Sir Geoffrey Ellerton

Public servant in Kenya and Britain
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The Independent Online

Geoffrey Ellerton had a distinguished career in the Colonial Civil Service, and in his later years was a highly effective and respected chairman of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. Born in London in 1920, he was the son of Sir Cecil Ellerton, a banker who had a string of blue chip company directorships with such banks as Barclays, the Yorkshire and Banque de Commerce. From his father, Geoffrey inherited a lifelong love of books and cricket. Music was another interest, although that developed later.

He was educated at Highgate School in north London. Like Haileybury College, Highgate School tended, in the inter-war years, to turn out senior administrators and army officers. It is not surprising that when he left Highgate for Oxford, Geoffrey Ellerton had already been thinking of a career in the Colonial Service. At Oxford, he chose to read History at Hertford College. Evelyn Waugh had been there some 20 years before. It has always had the reputation of being a slightly stuffy and rather remote High-Tory bastion.

Ellerton's Second World War service was spent as a commissioned officer in one of the least glamorous parts of the British army - the Pioneer Corps. He could not really do very much about this, because all his life he had suffered from poor eyesight. After the war, he passed the examinations to enter the Colonial Service. This was at the very time when the newly elected Labour government had come to power with plans to give India its independence and pursue a planned retreat from other colonial outposts. Ellerton must have known then that there was little prospect of having a job for life.

His first major posting, in 1945, was that of District Officer in Kenya. He had a talent for getting on with all sorts of people and his prowess on the cricket field also helped. He was to gain rapid promotion. By 1960, he was Kenya's Acting Minister for Defence and later Permanent Secretary and Secretary to the Kenyan Cabinet. But by 1963, when Ellerton had reached the early age of 43, it was all over - Kenya was granted independence. Princess Marina represented the Queen at the independence celebrations and then returned to London; Ellerton and his family were to follow shortly afterwards. They left behind a few empty champagne bottles and countless friends, including Jomo Kenyatta.

Ellerton returned to Britain with a deeply uncertain future. The Government was unbelievably harsh and petty in its attitude to former colonial civil servants. There was certainly no question of any of them being offered equivalent posts in the Home Civil Service. Those who wanted to embark on a career in the Home Civil Service had to study for lengthy periods at their own expense. Then they had to take the required examinations in order even to be offered interviews. And when they had cleared the last hurdle of a tough, and sometimes deeply insulting, interview, they were to find that the jobs on offer were way below those they had held abroad in terms of status, money, prestige and general job satisfaction. Many felt humiliated and betrayed after years of loyal service to the Crown in difficult and often dangerous conditions. But some, like Ellerton, swallowed their pride and quietly got on with life.

In 1964, he accepted the post of Secretary to the Maud and Mallaby Committees on Management and Staffing in Local Government. That post was to give him some crucial background knowledge when he was appointed chairman of the Local Government Boundary Commission in 1983.

In the 1970s, Ellerton made use of some of his father's old business contacts and gradually built up a portfolio of directorships in such companies as Elder Dempster Shipping Lines, Ocean Transport and Trading Limited, Electra Group Services and the Globe Investment Trust. Then he was offered the chairmanship of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England, with offices and a small group of staff at 20 Albert Embankment.

The main task of the commission was to undertake a review of local government boundaries in the metropolitan areas of England. This included looking at the boundaries of councils in, and bordering on, big cities like London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Newcastle, to see if they needed changing so as to get greater effectiveness, efficiency and value for money. Potentially, it was a hornets' nest. Most councils guarded their boundaries with great zeal. Some just wanted no change, while others wanted to take over neighbouring councils.

Ellerton was concerned that some proposals might involve him and his fellow commissioners in lengthy court action. And he was also worried about the potential huge workload and its effect on his slender budget and small number of staff. He then had a brainwave. He decided to send out a small team of staff, headed by Brian Casterton and assisted by Chris Lazenby, me and a few others, to talk to the councils on an informal basis about the review and to suggest that they put forward changes which could be justified solely on grounds of efficiency and effectiveness. The Ellerton idea worked brilliantly. On the whole, local authorities behaved themselves and the review was a resounding success.

Ellerton's term as chairman was renewed on three occasions by successive Secretaries of State for the Environment. This was a rarity equalled only by Lord Wyatt of Weeford's tenure at the Tote. Ellerton owed his continuing chairmanship to sheer merit, hard work and good personal relations with all his colleagues - from the highest to the lowest. With help from the able Stephen Garrish, Secretary to the Commission, he ran a hard-working but immensely happy ship. He retired in 1992.

Ronald Porter

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