Some things I learnt from Stephen Ashworth

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This week as we formally say goodbye to Stephen Ashworth I wanted to say a few words on behalf of Quod.  We were lucky to have worked closely with Stephen over the years and he was a good friend of Quod as well as some of us personally.  Sue Willcox has been a close friend since their salad days fighting the supermarket wars together at Sainsbury’s.

I first met him some time in the late 1990s when he was part of a client group for some research we’d been commissioned to do.  I can’t remember who else was there but I clearly remember Stephen, slightly detached, always the outsider, at the end of a long table, listening intently and firing informed questions and observations as he would continue to do for the next two decades.

This inquisitiveness was one of the things that set him aside from his contemporaries.  Processology and narrow legalism weren’t for him.  Stephen wanted to know and be right about everything.  He loved visiting places, asking questions, learning new things, and challenging established knowledge.  He knew that planning itself played an important but limited role in making good development happen.

As a result his most significant contributions were on issues beyond narrow planning.  Probably most important and of most impact was his work to ensure that the public benefitted from increases in land values and profits from development.  The foundation for this was his academic research and publications from his time studying in the US.   He put this to practical use in helping develop the Milton Keynes tariff, advising on infrastructure funding and delivery for new housing developments and throwing the occasional rock at what he regarded as the messy and compromised system of developer contributions.

For someone as resolutely unclubbable as Stephen ironically it felt like he was everywhere.  Wherever he popped up, whether it was the Centre for Cities, the Town and Country Planning Association or giving evidence to Select Committees, he would always make a thoughtful, useful contribution, not there for networking or status but to help make better policy, better law, and ultimately better towns and cities.

I was always impressed by his rigour and, though unfashionable in these deeply cynical times, commitment to the truth.  His challenges to orthodoxy, his sometimes irritating tendency to cross examine you, and his habit of not letting things rest until they were resolved to his satisfaction, were about establishing what the right position was, not the most convenient or comfortable.

Stephen told truth to power, to clients, and indeed anyone who would listen.  And he was no respecter of rank – he was as comfortable telling an eminent QC or a FTSE 100 Chief Executive they were wrong as he was conceding to an inexperienced graduate that they were right.

This was part of his strength as a lawyer and contributed enormously to the quality of work of any team he was part of.  You couldn’t get away with sloppy thinking or self-serving arguments, and ultimately that gave him a solid base for whatever case he was making.  But that wasn’t his purpose.  Stephen had a genuinely moral basis to his work.  He saw planning as serving the public interest and advised clients on what was the right thing to do, not necessarily the most expedient.  It probably cost him some work but made him trusted by those he worked with, whose interests he fiercely argued for, whether that be private clients or public authorities.

His ethics, intensity and quiet but sharp suburban Manchester voice carried echoes of a provincial English radical non-conformism.  One can imagine him in a previous life being exiled for one too many barbed comments at the expense of the establishment.

If this makes him sound sanctimonious, he wasn’t.  He had an ear and an eye for irony and absurdity, including his own.  The sideways grin, raised eyebrow, and twinkle in the eye were never far away and disagreements were rarely personal.

We remain shocked and bereft at his absence but his legacy will be in those many people he helped and mentored, the careers he promoted, the projects he shepherded through, and his huge contribution to practice.  Whilst we can’t all be Stephen – I don’t think we could cope with the emotional energy in meetings that might entail – we can all learn from his approach to his life and his work, the way he conducted himself and his belief that we can, and should try to, make a difference.

Stephen spoke often of Jenny, Luke and Romilly, loved them dearly and was immensely proud of them.  We hope that the esteem in which he was held and his positive effect on the lives of those he came into contact with will be some small consolation to them.

His colleague Roy Pinnock’s obituary and tribute, alongside the hundreds of comments pay testament to his huge influence and regard in which he was held.

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