Sydney Chapman: MP who planted a tree in ’73 and gave sterling service to John Major but came to grief over Portcullis House

The Queen told John Major that Chapman was the best letter-writer she had ever encountered

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The Independent Online

Sydney Chapman will be remembered as that rarity – a genuinely nice man in politics, loyal to his party, loyal to his friends and to his constituents. He was a respected Conservative MP who for more than 30 years in the House of Commons representing Birmingham Handsworth and later Chipping Barnet reckoned he was its only resident architect and town planner.

An architect by profession, Chapman became a member of the Council of the Royal Institute of British Architects and received acclaim for his environmental initiative Plant a Tree in ’73, one of Britain’s first popular environmentalist movements. A National Tree Planting Year was proposed to the Environment Secretary, Peter Walker, in the Commons in July 1971. Walker gave his support and the campaign was launched at the start of 1973. It succeeded beyond all expectations. The Forestry Commission donated 160,000 saplings, which were planted by civic leaders and schoolchildren with great enthusiasm; the Post Office issued a 9p commemorative stamp of an oak tree.

Trees also played a central role in his most controversial moment in politics, at the turn of the Millennium. He had been appointed to oversee the building of a new office for 213 MPs, Portcullis House – which became, at the time, the most expensive British building per square foot ever built, at £234 million.

As chairman of the House of Commons Accommodation and Works committee from 1997 to 2001, Chapman was criticised for his decision to rent 12 potted fig trees for the atrium at a cost of £30,000 a year. He was grilled on the Today programme by John Humphrys, who put it to him that he could buy a tree from his local garden centre for £10. Chapman retorted that the decision was made on the advice of civil servants who said it was better to rent the trees so that any that died could be easily replaced.

The budget for the building, directly above Westminster tube station was £165 million, but costs soared. Chapman staunchly defended the project, claiming that a bomb-proof building above one of the deepest holes in Europe and on a tight site next to the Palace of Westminster with a design life of around 200 years was value for money. He reflected in his memoir, Back to the Drawing Board (2010): “I decided that if I failed to assuage the tabloids ... I would desperately observe from my dungeon that the building was indeed horrendously expensive but would cost a mere one-third of the Millennium Dome and would likely last much longer.”

Sydney Brookes Chapman was born in Macclesfield in 1935, the son of an architect. Educated at Rugby and Manchester University, where he studied architecture, he rose rapidly in the Young Conservatives, serving as national chairman from 1964-66. He was elected MP for Birmingham Handsworth in 1970, but when Edward Heath called a snap election in February 1974, a national swing to Labour and boundary changes cost Chapman his seat. Out of Parliament, he became information director for the British Property Federation.

Shortlisted for six seats without being selected, Chapman looked set to sit out the 1979 election until at the last minute, Chipping Barnet chose him to succeed the former Chancellor Reginald Maudling, who had just died. He doubled Maudling’s majority to more than 14,000 and kept his seat for 26 years.           

He became PPS to the Transport Secretary Norman Fowler, moving with him to the DHSS in 1981. Chapman was renowned in the House for his wit. During a debate on the work of the Church Commissioners, he asked “whether the church had insured its property against acts of God – and if it had, did that not suggest a certain lack of faith?”

In December 1988, Edwina Currie’s enforced resignation over her comments about eggs and salmonella necessitated a reshuffle, and Chapman became a Whip. In 1990 Margaret Thatcher promoted him to Lord Commissioner of the Treasury. After the 1992 election he served in the Whip’s office of John Major’s government with the unenviable task of keeping Eurosceptic MPs in line and trying to dissuade them from staging another rebellion.

His reward was to be promoted to be a senior whip, Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty’s Household; he delivered numerous wafer-thin victories for Major during the debates over the Maastricht Treaty. In May 1993 he announced a 317-317 tie on one amendment, obliging the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, to cast her vote to maintain the status quo.

His role included the delicate task of writing a “note” to the Queen on the day’s proceedings in the Commons. He took great delight in including amusing snippets of information penned in the style of a parliamentary sketch writer. Her Majesty was apparently also amused; she was reported to have told John Major that he was the best letter writer she had encountered.    

Chapman left government with a knighthood in July 1995 and despite adverse boundary changes he held his seat by 1,035 votes in the 1997 Labour landslide. Barnet Council named a road after him to mark 25 years of service as their local MP, Sydney Chapman Way – “presumably the way to the pub,” remarked William Hague at Chapman’s retirement dinner. Chapman, who enjoyed a good dinner and decent wine, led the laughter.

Having served in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Chapman left the Commons in 2005, Theresa Villiers inheriting his seat. He was also president of the Arboricultural Association, the Faculty of Building and the London Green Belt Council. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts; an Honorary Fellow and former vice-president of RIBA and a vice-chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews. He took a keen interest in football, particularly the fortunes of Barnet FC.

Chapman’s first  marriage was dissolved. His second wife, Teresa, was Chilean; when they met he told her he had never even learnt to boil an egg. She taught him how to make proper scrambled eggs, but becoming a master chef was never one of his ambitions.

When Sydney Chapman, who died of cancer, left politics he did so in the knowledge that he had left behind a positive mark on the British landscape.

Sydney Brookes Chapman, politician and architect: born Macclesfield 17 October 1935; MP for Birmingham Handsworth 1970–74, Chipping Barnet, 1979–2005; Kt 1995; married 1976 Claire McNab (divorced 1987; one daughter, two sons). 2005 Teresa Munoz Ernest; died Lower Heyford, Oxfordshire 9 October 2014.