Everyone in or with links to the Institute of Local Government Studies was saddened this week to learn of the death of Professor John Stewart, who from 1966 developed Inlogov to focus on UK local government and made an enormous and lasting contribution to the development of local government, local governance and public administration scholarship over several decades.
I had the good fortune to meet John last year when, following the death of his wife, Councillor Theresa Stewart, he kindly offered his research library to the department. We had a lovely afternoon recalling the earlier days of Inlogov, developing the first courses, contributing to the insightful Layfield Commission on Financing Local Government, travelling all over the country to review training and development needs in hundreds of councils, and leading thinking on the sector through articles in both the scholarly and professional journals.
John was a strong advocate of local government as community leadership at the heart of a vibrant democracy – rather than a mindless channel of central government’s directives or a mere provider of various local public services. He and his co-authors often led the thinking in key areas. In the 1970s, he promoted the development of corporate planning and management in local authorities bringing synergy to the various service areas. In the 1980s, he asserted the value of the public good in the face of New Public Management’s push to convert public service into private consumption. He argued that developing Quangos for specific services was creating a late twentieth-century version of the fragmented local public service world of the Victorian era. In the 1990s, he challenged the narrow consumerist Citizen’s Charter approach and instead asserted the importance of citizens’ rights, participation and accountability.
In 2014, John published his reflections on the past four decades in local government. He argued that the problems facing the economy, society and the environment need effective local responses:
Local government can draw on its own and its citizens’ ideas and aspirations, but this genuine localist approach cannot be achieved in fragmented and imperfectly accountable structures over-controlled by central government. The lesson of the last 40 years is the need for a learning government that welcomes diversity. All can learn from the relative successes and failures of diversity, whereas too often centralism builds uniformity from which all that may be learnt is general failure.
As well as research, John developed a strong teaching capacity in Inlogov. He created residential courses, held at Wast Hills House outside Birmingham, which had been given to the University by the Cadbury family. It was adapted as a residential facility with 25 bedrooms and a range of teaching rooms. These courses became the essential preparation for local government officers with ambitions to become chief executives. Much of the work on the courses was in small groups, which led to many lasting friendships between future senior local government officers and chief executives across the country – providing an essential support network for those in these tough roles. The Local Government Training / Management Board later commissioned John to visit almost all English local authorities and many in Scotland and Wales, assessing their capacity and recommending approaches to develop this further.
In addition to his remarkable 36-year writing partnership with LSE’s late Professor George Jones, John nurtured and collaborated with successive generations of scholars including Bob Hinings, Royston Greenwood, Stewart Ranson, Rod Rhodes, Kieron Walsh, Chris Skelcher, Steve Leach and many more. A few weeks ago, I invited some of his former colleagues to contribute some reflections for a potential collection of some of John’s works. I was delighted by the speed and warmth of the responses, typical examples including:
“John was the nation’s teacher of local democracy. He was a remarkable man, a gifted and inspiring leader at the Institute and across local government”
“John Stewart was the most significant British thinker on local government in the last half of the twentieth century. He was the key influence on several generations of local government workers”
“He argued that the narrative that users of public services should be treated as self-interested customers ignored their role as citizens with a wider interest in the welfare of their community”
“His wonderful insight helped so many people to be massively more effective than many of us thought possible”
“The most negative thing I ever heard him say about an idea was ‘I don’t think we can make that a priority’”
“I’ve not known such intellect, such tolerance, generosity and encouragement from a mentor. This must have been the same for many who have come under his giant but gentle wings”
“John and George [Jones] formed a partnership whose writings proclaimed the case for local government for almost forty years. They were doomed, like Cassandra, to have their warnings ignored. But John’s influence on the management of local authorities endures.”
Outside his professional life, John was a loving husband, father and grand-father. Following his death this week, his grandson Henry published a lovely thread on Twitter outlining some of John’s achievements and recollections from friends and colleagues.
It is immensely humbling to inherit the guardianship of one of John’s creations, Inlogov. I will close with another quotation, from my colleague Emeritus Professor John Raine this week:
His legacy in shaping the policy and practice agenda of local government in the UK, as well as on the development and sustainment of INLOGOV as the premier research and teaching centre for local governance, will surely endure.
Jason Lowther, Director – Inlogov
25th November 2022