Lord Sefton of Garston

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The Independent Online

William Henry Sefton, local politician: born Garston, Lancashire 5 August 1915; member, Liverpool City Council 1953-74, Leader 1964-74; Chairman and Leader, Merseyside County Council 1974-77, Opposition Leader 1977-79; Chairman, Runcorn Development Corporation 1974-81; Chairman, North West Economic Planning Council 1975-89; created 1978 Baron Sefton of Garston; married 1940 Phyllis Kerr (died 1991), 2000 Mrs Evelyn Pimblett; died Liverpool 9 September 2001.

Lord Sefton of Garston, or as Liverpool people will always know him plain Bill Sefton, was Leader of Liverpool City Council from 1964 to 1974 and later the first chairman of Merseyside County Council.

Born, in 1915, and brought up in a typical working-class family in Garston in the south end of Liverpool, after an elementary education he went to work in the Garston Tannery Factory, a rough, tough job. He was a plumber by trade.

He became part of a group who joined the Liverpool Labour Party and a delegate to Liverpool Trades Council and Labour Party. This was the oldest joint council of trade unions and the Labour Party in the country. Each month some three to four hundred members would meet in the Transport Hall and vigorously argue the political and labour-relations issues of the day. If you could withstand these monthly verbal battles you were soon noticed as a person with a political future.

Bill Sefton became the leader of this "left-wing" Garston group. In those days Jack Braddock (the husband of the firebrand Bessie Braddock) was the Labour leader and a chief target for these "left-wingers". Sefton was a vigorous and sharp speaker. He became a city councillor and then the deputy leader to Braddock.

A year or two later Jack Braddock was speaking at the dinner for the John Moores Autumn Art Exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery. He sat down at the end of his speech, collapsed and died. Bill Sefton was thrust into the role of leader just at the beginning of the city's budget-making process. He told me later that six months of making a city budget made him appreciate the qualities of Braddock, about whom he had previously been highly critical.

Sefton became a good leader of the council and had visionary plans of developing the city, but he was caught in the political problem of raising council-house rents. As a result of the fratricidal conflict in the Labour Party on this issue he lost his council seat in the 1974 elections, but he was elected to the newly created Merseyside County Council, where he became Leader. He was also Chairman of Runcorn New Town Development Corporation.

Towards the end of the Callaghan Labour government he was persuaded by Jim Callaghan to become a member of the House of Lords, where he could play a useful role with his experiences in local government. He reluctantly took the title Lord Sefton of Garston and sat amongst the peers in the House of Lords. The Callaghan government was defeated and there was then a long period of Tory government, which had no use for Bill Sefton, nor did he fit into the atmosphere of the Lords.

Bill Sefton was devoted to his first wife, Phyllis, and when she died he felt lonely. A rough diamond, in spite of his rough edges he had a straightforward honesty and a heart of gold. He started in life determined to abolish all the remnants of the aristocracy, only to end his days sitting morosely in the biggest bastion of aristocratic privilege in the country.

John D. Hamilton

 

There were wry smiles among the North-Western Group of Labour MPs when they were told in 1978 that, of all people, Bill Sefton had accepted a peerage from the Callaghan government, writes Tam Dalyell.

No one had ranted so loudly against "toffs'" in general and the House of Lords in particular. No one had fulminated so vehemently against Westminster and all its works, advantaging the South to the disadvantage of the North. Sefton had even opined on more than one occasion that the best thing that could happen to the Palace of Westminster was that it be blown up. How so cheerful, witty and good-natured a peer of the realm as he was to become could hold such extreme views I never did work out. But perhaps it was that Sefton was a great local politician "fallen among planners". His friendship with Graeme Shankland, the city planning consultant of Liverpool and an ex-Communist, as were many planners, was an important factor.

The late Eric Heffer's 1991 autobiography Never a Yes Man says a lot:

It was during these four years, 1963-67, on the council that the planners arrived in Liverpool with grand schemes for transforming the city. Like many others, I was prepared to welcome them. Jack Braddock was not. Looking back on it, he was right and people like Bill Sefton and myself were wrong.

Bill became Leader after Jack Braddock died and was very much sold on the ideas of the planners. We had city plan after city plan put before us. It all seemed very exciting. The bulldozers appeared and parts of the city were pulled down. The whole place became a construction site. Buildings were demolished but little was put in their place. In the end, both the Labour and Tory parties lost support due to the state of the city and the Liberals became the major party in the city. It was because of their activities that the city was nicknamed "Toy Town".

 

However, in 1978 planning was all the fashion, even if it meant destruction of historic parts of cities which in later years would certainly have been saved, at the behest of architectural historians and people who were prepared to conserve – despite all difficulties – rather than start afresh.

I came to know Sefton extremely well after a visit to the Walton Constituency Labour Party in Liverpool. When he arrived as a member of the House of Lords he contacted me, offering any service he could render to the group of us who were urging "Vote No" to devolution in Scotland. The core of his belief was that big regional councils, be they in the north-west of England, West Yorkshire or Strathclyde and Lothian in Scotland, were the best form of government for delivering the services that the people demanded. Perhaps more than any other member of the House of Lords, he foresaw the problems that devolution would bring.

Whenever I saw him in the corridors of Parliament, where he became a very regular and faithful attender (notorious, too, for his expression of anti-religious sentiment), he would point out some enormity of either the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly. For all his extremism Sefton was one of the last of the giants of regional government.

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