Obituary: Baroness Denington

Lena Jeger
Friday 11 September 1998 23:02

NOT MANY of us are left to recall the golden evening in 1945 when the new victorious Labour councillors gathered in St Pancras Town Hall, in north London. We were a motley-looking crew: firemen from the station in Euston Road still in uniform, air raid wardens still wearing theirs - economising no doubt on precious coupons for other things - and a few baggy demob suits. And scarcely any nylons among the girls.

I knew Evelyn Denington - always trimly dressed in utility's best - who was elected to the Borough Council that day, because we were both Labour Party members on Ward 8, St Pancras. We often met in a top room at the Mother Redcap pub, but our numbers were depleted by conscription, civilian war duties and evacuation - to say nothing of sirens and worse disturbing business.

At that first statutory meeting I could see Evelyn Denington looking anxiously at the chamber door. I knew she was looking out for her husband, Cecil, who had also won a seat but was somewhere coming back from service in Italy. She had left a note for him on the kitchen table - this being the first place he would home to, like a tired pigeon. It worked, and he arrived just in time, still in his captain's uniform. He didn't need to feel unique, for Lt-Cdr Kenneth Robinson, in his Royal Navy uniform, had just preceded him to sit next to his wife who was also a new councillor. What a place for war reunions!

We all knew that, as beginners, we had mountains to climb and an infinity of lessons to learn as we contemplated the ruins around us. Of course we were no worse off than many other shattered areas. But the bombers had been interested in our three stations - Euston, King's Cross and St Pancras - and their environs. There seemed to be damage everywhere: from the slums of Somers Town to the Nash terraces in Regent's Park. I always thought that Evelyn Denington's concern with housing and the general environment began here.

She was born Evelyn Bursill in 1907, and after leaving Bedford College, London, worked as an editorial assistant at Architecture and Building News. She certainly got her eye in for shapes and sizes. Decades later she rejoiced in being made an honorary fellow of the RIBA and an honorary member of the Royal Town Planning Institute.

Cecil Denington, whom she married in 1935, was a science teacher and they had a shared interest in education. Evelyn became secretary to the National Association of Labour Teachers from 1938 and until 1950 taught in LCC junior schools. These were the times for battles about comprehensive schools, in which the Deningtons passionately believed.

Somehow they kept their professional work going while council committee work was showered on them - as often happens to willing horses. In 1960 Evelyn added to the load by her election to the London County Council (LCC), which certainly widened the scope of her endeavours.

She soon moved up the hierarchy of the LCC (which from 1964 was replaced by the Greater London Council) where there was much competition among the bright and ambitious. She became deputy leader of the Labour Opposition on the Council in 1967 and then Chairman of the GLC in 1975-76. She also took over the enormous problem of London transport, chairing the transport committee from 1973 until 1975. It was she, firm as ever, who established free buses for pensioners.

Of course there were times of argument and sometimes of resentment, often between people of sincere but different ideas and policies. However there had to be some firm decisiveness, as when, in 1964, Denington became chair of the Housing Committee and thus was the landlady of 120,000 homes in London and more on expanding sites anywhere between Swindon and King's Lynn.

She was convinced of the necessity to give the overcrowded deprived population of London a chance, if they wanted it, to get away to pastures new. Not everybody agreed with the uprootings but Denington had a vision of New Towns where people could live with fresh air and green fields in homes with gardens and their own bathrooms and water coming out of kitchen taps.

Her ideals and talents were spied by Lewis Silkin, then Minister for Town and Country Planning, and he appointed her to Stevenage New Town Commission in 1966 where she stayed for 30 years (14 of them as Chairman).

When I was on the LCC I can recall more than once when she would look a wobbly Chief Officer in the eye, say in a clear voice, firm but not bullying: "The plans you have put before the Committee are unacceptable." That was that. Next business. And she was usually right in the end.

Those were not easy days for Council members. None of us knew from election to election whether we would be massacred or resurrected as a whole. Threats of abolition haunted us until it happened, in 1986. I think that Evelyn Denington was happy to come to the House of Lords in 1978. She was 71, and worried about many aspects of local government.

In her maiden speech (on 17 November 1978), she criticised the policy of government grants to local councils being paid out for separate projects and put in different "pockets". She said that money could be better spent if it was all in one pocket and divided up locally: "Councillors have to say `we know we promised you this or that but you can't have it now'. That is no way to give confidence to the electorate." That was 21 years ago and maybe it still explains low polling in local elections.

We did not see her often in the Lords as the years went by, but she came when she could and always talked sense and enjoyed our company and gossip.

Evelyn and Cecil in their devoted partnership retired, deservedly, to their pleasant home in Brunswick Square, in Hove. Her last letter to me told how happy they were there, but she found the train journey to and from London a problem. Pity the Brighton Belle was put away.

Evelyn Joyce Bursill, politician: born London 9 August 1907; Member, London County Council 1946-65; Member, Greater London Council 1964-77, Chairman 1975-76; CBE 1966, DBE 1974; created 1978 Baroness Denington; married 1935 Cecil Denington; died 22 August 1998.

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