Maurice Stonefrost: GLC's last Director General who outwitted the Tory government
Wednesday 26 November 2008
Maurice Stonefrost was Britain's leading practitioner of local government finance and the last Director General of the Greater London Council. He was a pioneer in seeking to enhance the role and qualifications of accountants, ensuring that their education and training fitted them to act as financial managers and not just technical bookkeepers.
Maurice Frank Stonefrost was born in Bristol in 1927 and attended its Merrydown Grammar School before beginning training as an accountant, aged 15, in 1942. He did his National Service in the RAF (1948-51), and then worked as a finance official in Bristol's council offices while studying part-time at Bristol University for his Diploma in Public Administration. He then moved to finance posts at Slough (1954-56), Coventry (1956-61) – where he came under the influence of its City Treasurer, the inspirational Hedley Marshall, who shaped the careers of many local-government high-flyers – and West Sussex (1961-64).
Stonefrost was an active member of his professional association, the Institute of Municipal Treasurers and Accountants (IMTA). In 1964 he was appointed its Secretary and, over the decade to 1973, he widened its concerns from just local government to cover the whole of the public sector, as symbolised by its change of name to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) in 1973.
His major achievement was to transform his institute into a mainstream accountancy organisation, concerned with financial management of both the public and private sectors. He sought to make accountants aware of the distinctive characteristics of public administration, and how it tackled risk and made choices. He helped make accountants key figures in decision-making. The institute, in its centenary year (1985), recognised his contribution to the profession by electing him its president.
Stonefrost sought to export his ideas about financial management to other countries. As Director of the Foundation for Accountancy and Financial Management he promoted accountancy and its standards to central and eastern Europe, even venturing into Siberia one dreadful winter.
In 1973 he was appointed Controller of Finance at the Greater London Council (GLC), serving first the Labour leader of the council Sir Reg Goodwin, and then the Conservative leader Horace Cutler. He won the respect of both, saving London's finances from the fate encountered by New York in 1975, when it all but went bankrupt. After 11 years he was appointed Director General of the GLC, serving its last leader, Ken Livingstone, and outwitting central government by taking ingenious advantage of legislation to draw into the GLC £200m in central-government grants after the end of the financial year.
Stonefrost enabled Livingstone to campaign legitimately against the abolition of the GLC and he devised the famous maze diagram with hundreds of lines between organisations illustrating how the Government's proposals would cause incomprehensible fragmentation to London's governance. Perhaps his failure to be knighted was because he had embarrassed Thatcher's government; his highest official honour was the CBE in 1983.
After the GLC he was appointed to a number of public and private sector positions. He became Chief Executive of the British Rail Pension Fund (1986-90), where with great panache he invested in fine art and sold its acquisitions for a considerable profit. In 1990 he became Chairman of Municipal Mutual Insurance. When it was in financial difficulties, his safe pair of hands averted its collapse, as they had when he was leader of the team investigating the finances of Liverpool City Council in 1985, rescuing it from the edge of bankruptcy.
He was highly respected outside local government, as was shown when he became Deputy Pro Chancellor of City University. The Speaker of the House of Commons asked him to be Chairman of the Commission on Citizenship and he was an adviser to the Church Commissioners. He was Chairman of the London Pensions Fund Authority, a member of the Architectural Heritage Fund and a member of the Committee on the Future of the Legal Profession. He was a superb committee man but not a confident performer on a public platform: his voice was quiet and calm, not rhetorical.
I saw him on top form as a colleague on the Layfield Committee on Local Government Finance (1974-76). He had a powerful, subtle intellect. He was not a simplifier but a complexifier, seeing the odd angle and contributing a fresh perspective, and cutting through obfuscation. He was not dogmatic or assertive, but spoke hesitantly, with a soothing west-country burr, taking his listeners with him on a journey of intellectual discovery. His manner was jovial and humorous, and he never incensed his opponents, whose follies he observed with wry detachment.
He was a true public servant, a professional to his fingertips, able to serve a range of political masters. He was a model of how officials can work with politicians and win their confidence, and yet not become party political. Like a kindly uncle he helped younger colleagues. He built and worked with teams devoted to him. He was a man of impeccable integrity, insisting that others followed his rigorous standards, But he had great charm, was always courteous, and fun to be with.
He liked flash cars, flamboyant shirts and ties and beige suits – he was said to be colour-blind. In later years he loved to holiday on cruises in distant oceans. He lived in Chichester, and had a flat in London's Dolphin Square, where he was chairman of its Trust.
Maurice Frank Stonefrost, financial controller and local-government expert: born Bristol 1 September 1927; Comptroller of Financial Services, Greater London Council 1973–84, Director General and Clerk 1984-85; CBE 1983; Chief Executive, BR Pension Fund 1986–90; Deputy Pro Chancellor, City University 1992–99; married 1953 Audrey Fishlock (one son, one daughter); died Chichester 25 October 2008.
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