who had only very recently assumed the Directorship of INLOGOV – I was invited to take his place as Director of this most special of Institutes.  In the subsequent five years, John was a wonderfully inspiring mentor for me, and someone to whom I often turned for his wise counsel and judgement on organisational leadership issues.  May he rest in peace and may INLOGOV continue to flourish and cherish his legacy.

John is Emeritus Professor at Inlogov.

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