Obituary: Sir Horace Cutler

Horace Cutler was the most formidable figure in the politics of London since Herbert Morrison, the pre-war leader of the old London County Council. But whereas Morrison went on to perform on the national stage - becoming Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, as well as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party - Cutler's achievements were confined entirely to local affairs.

He did, however, make two stabs at a parliamentary career. In 1960 he had high hopes of securing the Conservative nomination for Harrow West, Harrow being his native turf; but he lost out to Jack Page. In the 1970 General Election he fought the Labour seat of Willesden East: he lost, and thereafter forswore national politics, devoting his abundant energy and acute mind instead to the affairs of London under the aegis of the local government behemoth which was the Greater London Council, of which he was Leader from 1977 to 1981.

Horace Cutler was one of the seven children of an intermittently successful builder, who had begun his adult life as a carpenter. He was sent to Harrow Grammar School, where his somewhat flamboyant style of behaviour did not endear him to his teachers. But there was no doubt about the quickness of his intelligence, and he might well have gone to university, had not the untimely death of his father compelled him to plunge himself into the family business, as a young tiro.

He showed an immediate aptitude for two areas vital for that business. First, he had an eye for derelict property with a development potential. Second, he had great natural gifts as a business administrator. Both served the company well and, although it suffered vicissitudes, as most companies of its kind did, particularly in the straitened times after the Second World War, Cutler's story was one of success until, in 1985, an Inland Revenue Bill for what would today seem a trivial sum of just over pounds 100,000 forced the company into bankruptcy. Cutler remained bitter about what he saw as an unnecessarily draconian bureaucratic attitude to a basically sound business.

And, indeed, his later successes in businesses as varied as coin-operated launderettes and store management in Milton Keynes suggested that his judgement was better than that of the taxmen. But, in the meantime, long before any of the really dramatic events of his business and political careers, Cutler had served in the RNVR on one of the most dangerous of wartime tasks - minesweeping. When peacetime came his energies had to be, initially, devoted to the family business. But, in 1952, the direction of his life changed.

In that year he was elected a member of the Harrow borough council. He had been vestigially involved in Conservative politics since 1932 (when he had joined the Junior Imperial League, from social rather than political motives), but he had come to see how important local government was to people in his line of work, and how vital, therefore, it was for people like himself to become involved in local electoral politics. His central interests were in housing and planning and, in addition to his responsibilities at Harrow, he became a member of the Middlesex County Council; he was also Mayor of Harrow in 1959.

In 1965 the Greater London Council was established, and the political glory days of Horace Cutler began. He quickly became Deputy Leader of the Opposition and then, in 1974, Leader. It became clear, almost immediately, that he would become a scourge of bureaucracy, though his ideas were not to come into full effect until the Conservatives gained control of the GLC in 1977.

The GLC at that time had strategic control of the affairs of 22 boroughs, and a bigger budget than that of many nation states. In the early days (though he was to become disillusioned later) Cutler relished the task of running this sprawling empire: his enemies (and there were many, in both parties) thought he relished his job too much, and questions were from time to time raised about deals between his property companies and the council. Inquiries showed, however, that he had never behaved improperly.

He slashed the bureaucracy at County Hall, and virtually abolished the direct work scheme, by which the council employed directly labour for maintenance and development, rather than allowing private firms to tender for contracts. He sought privatisation before Margaret Thatcher had ever used the word. If John Biffen is right (and I think he is) that the sale of the council houses has been one of the most important aspects of privatisation, then Horace Cutler was its first prophet.

But he did have his failures, and his attempt to bring private investment into London Transport was, perhaps, the most dramatic. He also had problems with his party in Parliament: he never trusted the corporatist ideas of Edward Heath, and Heath did not trust him. However, when Margaret Thatcher was elected Leader of the party in 1979, Cutler found a soulmate. Their instincts about policy were much the same and, in particular, Cutler had become disillusioned about the possibility of efficiently running the GLC as a single unit: he was therefore receptive to her desire to abolish it, something which came to pass in 1986.

The word "flamboyant" remains the right word to describe Cutler's later career. From his sharply cut suits through his colourful bow ties, to his elegant beard, he was always a figure who maintained his own distinction. He loved and courted publicity, and rarely declined an opportunity to appear on a public platform, or on radio or television. But behind the dramatic image, and his various publicity stunts, Cutler was a dedicated, efficient, and very hard-working man.

Horace Walter Cutler, businessman and local politician: born London 28 July 1912; OBE 1963; Member for Harrow West, Greater London Council 1964-86, Leader of Opposition 1974-77, 1981-82, Leader 1977-81; Kt 1979; married (one son; marriage dissolved), second 1957 Christiane Muthesius (one son, three daughters); died Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire 2 March 1997.

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