Sir Robert Calderwood

Local authority executive with a 'kindly sense of socialism' who oversaw Strathclyde Regional Council

Robert Calderwood, local politician and solicitor: born Kilmarnock, Ayrshire 1 March 1932; Town Clerk of Salford 1966-69; Town Clerk of Bolton 1969-73; Town Clerk of Manchester 1973-79; committee member, Society of Local Authority Chief Executives 1974-92, president 1989-90; Chief Executive, Strathclyde Regional Council 1980-92; Kt 1990; chairman, Greater Glasgow Health Board, 1993-97; married 1958 Meryl Fleming (three sons, one daughter); died Milngavie, Dunbartonshire 28 May 2006.

Successively chief executive of Salford local authority, 1966-69, of Bolton, 1969-73, of Manchester, 1973-79, and finally of the largest local authority in Britain, Strathclyde Regional Council, 1980-92, Robert Calderwood was both a powerful figure and an innovator in British local government. Few, if any, local authority figures had more influence during the quarter of a century in which he was active and in 1989-90 he served as president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives.

Born in 1932, Calderwood was the son of a mill worker who became Provost (mayor) of Darvel in Ayrshire. When Calderwood was nine, his father took up a full-time position as a trade union officer with Usdaw, the Union of Shop Distributive and Allied Workers, which involved moving to Manchester, where the union had its headquarters and where its national officers were expected to reside. Calderwood said later that he felt himself very fortunate to gain admittance by examination to the city's rigorous William Hulme's School from which he won a place to study Law at Manchester University, later, in 1956, being admitted as a solicitor.

The former Irene Jones (now Lady Morris of Manchester) and her sister-in-law Pauline Morris recall that Calderwood was a popular member of the Labour League of Youth, "with his flaming red hair, looking like, in the view of the girls, a young Spencer Tracy". They also recalled his "deep-rooted, but kindly sense of socialism". In 1948, the League ran speaking contests; the team from the north-west consisted of Irene Jones as chairman, her future husband Alf Morris, now Lord Morris of Manchester, as the speaker; and Bob Calderwood, four years younger but chosen to move the vote of thanks. They won the north-west championship and finished a good second in the national finals.

My first meeting with Calderwood is indelibly etched on my mind. In 1966, after a visit to the Borneo War, I was asked by the fiercely left-wing Frank Allaun MP to visit Salford for a meeting of his constituency Labour Party and he briefed me on Calderwood as "this marvellous new chief executive we've got whose deep-down socialism matches his flaming red hair". Calderwood was always careful not to be overtly political but he did have deep political beliefs, which were to erupt when Margaret Thatcher and her government decided to experiment with the Poll Tax. This represented all that Calderwood thought wrong with that kind of society.

Unsurprisingly, in 1969 Calderwood was poached by the larger authority of Bolton to be chief executive. Terry Lewis, former Labour MP for Worsley but at that time a member of Kearsley District Council, worked closely with Calderwood striving to cope with the problems of local government reorganisation. According to Lewis, Calderwood was outstanding in operating the co-ordinating committee and was a superb organiser, with a considerable presence. He would do the spade work, with results the elected councillors could be proud of. It was perhaps natural that from the grandeur of the Bolton Town Hall, Calderwood should be chosen in 1973 for the plum job of Town Clerk of Manchester.

Charles Morris, former member of Manchester corporation and MP for Manchester Openshaw, 1963-83, recalls Calderwood's watch in the Manchester Town Hall:

The Town Clerk of Manchester has a huge range of responsibilities ranging from the airport to the ship canal to water gathering in the Lake District and a number of special niche activities to do with the arts. I thought Calderwood was in complete control of his voluminous responsibilities.

There was some surprise that he should leave Manchester in 1979 to succeed the formidable Sir Lawrence Boyle as Chief Executive of Strathclyde Regional Council. The truth was, Calderwood told me, that although he was grateful to Lancashire both for the education it had given him and for the opportunities afforded by great authorities, he had not lost his yearning for Scotland, nor, for that matter, his lilting Ayrshire accent.

The Wheatley Commission had established the Scottish regions in 1975 and was much criticised for having allocated nearly half the Scottish population to one of eight regions - Strathclyde. Calderwood passionately believed that Strathclyde was a valuable unit of local government whatever its size and that, by introducing a system of corporate management rather than allowing departments to function as independent mandarinates, the region, which covered Glasgow had an area from the south of Ayrshire to the Highlands and islands, could work well. "The hallmark of Strathclyde," says Michael Martin, the Glasgow MP and Speaker of the House of Commons,

was that it brought significant benefits to half the population of Scotland from Loch Ryan in the south to Oban and the outer islands in the north. I was a trade union officer covering the rural areas and I could see what Strathclyde had achieved under Calderwood's leadership that had simply been lacking in relation to smaller authorities.

One small thing - he insisted that every worker for the region should be given the same standard of protective clothing as was mandatory in the city of Glasgow. This was a boon to those whose job it was to work in the Arctic conditions in winter at Rest And Be Thankful.

On his retirement at the age of 60 in 1992, Calderwood was persuaded to become chairman of the Greater Glasgow Health Board, which he did for four years. Sam Galbraith, MP for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, himself not only a Scottish minister but a distinguished surgeon, had the highest regard for the work that Calderwood did to rationalise hospital provision in a series of very difficult situations. He was an outstanding organiser.

Among Calderwood's other public activities was membership of the Parole Board for England and Wales, 1971-73 - he had a deep interest in the rather unfashionable area of prison reform and believed that Britain put far too many of its people in prison compared with the European continent. He served as a director of GEC and as a governor of Glasgow Caledonian University in its infant stage. That Scottish Opera continues to exist owes much to his prudence as deputy chairman in 1992-96. One of the achievements of which he was most proud was the choice of Glasgow for the Special Olympics for the Disabled in 1990.

Until the end of his life, every conversation that I had with Calderwood confirmed his instinct to get fair play for the less fortunate. He never departed from the ideals which he had had as a member of the Labour League of Youth.

Tam Dalyell