Obituary: Sir Colin Walker

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HIS BACKGROUND as a working farmer and countryman contributed strengths to his character that helped Colin Walker to head the National Blood Authority and regional health authorities. For nearly 12 years, until his death, he was also chairman of the trust that operates the busiest deepwater harbour in the British Isles.

His firmness in decision-making lay under a gentle manner and he took pains to meet and listen to as many employees as he could. That was quite easy to do on his Suffolk farmlands and not too difficult with 124 people in Harwich Haven Authority who serve no fewer than five ports: Felixstowe, Harwich International, Harwich Naval Yard, Ipswich and Mistley. It was much harder to achieve when he chaired the East Anglian Health Authority, with 32,000 people in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, but he never gave up trying.

A still broader geographic challenge did not daunt him on his appointment as chairman of the National Blood Authority on its formation in 1993, taking over transfusion and laboratory services in England and North Wales. This reorganisation of services was seen as absolutely essential. Walker not only accomplished that, raising still further the good international reputation they held, but met countless blood donors and members of collection teams.

"The many people who voluntarily and regularly donate their blood to help others are giving one of the most precious gifts to their fellow man," he said. He visited more than 90 teams throughout Britain. Controversy and politics intervened, however, largely through a reduction in the number of blood processing and testing centres, from 14 to 10. Criticism of changes, notably at Liverpool and Oxford, caused the Health Secretary, Frank Dobson, to end Walker's appointment in April 1998. He was hurt, but not bitter.

His own political background did not greatly extend beyond his home county of Suffolk, where he was chairman of the former Eye Constituency Conservative Association, was shortlisted twice as a parliamentary candidate (for Ipswich and the new Suffolk Coastal division) and served from 1976 until 1980 as a Suffolk county councillor. He was chairman of the All Party European Movement in Suffolk from 1979 until 1981.

Walker headed East Suffolk Health Authority before becoming chairman of the East Anglian Regional Health Authority, from 1987 until 1994. He himself became a patient at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge after suffering a stroke last autumn. As soon as he was permitted to do so he went back to the helm of Harwich Haven Authority and intended to chair its meeting last Thursday before retiring on his 65th birthday next month.

The Transport Secretary Paul Channon had appointed him chairman of the authority in 1988, expecting him, in line with government policy, to oversee its privatisation. Walker, however, concluded that this was not the right destiny for the authority, then and now a public trust, and stood firm against pressure to privatise from Whitehall and commercial interests.

The chief executive of the Harwich Haven Authority, Nigel Pryke, commented: "Although he had no previous experience of ports or shipping, Sir Colin was remarkably astute at putting his finger on key maritime issues." Neutrality in this aspect of his life became increasingly vital because of changes in port ownership in the 1990s. Hutchison Whampoa bought Felixstowe and Harwich International, with Hutchison's principal UK rival, Associated British Ports, buying Ipswich.

Walker backed Felixstowe projects to extend its container facilities, which are now by far the largest in the UK and fourth in the European league of terminals. He saw no contradiction between this and his membership of Suffolk Wildlife Trust, for which he helped to raise substantial funds. "I am dedicated to the wildlife trust and well understand its concerns about the effect that growing trade can have on wildlife," he explained. "But I do not believe that Felixstowe's expansion will significantly harm it. If we are to spend money looking after wildlife, someone has first to earn that money. A successful port is able, indirectly, to do that much better than an unsuccessful business."

Felixstowe port has provided money needed to create and run Trimley Marsh Nature Reserve as compensation for mudflats lost by wildfowl and waders to cargo containers. Walker encouraged co- operation between various harbour and estuary interests that bear fruit in environmental works and research. Jeffrey Jenkinson, a former chief executive of the haven authority, remembers Walker as "a determined chairman who took his responsibilities very seriously, but was also a warm and courteous man equally at home with Secretaries of State and harbour staff". Walker's gift of knowing the right people was legendary. When contact was needed with Trinity College, Cambridge, which owns a large chunk of the Felixstowe peninsula, or the Crown Estate, which owns the harbour bed, he was already acquainted with men who had the answers.

Walker's most spectacular memorial will stay hidden from sight. The haven authority's pounds 30m deeper dredging scheme is due to be completed by the spring of 2000 and will make Felixstowe more easily accessible to the world's largest container ships.

Walker and his family have always taken the long view. They have been farming at Hacheston since the reign of Elizabeth I and maybe long before that. Some 500 trees came down on Walker's land in the October 1987 hurricane, including majestic oaks. He lost no time in planting replacements for them all.

Donald Black

Colin John Shedlock Walker, farmer and public servant: born Hacheston, Suffolk 7 October 1934; OBE 1981; Chairman, East Suffolk Health Authority 1986-87, East Anglian Regional Health Authority 1987-94; Chairman, Harwich Haven Authority 1988-99; Kt 1991; Chairman, National Blood Authority 1993- 98; married 1963 Wendy Ellis (two sons); died Ipswich 1 September 1999.