Lord Bruce-Lockhart: Powerful advocate of local government who became an effective chairman of English Heritage

Few would have thought when he was first elected to Kent County Council in 1989 that Sandy Bruce-Lockhart would eight years later lead his Conservative group back into power and become one of the most powerful advocates of the localist agenda, helping return it to centre-stage in British politics.

At the time, he was a self-confessed cynic about local government, but as one of those leading the protests against the route of the proposed high-speed railway line on behalf of the Weald of Kent Preservation Society, he was persuaded to stand for the council and was elected for Maidstone Rural East, the seat he held until he died. He indicated that he would give a day a week to being a councillor, but Kent County Council took over his life, as he realised the importance and value of local government.

He became a passionate supporter of greater decentralisation and the devolution of power from Whitehall. After two years as vice-chairman, he succeeded Sir Jeremy Beecham as chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA) in 2004 and used his position to press a cross-party case for greater reliance on local authorities to deliver a reform agenda. It was, he believed, the only way to deal with the gulf that was opening up between politicians and people. In 2006 he told Ruth Kelly, then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, that there had been "an erosion of democracy, a crisis of trust, a cynicism with politicians and with the ability of seemingly unreachable governance to deliver solutions. We must give people back power and influence over their lives, their local services, and the future of places where they live."

He was made a life peer in 2006 and in August last year was appointed chairman of English Heritage, a job where he could deploy his negotiating skills and his love of history, landscape and the environment. Paying tribute to the major contribution he had made in 12 months, the chief executive, Simon Thurley, noted that, battling hard, he had secured a reversal of the decade-long decline in the organisation's real terms funding and had "achieved a major breakthrough in our plans for Stonehenge, convincing ministers that the new, affordable scheme was worth government backing".

Alexander John Bruce-Lockhart came from a Scottish family that had made its mark on education and in diplomacy. He was educated at the Dragon School, Sedbergh and at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester. He worked abroad, managing a farm in Zimbabwe for its South African owner, 1963-65, and after UDI also spent some time in Australia. By what he always regarded as a remarkable twist of fate, he was persuaded to exchange passages with a friend and ended up on the same boat as the girl who was to become his wife, Tess Pressland. They settled at Headcorn in Kent in 1966, where Sandy Bruce-Lockhart farmed a 300-acre fruit farm and for a while kept a herd of Guernseys. Although not a native of the county, he soon came to love Kent, its countryside, people and history.

At the county council, Bruce-Lockhart took over the leadership of a Conservative group demoralised by being out of office for the first time in the council's history, and in 1997, a year of national humiliation for the Conservative Party, he took it back into power in Kent. He was determined to restore the county to its proper place in the premier league of local government. Under his leadership the council went through significant changes. Senior management was restructured and business models introduced. But these changes did not cut the heart out of the authority, rather they left it leaner, fitter and with a sharper focus on its task of serving the public.

Bruce-Lockhart had early been struck by the commitment of those who served the authority and felt that their strong ethic for helping others and their deep commitment to the work they were doing was undervalued by society. He was also acutely aware that while there was genuine affluence in Kent, much of the county did not share in it. He had a strong social conscience and as his Member of Parliament, Ann Widdecombe, observed, he thought that people had "lost their sense of belonging and that the disadvantaged need a hand-up as well as a hand-out".

He would have liked to see full responsibility and powers return to local authorities to deal with worklessness and welfare dependency and sought in July last year to amend the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill to that effect. During his leadership, Kent County Council was among the first, if not the first, to negotiate agreements with central government, pioneering a system that is now part of the local government scene, and it was by no means the only policy innovation that came from Kent during his time as leader.

The Guardian in 2000 described Sandy Bruce-Lockhart as the most powerful Tory politician in Britain, identified the principles on which he operated as the "new Toryism. . . firm financial management with an equally strong economic, moral and social agenda". And it was in that spirit that he gave early support to Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice, certain that putting social justice at the heart of Conservative politics was critical to the future of his party.

He was knighted in 2003 and became an influential figure in the Conservative Party (the 38th most influential, the Telegraph reckoned). When he stepped down from the council leadership in October 2005, Kent had gained the top rating in government performance tables for the previous two years.

Bruce-Lockhart had already established himself by then as a formidable national leader. He presided over the Transmanche Euroregion in 1998-99, chaired the LGA's Environment and Regeneration Executive 1999-2002, and became one of the Association's vice-chairmen in 2002. Among several campaigns, his fight for reform of the asylum system was notable. When in 2004 he became the first Conservative chairman of the LGA, he worked tirelessly to revive the fortunes of local government.

When he stood down in July 2007 to become chairman of English Heritage, he had won the respect and affection of colleagues in all parties. Urbane, courteous, good-humoured and tactful, he was also passionate and determined to do what was right, and they respected him for that. Within three months, he was found to be suffering from cancer, but refused to let it affect his contributions to debate in the Lords.

John Barnes

Alexander John Bruce-Lockhart, politician and farmer: born Wakefield, Yorkshire 4 May 1942; member, Kent County Council 1989-2008, leader of the Conservative Group 1993-2005, leader of council 1997-2005; OBE 1995; president, Transmanche Euroregion 1998-99; Kt 2003; vice-chairman, Local Government Association 2002-04, chairman 2004-07; chairman, Kent Thameside Delivery Board 2004-08; chairman, English Heritage 2007-08; created 2006 Baron Bruce-Lockhart; married 1966 Tess Pressland (two sons, one daughter); died Maidstone, Kent 14 August 2008.

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