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Obituary: David Donnison (C2 1940-43)

DAVID Donnison, who has died aged 92, was one of a group of outstanding academics who played an important part in shaping social policy during the 1960s and 70s, and, in his case, well beyond. He remained engaged in public debate until the end of his life.

David was, first and last, a “bottom up” person. Who should decide the design of the housing estates into which rehoused tenants should move? Who other than the tenants? Who should manage their estates or, where possible, own them? Who else but the tenants, at least in a major way? What discretion should officials have in deciding on the benefits claimants should receive? None, or nearly none, he argued in a fierce debate with Richard Titmuss, his colleague at the London School of Economics. Claimants should have clearly defined statutory rights.

In his later years he became a strong supporter of advocacy on behalf of marginalised or disempowered groups. His book Speaking to Power (2009) is an eloquent account of the advocacy movement that was to bear fruit in Scotland. That country’s independent way of doing things fitted David’s instincts so much better than conservative England.

Son of Ruth (nee Singer) and Vernon Donnison, he was born in Yenangyaung, the town in Burma (Myanmar) where his father was a colonial administrator. David went to Marlborough college and then Magdalen College, Oxford. He told the story of this colonial family, of Burma and his early life in a revealing account, Last of the Guardians (2005). Perhaps it was this background that gave him the quiet assurance with which he could tell permanent secretaries and senior politicians, with great courtesy, that they were just wrong and why that was so.

He served in the Royal Navy during the second world war: “I still recall vividly the moment when I heard that the British people had elected their first Labour government as a midshipman on the bridge of a cruiser steaming across the Indian Ocean.” After the war he studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford and gained a first.

He went on to become an assistant lecturer at Manchester University (1950-53), where he produced his thesis, published as The Neglected Child and the Social Services (1954). He then had a spell as a lecturer at Toronto University (1953-55). But Titmuss, just appointed to the new chair of social administration at LSE, was searching for someone to be his deputy as reader. He chose David, who went on to become the second professor in the department.

It was at the LSE that he began his lifelong interest in housing, cities and town planning. He obtained what was then a big grant from the Joseph Rowntree Trust to study the impact of the 1957 Rent Act which had given unscrupulous landlords such as Peter Rachman the incentive to terrify and expel tenants who had enjoyed controlled rents.

He worked as a consultant for the UN Economic Commission for Europe, surveying housing policies. That led to The Government of Housing (1967), which became a bestselling Pelican book. It is classic Donnison. What exactly is the housing problem? What is the demography, economics and politics of it? What do we do about it? Look beyond Britain to the generality of urban problems across Europe.

He became a member of the government’s central housing advisory committee and joined the Milner Holland committee on housing in Greater London (1965). He advised Richard Crossman, the new housing minister, on ways to introduce some form of fair rent policy. He then left the LSE to become director of the thinktank the Centre for Environmental Studies (1969-76).

But his interests went well beyond housing. He was appointed to the Plowden committee on primary education (1967) and with Michael Young helped develop the idea of Educational Priority Areas, schools in deprived areas facing very particular problems that required additional resources. Platitudinous now, perhaps, but highly controversial then.

He was a member of the Public Schools Commission, which was charged with answering the question: “What should be the future of the public schools?” When it reported in 1968 in an economic crisis, no one was much interested in the answer. David went on to chair the second phase of the commission’s work on the future of direct grant grammar schools (1970). It led to their eventual demise, and managing those discussions required all his powers of patience, diplomacy and good humour, which I observed as a researcher attending its meetings.

He served as deputy chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission (1973-75) and was its chairman (1975-80). He carried though his determination to make the powers of the commission more rights-based and spent time visiting local offices and trying to understand the issues from the perspectives of local staff and recipients. He reflected on the deep- seated issues involved in The Politics of Poverty (1982).

In 1980 he moved to Glasgow University to become professor of town and regional planning, having separated from his first wife, Jean (nee Kidger), the previous year. He began a new non-London life and in 1987 married Kay Carmichael, who gave him “frank criticism and loving comradeship” as he later put it. There he stayed, observing and participating in Glasgow’s regeneration and reflecting on it in Regenerating the Inner City: Glasgow’s Experience (1987, edited with Alan Middleton). He was, after formal retirement in 1991, emeritus professor and honorary senior research fellow in the University’s department of urban studies.

He became increasingly in tune with Scotland, with its deeper collectivist sympathy for active government. David continued his passionate local involvement in Glasgow and in his beloved island of Easdale – communally run, as was his ideal.

Kay died in 2009; he is survived by four children from his first marriage and a stepdaughter.

(Written by Howard Glennerster and reprinted with permission from The Guardian)

David’s daughter, Rachel, also wrote to us and added;

“My father David V. Donnison attended Marlborough College during the war and signed up for a lifetime subscription for the magazine when at Oxford University in the late 1940’s. He told me last month that he still had fond memories of Marlborough which provided a sort of family for him in the years when he didn’t see his parents who were thousands of miles away in Burma (where his father, another Malburian, was a colonial civil servant and then an army officer after the Japanese invasion).

During the war years I believe that the school was evacuated for some of the time to Hampshire. My father recalled seeing a German bomber fly over the playground after a raid – possibly lost.”