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Professor John Stewart (OS 1947)

Stockport Grammar School was saddened to receive notice of the death of Old Stopfordian, Professor John Stewart (OS 1947). Through his work at the Institute of Local Government Studies at Birmingham University, Professor Stewart knew most of the chief executives of councils in England and Wales.

Photograph: Old Stopfordian Professor John Stewart (OS 1947).

Obituary: Professor John Stewart

My father, John Stewart, who has died aged 93, was friend and mentor to hundreds of local authority chief executives and other senior officers, and to politicians from all political backgrounds.

He was appointed a professor at the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) at the University of Birmingham in 1966. The following year he created the Advanced Management Development Programme, consisting of 10-week-long residential courses held at Wast Hills House outside Birmingham. These became stepping stones for local government officers with ambitions to become chief executives. It had its own culture – everything was off the record, there was no assessment or exams, references were not given on the basis of the courses. Through these courses John knew most of the chief executives of councils in England and Wales.

This, and his articles in the Local Government Chronicle and Municipal Journal, written over nearly 40 years with Prof George Jones of the London School of Economics, made him the guru of British local government.

John was born and brought up in Stockport. His father, David, was a doctor and a lecturer at Manchester University. His mother, Phyllis (nee Crossley), had worked at the Manchester Stationery Office before her marriage.

From Stockport grammar school John won a place at Balliol College, Oxford. But first he did national service; he was posted to Iraq, where he caught polio and was invalided home. He came off relatively lightly, still able to walk. He went to Oxford in 1949, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics, and joined the Oxford Union. In 1951 he met Theresa Raisman, who was studying maths at Somerville College, and they married in 1953.

After graduating, John studied for a DPhil at Nuffield College, Oxford, on the influence of British pressure groups on the government. This was published in 1958. By then he was working for the National Coal Board, where he became head of industrial relations in the South Yorkshire coalfield. However, when the Conservative government appointed Alf Robens as NCB chair, he became disillusioned. John decided to move into academia, and in 1966 was appointed to lead work on British local government at INLOGOV; he was later made professor and then director.

In 1974 John was asked to sit on the Layfield committee on local government finance. It was there that he met Jones, and the two of them had a major influence on the report, published in 1976, that made a convincing case for a local income tax to finance local government. But this was too much for the Wilson government, and then in the late 1980s the Conservatives replaced the rates with a poll tax. The opportunity for decentralisation and local democracy had been missed.

John retired in 1998. It gave him more time to work in his garden, travel, and talk to and play games with his children, grandchildren and eventually great-grandchildren. Articles written with Jones still appeared. Their last joint publication, Centralisation, Devolution and the Future of Local Government in England, written with Steve Leach, was published shortly after Jones’s death in 2018.

Theresa died in 2020. John is survived by their four children – David, Lindsey, Henry and me – 10 grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.

Selina Stewart

Permission to share received.

Tribute to Professor John Stewart by fellow Old Stopfordian, Mr Christopher Willcock (OS 1948):

John and I were together in the same forms all our time at SGS. We started together in Junior B at SGS under Form Master Bertram Seton 85 years ago, in 1937. I also had the occasional visit to his home near to Heaton Chapel station.  Even in the early years he had an interest in politics beyond the rest of us.  I recall the fierce debates in the Sixth Form in 1945 at the time of the General Election, even with the war against Japan still on.  John, Peter Firth and Roger Cuss attacked or defended the policies of the parties. One notable event was when John questioned a history Teacher that he had got his facts wrong. No one ever spoke or asked questions, we just took notes.

Upon leaving Stockport Grammar School, John then served in the RAF in Iraq and I was in the Army in Germany. We met up again at Oxford and I was able join him in his rooms in Balliol or Hollywell Manor.  John was more than a member of the Oxford Union Society, which at that time was flush with future MPs, Cabinet Ministers and Leader of a Party, Jeremy Thorpe. Competition every term for election to a post as an Officer, leading to President, was intense, and to John’s credit he was elected as Treasurer or Secretary. I thought this was a splendid achievement for someone from SGS.