Stephen Ashworth, who has died aged 57, was a gifted lawyer, leader and mentor to generations working in the built environment. He encouraged lawyers, planners and policy makers to shape their own careers and gave with supreme generosity of his time, intellect and counsel.
He was born in Lichfield in 1963, but grew up on the edge of the Peak District. After studying at Marple Hall School – a recently converted comprehensive – he defied expectations to read law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge (the main benefit of which he described as “a willingness to question the status quo”).
He loved the city, in all its forms, including London, which he made his home when in 1986 he became an articled clerk at Denton Hall Burgin & Warren (now global law firm Dentons). His quiet determination and ability to think of novel approaches became his hallmark. He relished responsibility and, given freedom, he flourished for the great benefit of clients and the team. He was a team player, but able and ready to challenge norms and rose rapidly to be one of the firm’s leading lawyers in any field. He became a partner in 1995 and head of Planning in 1998. His brilliance gave him scope to be different, championing remote working, inclusivity, thought leadership and holding management to account.
He thrived – and delighted – in what he described as an atmosphere of sometime quiet anarchy and tolerance. As the profession changed, he innovated without losing sight of the things that make people delight in what they do. He gave credit to those who gave him the right balance of support and freedom to learn.
He frequently took the road less travelled in his career, taking a year out in 1990 to cycle solo from London to Zimbabwe with a folded map and a pocket full of spokes. His only puncture – he said – was on the way back from Heathrow. A two-year stint in-house at Sainsbury’s (1992-1994) cemented deep friendships and a reputation as a commercially astute problem solver and development advocate. He won a Harkness Fellowship for a “joyous year of learning” at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (1995-96) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His research on land policy (“Harnessing Land and Development Values for Public Benefit”) stands the test of time.
He returned to London full of the belief that failing fast was better than never trying and in love with Harkness Fellow Jennifer Anderson. They married in 1997 and he was her supporter and “trailing spouse” on her diplomatic postings to Brussels, Botswana, Jakarta and most recently Ankara. He kept his connections and retained his relevance and his reach despite a punishing weekly commute to Turkey and the flimsiest of internet connections when he remote worked for three years from Botswana. It was the product of a vast work ethic, investment in deep personal relationships and unquenchable intellectual endeavour.
He had the rare combination of courage, skill and humility for a great person that allowed him to make a difference with them. He made a huge contribution to policy, law and practice on delivering better places and capturing value from land equitably. In the early 1990s, he was involved in cases that shaped the approach to ‘planning gain’. He later worked on the legislation for business improvement districts – applying land tax to fund the restoration of place – and put huge energy into chairing the Circle Initiative (2001-2005), which sponsored four of the first five BIDs in the country and contributed to the development of legislation needed to allow BIDS to flourish and drive the improvement of towns. He passionately believed that certainty about the price of land and the delivery of infrastructure are essential for investment in a better society. He was instrumental in designing and implementing the Milton Keynes Roof Tariff to achieve that goal – using planning policies, agreements and partnerships to unlock the funding and delivery of schools, roads and hospitals needed to provide 200,000 new homes. He chaired the BPF Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) committee (2005-6) to wrestle from Government, and then implement, a more progressive alternative to a pure land value tax. He deprecated some of the unnecessary compromises and bolt-ons that complicated CIL, but was prepared to explain how reform could work through his sustained contribution to working groups for Government, the BPF, National Housing Federation, Centre For Cities among others.
He continued to contribute to debate on optimising housing (including affordable housing) through his legal and policy thought leadership contributions to the Highbury Group. His contributions were typically partisan but often unexpectedly balanced, which set him apart. His evidence to the Parliamentary select committee on value capture (June 2018) is recognised as a masterclass in advocacy for a more effective planning system.
Stephen believed passionately that planning should be about far more than economics. His wider contributions are too many to list but include the Commission for Architecture and Built Environment (1999-2011), trustee and Board member of the Centre for Cities (2005 onwards), Town & Country Planning Association policy committee, various Select Committees and the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission (2019). In these areas he was a standout thinker, leader, innovator, challenger and mentor who inspired and invested in others. Despite a bafflingly busy life, his death uncovered swathes of people across the built environment (in central and local government, charities, business, refugees) who he had invested time in mentoring or simply helped to challenge. He loved to speak truth to power and sometimes revelled in the discomfort it caused. The Centre for Cities (Nigel Hugill) notes “He was forever pushing in the furtherance of balanced and inclusive growth. Wonderfully principled, highly convicted and unstinting in his efforts and contribution to the Centre, Stephen was one of the good guys“.
He was immensely proud of the regeneration of Kings Cross, a project where the Courts upheld his advice as “impeccable”. Yet he maintained a healthy disrespect for the dominance of London. Hosting a ‘London First’ event at Cannes in 2014, he told the assembled great and good of the development industry: “London is the leading city. It should show leadership. A required leadership quality is adventurous self-restraint and encouraging others to grow.” It was typically controversial – jaw dropping – and prescient; reflecting pre-Brexit referendum undercurrents and anticipating the ‘levelling up’ agenda by years.
His insight felt supernatural, but was born of intellectual brilliance and courage, deep convictions and a willingness to work very hard. Sometimes, he said, you just have to keep pressing on – a belief that you can do something is often more important than pure ability. Anyone in the planning world who is any good is interested in more than their own field, he said. His interests and his mentoring ran far wider than his own constituency.
He was a great judge of character. He built teams, gave them their heads and pushed others to the spotlight. He looked to use his intellect to include rather than dominate, lead rather than direct. He denounced lazy thinking, lack of effort and peddling commercially palatable nonsense. He demanded clarity, brevity, and gave support. He encouraged an environment of safety, challenge, courage and vulnerability. He inspired great faith, great loyalty and earned huge respect. The level of responsibility, exposure and credit he was prepared to give were terrifying and formative for several generations of lawyers, whose diaspora is vast. His pride was in his family and his team.
He challenged solicitors to be advocates (obtaining his Higher Rights in 2014) and to put forward solutions, not abdicate responsibility for thought. He challenged, sometimes brutally, but played the ball and not the player. He was erudite, pragmatic, determined, inclusive, a maker who loved mischief. In his words – you have to challenge the accepted wisdom. It is always too much of a constraint.
He was a rambler from Manchester way and loved hills. He enjoyed being inscrutable and hard to keep up with. He was competitive beyond measure. When cycling, he was always well ahead; particularly on the hardest climbs. But he would stop – once he had crested – and nonchalantly wait for others to catch up.
He is survived by Jennifer and their children, Luke and Romilly.