19 December 2011
Obituary - Sir Robin Mountfield
Robin, as he insisted on being known, was one of those very wise men who would work with the University's Council and advise it always with courtesy and modesty but it would gradually dawn on any Council member that here was a man who had the most extraordinarily acute and practical of minds.
I first met Robin at my very first Council meeting when he sat down next to me and introduced himself. He could see my nerves and asked me a little of my background. “Private sector,” I said. “Oh good,” was his reply. “What kind?” he then asked. "Entrepreneur," I replied. “Oh this could be fun,” was his rejoinder. For many meetings after that I had the pleasure of his company as we sat together and heard at close hand his interesting opinions.
Robin, like my family, had his roots in Liverpool before going to Oxford and then the Civil Service. Though we discussed Liverpool many times I never felt I had the presumption to ask whether he was Red or Blue as I thought such footballing allegiances would be beyond such a diplomat. He did, though, say that the 1944 Education Act gave him opportunities in life which he probably would never have had otherwise. Though his self-confessed aspirations to being a Liverpool bus inspector without this piece of enlightened legislation has left me amused ever since. Merchant Taylors Crosby was the route he was able to follow and onto to the Civil Service.
Before this first meeting I had done my homework, but instead of the towering intellectual and Government giant his CV portrayed I was astounded to meet a kindly modest man.
Rumour has it he was inveigled to Essex through the Cabinet Office by an Essex contact who persuaded him Wivenhoe Park was en route to his country cottage in Suffolk . Whatever the origin of the story his appointment was greatly to the benefit of the University and in my view an inspired choice.
Robin, by reputation, had taken on both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair over, respectively, the rundown of the UK motor industry and Alastair Campbell’s rearranging of the Government Information Service to more political ends. His tussle with the Iron Lady saw to his great credit the introduction of Japanese motor manufacturing in Britain and eventually led to Nissan’s arrival in Sunderland. Where even to this day it continues to expand with its electric car project and UK production of its Qashqui model and provide increased employment outside the South East so dear to Robin’s heart.
He joined Council in 1999 and helped for nine years both Sir Ivor Crewe and Professor Colin Riordan to stabilise and then begin the process of modernising the University. He was always helpful and incisive around the big decisions especially the £40 million Southend project and the £200 million Strategic Vision which is emerging now as more construction is evident daily.
During my four years as Chair he was very supportive of plans to bring about change in the University but was a vehement opponent of the then fad of private finance initiatives and he guided us through its worst excesses and helped persuade us to take a more conservative route of financing the £200 million of capital works now showing around Wivenhoe Park.
His contributions to our discussions where always measured and balanced but they were listened to always with interest and fascination and never did I hear his views contradicted.
His thoughtful and vastly experienced presence adorned our Council and made it an interesting and at times invigorating place to be. He also played an invaluable role in always keeping us abreast of up-to-date Government and Opposition thinking and, when needed, views of the professionals in and around Whitehall. As such, we have as an institution been able over many years been able to tailor much of our thinking, taking account of these complex and contradictory insights and, in the main, getting the interpretation right.
We all so valued this very broad base of contact and experience that when at last he chose his time to leave us he was gracious enough to help find Council a colleague of equal status and experience in Paul Grey, whose understanding of Whitehall thinking at an early stage has helped the University to ride out the early storms of the post-Lehman era with success and is now being seen in the sector as a sound and growing institution.
Robin, who died in November aged 72, we both thank you and salute you. You will be remembered long here where you served with such charming and incisive distinction.
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