Leicester Urban Observatory

John Dean: a personal thank you

Planning can be a challenging job. Most planners seek to make the world a better place by trying to reconcile conflicting positions, of developers, neighbours, councillors and Government. This can lead to less than optimal decisions.

The best planners, however- like John Dean was to the core- are fiercely confident in their beliefs and judgement. John led. John delivered. John set the agenda and expected his staff to make sure things happen, and they did. Mr Dean did instill not a little fear but much more respect in his staff, and together they achieved much in securing Leicester’s position as a thriving sustainable city which emerged from the manufacturing decline of the 1970’s well placed to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.

The news last week of his passing was received with much feeling and sorrow in the office.

When I joined Leicester City Council as Head of Planning four years ago, I was very keen to meet him- he was a legend in the office, and he didn’t disappoint. I found him to be an effervescent fount of memories, anecdotes and very generous with giving advice/direction on all matters planning and Leicester. His memory was crystal clear, and he embellished stories of Leicester’s development characters and schemes over the last 50 odd years with sharp wit and a mischievous twist. He told me the truth about Smigielski’s departure (bit of a political cloud there) and many other reminiscences quite few of which are not shareable over social media.  I enjoyed a number of lunches with John and my predecessor as Head of Planning, Mike Richardson and ‘young’ Steve Brown Leicester’s Group Manager for Planning. All three of us were treated to John’s warmth and humour, with not a little spice in terms of the planning issues of the day- John kept a keen eye on what we were up to.

John Dean 2
L-R: Mike Richardson, Grant Butterworth and John Dean on the right. [Photo courtesy of ‘Young’ Steve Brown]
He was very proud of the profession, but angry about how planning was suffering from Government interventions which didn’t appreciate the subject’s complexity and purpose.  John knew how to ensure the development world properly respected key environmental and social- as well as economic- objectives. John marshalled letters to the Times from Past RTPI presidents taking the Government to task, and his grasp of the key policy issues of the day never dimmed.

From high status as Fellow and Past President of the Royal Town Planning Institute, to the initiator of numerous innovations in planning for the City, when John spoke, people listened.

John was proud of many diverse achievements: ground-breaking flood protection works designed with county council colleagues in the 1970’s in the absence of government direction or leadership. Under his stewardship the City won the Europa Nostra award; John appointed one of the first Access Officers, and was keenly aware of the need to make sure planning policy respected the diverse cultural needs of the City’s growing communities. John was a driving force behind the production of the first edition of the ‘Quality of Leicester’- a book which celebrated the heritage of the city in a way which made people look at the city afresh, and lifted the confidence and pride of citizens and officers alike.

There will be other places where John’s achievements will be recognised and celebrated, but it is a real shame that we will not get to hear John’s Leicester Urban Observatory City Series lecture outlining 70 Years since the enactment of the 1947 Planning Act which we were planning for this November.

The last time I saw John I passed him some notable but dusty Leicester planning documents for him to research for the lecture. John remembered every detail of them, from the Beaumont Leys Masterplan to the seminal joint Structure Plan adopted in the early 1970’s- hearing his lessons learnt would have been fascinating and enlightening.

John Dean 1

Such a shame. But I owe John thanks for one more thing.

In the final year of my Planning Degree at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, I was given a tough time by a fearsome external examiner who tested the logic and thinking behind my 80,000 word dissertation. Despite the grilling, in the end I got a good mark and avoided my ‘Desmond’ as a result.  I’d forgotten his name until we met almost thirty years later. John said he remembered me, and the dissertation- I think he was being charming and generous- but I never got chance to thank him for his ‘hard but fair’ assessment which set me on my way in my planning career.

Thank you John.

My sincere condolences go to Alwyne and all his family in coming to terms with such a great loss- truly one of a kind who will be very sadly missed indeed.

Grant Butterworth

Head of Planning, Leicester City Council

6th August 2018