Lady David: Local authority veteran who became a champion of education as a member of the House of Lords

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The Independent Online

One of those indefatigable, vibrant, Newnham girls of the 1930s, Nora David was a local authority heavyweight with an expertise in new towns who had the ear of both Harold Wilson as Prime Minister and Dick Crossman as Minister of Housing and Local Government (1964-66), and many other members of the inner circle of Labour politics.

She was not only a charming, winning lady but also showed extremely careful and good judgement, devoid of selfish considerations. In her late 70s and throughout her 80s and early 90s she was a delightful travelling companion for those of us lucky enough to go on the foreign visits of the All Party Heritage Group organised by one of her friends, the Conservative MP Sir Patrick Cormack. He told me, "My wife Mary and I called to see Nora in Cornwall in September, and she was still as elegant, gracious and immaculately turned out as she had been when she celebrated her 91st birthday in Riga on an All Party Heritage Group visit. Her mind was as sharp as ever and her conversation sparky."

Nora Ratcliff Blakesley was born into a family which valued public service. Her father, George Blockley Blakesley, was a justice of the peace and a merchant in Leicestershire. The beneficiary of an excellent education at what, she told me with a chuckle, was a very rigorous girls' grammar school at Ashby-de-la-Zouch, not only laid the foundations for her splendid deportment into great old age but also her valued scholarship. Thanks to excellent teaching – throughout her life she was to champion high-quality teachers – she won a scholarship to read English at Newnham College, Cambridge. In her first year she became the girlfriend of a young man at Corpus Christi College, Richard William, always called Dick David. They married on graduation and he joined the Cambridge University Press in 1936.

The war years were difficult for David as she had two sons and two daughters and her husband, who rose to the rank of Lt Commander, was serving in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in the Mediterranean and the western approaches as a qualified navigating officer.

At the end of the war, he returned to the Cambridge University Press and became their London manager from 1948-l963, while Nora concentrated on being an excellent mother. On Dick David's appointment as secretary to the syndics of the Cambridge University Press in 1963, she moved to Cambridge. She shared many of his interests, which ranged from the chairmanship of the Export Research Committee to the presidency of the Botanical Society of the British Isles. I will never forget how the two of them, on the All- Party Heritage visit to Spain, went searching in the countryside for rare flora. David was a considerable authority in her own right on the flora of her beloved Cornwall and on the sedges of the British Isles.

In 1978 David was nominated by James Callaghan as a life baroness. He thought that her work on the Cambridge City Council, on the Cambridgeshire County Council, and as a member of the board of Peterborough Development Corporation, would make her a most useful member of the House of Lords. And, indeed, this is exactly what she was, conscientious in her attendance for two decades and more. Within weeks she became a government whip, and then in Labour's dark days, 1979-83, an ever-cheerful opposition whip. Neil Kinnock, on advice from colleagues in the Lords, among whom she was extremely popular, made her a deputy chief whip, from 1983-87. In opposition she was a workhorse – a spokesman on education (1979-85), on the environment (1985-87) and on education again (1987-1997). She always said that some of her best work was done as a member of the select committee of the House of Lords on European communities (1990-1994).

David made her maiden speech on 19 May 1978, within days of her ennoblement, on the Inner Urban Areas Bill. "I had not thought to make my maiden speech so soon after being introduced to the House, but as a member of a local authority and as a member of the board of Peterborough Development Corporation, I felt that I had some experience relevant to this matter," she said. Indeed she had; although it was a modest Bill, it was an increasingly important topic in the late 1970s and in the following decade it was to become hugely important, given the inner-city riots.

David liked the idea of partnership between central and local government, but was always asking whether there was not a need for a strong executive arm to get things moving, an executive arm responsible for land assembly, main infrastructure and site services, new building and rehabilitation. She had seen at first hand how efficiently and effectively the new- town arrangements worked in partnership with county and district councils. She would often refer to the merits of the New Towns Act, which combined all the powers that a development corporation needed for planning, land acquisition, development, management, disposal, and for the funding of its activities through central government. She often made reference to the importance of the variety of formal and informal consents and agreements at both local and national levels.

One of the attractions of new towns for David was the consistency and continuity in policy and programmes, quick decision-making and the possibility of being adventurous and imaginative. New towns could help people to move to houses they could afford and, just as importantly, they could set up training schemes and skill centres so that those going there could try to acquire greater skills than they had at present – skills which were very much needed when labour-intensive farms were getting fewer and fewer. Even as an octogenarian, David was very conscious of the changes in society. In particular, she wanted the government, before it became fashionable to ask, to take seriously the problem of excesses in land costs; she abhorred property developers hanging on to land and leaving it idle.

Her contribution to education, arising from her experience as a member of the Cambridge County Council and her connection with many of the Cambridge dons and colleges, was not only made in speeches from the front bench in the House of Lords, but also in what I know at first hand was her contribution on endless education committees and sub-committees of the Labour Party. Neil Kinnock, who was education spokesman before he became leader of the Labour Party, told me, "Nora had a great relationship with Glenys and me; we kept in touch until she died. Nora was a dutiful, elegant, radical woman with a heart of gold, great intelligence, a total commitment to expanding educational opportunities. She gave invaluable support to a succession of Labour educational spokespersons."

In April 1995 she laid the foundation stone for the Rosalind Franklin Building at Newnham College which provides postgraduate accommodation.

Many of her close friends, such as Noel Allen and Dadie Rylands (with whom she had acted in plays in the 1930s), have passed on. Her contemporaries would have valued her as one of the lively spirits of Cambridge and intellectual London. The honour that pleased her most was not membership of the House of Lords, but an honorary fellowship of her own old college, Newnham. By decision of the mistress of Newnham, Dame Patricia Hodgson, and the fellows, the flag was to fly at half-mast on the day of Lady David's death, a rare tribute.

Nora Ratcliff Blakesley, politician and local authority leader: born Ashby-de-la Zouch, Leicestershire 23 September 1913; councillor, Cambridge City Council, 1964-67, Cambridge County Council 1968-74, member of the board of Peterborough Development Corporation 1976-78, Government whip in the Lords 1978-79, Opposition whip 1979-83, Opposition deputy chief whip 1983-87, Opposition spokesperson on education 1979-85, on the environment 1985-87, on education 1987-97; cr. Baroness David of Romsey, 1978; married 1935 Richard William David (died 1993, two sons, two daughters); died Truro, Cornwall 29 November 2009.