Lord Bob Kerslake

Lord Kerslake, who died at the weekend was an outstanding public servant and outstanding chair of the Sheffield Hallam University Board of Governors.

Bob was born in the West Country in 1955 and graduated from the University of Warwick with a first class degree in Mathematics, going on to be the sabbatical president of the student union at the then still relatively young University of Warwick. He trained as an accountant in local government, working in the 1980s in the Greater London Council before moving on to finance director and chief executive jobs in greater London. He was an exceptional chief executive of Sheffield City Council between 1997 and 2008. In those years, as someone said, he virtually re-built the city, reeling from the economic shocks of the 1980s and early 1990s, single-handedly: the projects included St Paul’s Place, the Millennium Gallery, the Winter Gardens, Kelham Island Museum.

In 2008, he left Sheffield for national roles, first as Chief Executive of the Homes and Communities Agency, then as Permanent Secretary of the Department of Communities and Local Government, and then, between 2012 and 2014, as Head of the Civil Service. David Cameron appointed him as Head of the Civil Service because he thought, and rightly, that someone who had the experience of running a big city was well-suited to leading a complex organisation like the civil service. When he left the civil service, he became a Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords.

Once he had left the civil service, his public service roles multiplied: he was chair of King’s College Hospital, chair of Peabody, one of the largest providers of social housing in the country, chair of BeFirst, the Barking and Dagenham regeneration board, Chair of Sheffield Theatres and, of course, Chair of the Board at Sheffield Hallam. He chaired the Commission on the Civic University and the Commission on the UK in 2070. He chaired the inquiry into the emergency response to the Manchester Bombings. In the Lords, he chaired the Resources Committee. I know I will have missed some of his commitments. I once asked the chief executive of another organisation he chaired if he was always on top of the detail, and the answer came back that, of course, he was: nothing eluded him. He became a media star: in enormous demand for comment on policy, politics and the conduct of government.

He became the chair of Hallam’s Board in 2016, about six months after I became Vice-Chancellor. It has been one of the great privileges of my life to work alongside him, watching him chair meetings, moving swiftly from strategic oversight to technical detail, and always despite the pressure of hurrying to make the train he’d need to catch to do Newsnight or similar, devoting his full attention to the discussion.

He was passionately interested in the big challenges: securing funding for our campus plan, the aspirations for our London presence, the big questions about higher education and the public good, but he took time too to understand the people the university is at root about.  He drew out nervous and apprehensive student union presidents, partly, I think, because he had once been one.

Bob was a fearsomely hard worker; he had always driven himself very hard; I’d get emails and text messages at all sorts of hours, and I took this as evidence of his commitment, despite the pressures on his time, to get to the bottom of often complex and difficult questions. He stimulated me and challenged me, and the challenge was always framed in terms of the best interests of the university, the city and the nation. Along with Natalie Day, we co-authored a long essay for the Higher Education Policy Institute on universities and the public good. A lot of work went into that, but so did a lot of passion and a lot of concern for getting policies right in the best interests of all.

He was passionate about Hallam. We had worked out a careful plan for sequencing our departures, which his cancer cruelly disrupted. I was attending one of our Open Days when he rang me earlier this year to share his cancer diagnosis and the treatments that would follow. I will always remember where I was when that call came in.

Sheffield Hallam has lost an outstanding Board chair. His family have lost a husband, brother, father and grandfather. The nation has lost an outstanding public servant. His values – integrity, honesty, decency, public service – have been so trampled in recent years that they have become rare. But Bob Kerslake exemplified the very best of public service: he thought hard, and expected others to do to same, not in their own interests but in the wider, common interest. His voice, that familiar, still west country burr, was a voice always worth, indeed vital, to listen to. I will miss him enormously.

Lord Kerslake’s family have requested that no flowers be sent, but instead, in line with Bob’s wishes, donations can be made to St.Mungo’s Homeless Charity.

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