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Obituary: Solace’s co-founder who helped redraw London boundaries

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Sir Alan Dawtry, chief executive of Westminster council from 1956 to 1977, died on Saturday aged 102. Here Sir Rodney Brooke, one of his successors as Westminster chief, reflects on his extraordinary life.

Sir Alan Dawtry CBE TD died on 27 January 2018. Formerly chief executive of Westminster, he was the last of the great patrician town clerks who commanded their councils and were held in awe by members.

After Sheffield University (which later gave him an honorary doctorate) his local government career started as a prosecuting solicitor with Sheffield City Council. A member of the Territorial Army, he was called up on the outbreak of war.

In France with his regiment, Alan was ordered to get back to England after the French army collapsed under the Blitzkrieg. He and his men made their way across country to Cherbourg – to find only one ship remaining in the harbour. It remained there only because the captain was dead drunk. Alan arrested the captain and steered the ship across the Channel to safety.

After the years of stalemate, 1943 saw Alan campaigning in Algeria and Tunisia. Later that year he took part in the Salerno landings in the face of bitter opposition from Kesselring’s 16th Panzer Division. Next year saw him at the equally bloody Anzio landings, where he and Denis Healey were each rewarded with a military MBE.

Ending the war as a lieutenant-colonel on the staff of Field Marshal Alexander, Alan was in Milan when it was reported to him that hanging upside down outside a petrol station were the bodies of Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci. He gave orders that the bodies be cut down.

Returning to Sheffield after the war, Alan clambered up the local government ladder, becoming successively deputy town clerk of Bolton and Leicester, then town clerk of Wolverhampton. He became town clerk (later chief executive) of the City of Westminster in 1956. He succeeded the august Sir Parker Morris, father-in-law of Roy Jenkins and eponymous creator of the standards for public housing which endured until Margaret Thatcher abolished them in 1980. Morris insisted that Alan address him as ‘Sir Parker’.

Westminster City Council, always Conservative-controlled, prided itself on providing excellent services for the less fortunate. It was run in some style: every chief officer had his own car and chauffeur, a privilege which endured until ended by Shirley Porter. Distinguished leaders of the council included national figures like Sir Hugh Cubitt and Sir Gordon Pirie (who referred to Alan as ‘the headmaster’). The council coffers were swollen when it became the first authority to introduce parking meters.

When Alan joined Westminster, local government in Greater London was a confusing mess. It included five counties, three county boroughs and a collection of district councils. Dame Evelyn Sharp, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Housing & Local Government (‘the Dame’ in the Crossman diaries), was determined on reform. Alan had a key role in overcoming local government resistance and the 32 London boroughs were established in their present form in 1965.

The new City of Westminster incorporated St Marylebone and Paddington. Alan insisted that all street signs in the enlarged City should be replaced in the uniform and elegant typeface which still endures. In recognition of his key role in the reorganisation, he became the first secretary of the London Boroughs Association (now London Councils).

When a new pattern of local government was established in the rest of the country in 1974, Alan joined Sir John Boynton, chief executive of Cheshire CC, in forming the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives to replace the three previous associations of chief executives. He succeeded John Boynton and became the second president of Solace.

In 1977 Westminster Council bought a new computer from Sperry Rand. Alan handled the negotiations. So impressed was the company that they appointed Alan as chairman of their UK and Irish Divisions. He remained chairman until the company was taken over nine years later.

In the mid-1960s the giant Dolphin Square development in Westminster was threatened with being turned into an hotel. Determined to avoid the loss of 1,250 units of residential accommodation, Westminster bought the complex and leased it to a non-profit-making trust. Famous tenants included General de Gaulle, Sarah Churchill, the Princess Royal and Harold Wilson. Tenants (other than parliamentarians) were required to live and work in central London. A proliferation of such ventures could have solved the housing problems of middle-income Londoners.

Alan combined charm with Yorkshire grit. He never learnt to drive and married for the first time at the age of 82.

Sir Rodney Brooke, former chief executive Westminster City Council

  • A memorial service for Sir Alan will be held at 14.30 on Friday 2 March at St Saviour’s Church, Pimlico
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