Norfolk loses a ‘great champion’ for the county
- Credit: EDP, Archant
From an inauspicious start to his career at County Hall, when he failed to get a nomination to stand as councillor from his own party, John Alston went on to become a 'great champion' for Norfolk.
Mr Alston, CBE, who died on Sunday at the age of 77, had two spells as leader of Norfolk County Council and also served as the county's High Sheriff and Deputy Lieutenant.
But his service to the Norfolk public went even further, getting involved with many more organisations, such as the University of East Anglia, the Norfolk and Norwich Festival Trust and Norfolk Health Authority.
He was born in Lavenham, Suffolk, where his father had moved to farm after leaving the Alston family home at Besthorpe Hall, near Attleborough.
Mr Alston was educated at Orwell Park, outside Ipswich and then at Sherborne in Dorset. He 'hated every minute' of the latter, before he went to the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester.
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For two years at the end of the 1950s, he worked in Australia as a jackaroo – essentially a trainee farmer – before he returned to England to take over the 1,000-acre estate at Besthorpe.
Foot and mouth disease destroyed his Friesian herd in the 1960s and he never went back to dairy farming, focusing instead on wheat, barley and sugar beet.
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It was in that decade that Mr Alston first became involved in local government, serving on Wayland Rural District Council for 10 years.
In 1973, he sought the Conservative nomination to represent Attle-borough and Besthorpe on Norfolk County Council. He was not successful, missing out to Robert Christopher.
He resigned and successfully stood as an independent for the division. In 1981, having returned to the Conservative fold, and after a spell as chairman of the council's personnel sub-committee, he succeeded the ousted Michael Chaplin as leader of the council, with Gillian Shephard as his deputy.
It was a role he continued in until 1987, in which time he was instrumental in getting the Broads Bill through Parliament. And he crossed swords with his own government over 'broken promises' around the grant settlement from Whitehall, becoming a consistent critic of the amount of money given to Norfolk.
He then became vice-chairman and chairman of Norfolk County Council and, in 1988, he was made a CBE for his services to local government.
The following year he was back as county council leader, after Peter Rollin did not seek re-election, saying that it was important to look at the way Norfolk was going 'from a planning view' – one of his many passions.
He remained leader until 1993, when a total of 10 years at the helm of County Hall came to an end.
However, that was far from the end of Mr Alston's involvement in public life. After his departure from the county council, he became chairman, in 1994, of the East Norfolk Health Authority and later the Norfolk Health Authority.
He was also vice-chairman of the Council of the University of East Anglia from 1986 until 2002, Deputy Lieutenant for Norfolk from 1991 until he was 75 and High Sheriff between 2004 and 2005. He was also chairman of the Norfolk Diamond Jubilee Committee and pioneered the Millennium Trust for Carers, which later became the EDP We Care Appeal.
He was a trustee of Norwich City Football Club, a member of the Broads Authority and the National Trust's regional committee and chairman of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival Trust. He was also a patron of the Norfolk Community Foundation.
But away from public service, gardening was one of Mr Alston's great loves. His first project at Besthorpe Hall was a large tree planting operation.
He once said: 'If I hadn't gone into farming, I think I would have taken up landscape gardening.'
Mr Alston leaves his partner, Miro O'Sullivan, a brother and two sisters. A memorial service is due to be held at Norwich Cathedral at a date to be fixed.
Tributes to 'giant in public service'
'John was not a big man physically, but he was a giant in public service. Norfolk has lost one of its great champions as well as a man greatly loved and honoured by all who knew him.'
The Rt Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich.
'John has been a hugely important part of my life and that of my family's for the last 40 years. I worked closely with him when I was deputy leader of the county council. He was incredibly supportive when I was elected as MP for South West Norfolk and our official lives have been closely linked ever since... His legacy, though, will live on. Not only in terms of what he has done for Norfolk in public life, but also in the considerate, thoughtful help and support he has given to so many people in his typically modest way. He will be so much missed by us and by so many others. His was a life well lived.'
'John Alston was a true friend to the university over many years and in a variety of ways. He was a longstanding trustee of the Sainsbury Trusts and stalwart supporter of the Sainsbury Centre. He will be very much missed.'
Sir Edward Acton, former vice-chancellor of UEA.
'He was a wonderful servant of Norfolk life all of his life and a most wonderful man. It has been a privilege to have known him.'
Richard Jewson, Lord-Lieutenant for Norfolk.
'He was everything a public servant should be. I saw him most recently at a retirement event for a member of county council staff and the fact he had attended, despite his ill health, showed what sort of a man he was... I have known him for most of my life and he has been a leading figure in the county. Everybody who came into contact with him appreciated his courtesy and sense of fair play. He will be greatly missed.'
George Nobbs, leader of Norfolk County Council.
'John Alston made an immense contribution to Norfolk. He was totally committed to the wellbeing of the county, through his work as deputy lieutenant, leader and chairman of the county council and various other activities he was involved with, including his leading role in the creation of what became the EDP We Care Appeal.
Although we did not always agree politically, he was unfailingly helpful and positive... John was very warm, witty and had a great sense of humour and fun. He was incredibly kind and generous. We valued his friendship and will miss him enormously.'
Celia Cameron, former Labour leader of Norfolk County Council.
'What always drove him was what he thought was best for the people of Norfolk. Because of that he was well respected and liked by all members of the council. He was always polite, considerate and a man who asked for advice and listened to it. He came from an era where people like him were expected to act for the public good rather than making the most of what they owned. I do not think, in all my years as chief executive, he ever claimed any expenses at all... Norfolk has a lot to thank him for.'
Barry Capon, former chief executive of Norfolk County Council.
'John was a terrific mentor for me when I first came to the county. He provided me with a induction into the county I could not have got from anybody else. He was a man of terrific stature and had an incredible network.'
Former Norfolk chief constable Ken Williams.
'As well as his many civic, political and agricultural interests, John Alston was very keen on the arts... As leader of the county council, John found additional money – £20,000 a year – to allocate to Norwich Castle Museum, specifically towards its art exhibition programme. This shrewd move enabled a provincial museum like Norwich Castle to hold its head high and put on top quality art shows, which kept its reputation in the top tier of non-London exhibition venues.'
Charlotte Crawley, director of the East Anglia Art Fund.
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