Steve Hitchins obituary: Former Lib Dem Islington Council leader and Whittington Health Trust chair dies
PUBLISHED: 14:15 25 September 2019 | UPDATED: 11:15 26 September 2019
The former leader of Islington Council and chair of Whittington Health Trust Steve Hitchins has died.
Steve, 68, died "suddenly" from a suspected heart attack while out for dinner with his former Whittington colleagues at a restaurant in Holloway Road last night.
Steve was a Liberal Democrat councillor for St Peter's ward from 1990 to 2006 and served as leader of Islington Council from 1999 to 2006. He chaired the Whittington Health Trust from 2014 until June this year, when he stepped down.
Lib Dem peer Sarah Ludford, who married Steve 45 years ago, today paid tribute to her husband as a man dedicated to the people of Islington above all else.
She told the Gazette: "He was very robust, determined and dedicated to improving life in Islington.
"He has had type one diabetes since he was 21 and then his leg was amputated four years ago but he didn't let it stop him. He didn't feel sorry for himself. He was just determined to get on with life and achieve things.
"His mission was to make things better for the residents of Islington, whether as a councillor, leader, or at the Whittington. It was all about improving services - he could be a bit brisk sometimes but I think people acknowledge that's what he was about."
Sarah, who has also served as a Lib Dem MEP and Clerkenwell councillor, added: "We had three seats in 1990 and then won control of the council with 27 seats in 1999, and in 2002 he had 38 Liberal Democrat councillors to 10 Labour, so this was the glory days - the height of liberal democracy in Islington.
"All the way through the 90s we had these great advances. Some people find him a bit Marmite - he cut his way through Labour control in Islington [but] Jeremy Corbyn was very kind to Steve when he had his leg amputated."
Steve's controversial "Marmite" moments included leading Islington into two deals through Public Finance Initiatives (PFIs) with, among others, the Royal Bank of Scotland and future Grenfell-linked building firm Rydon. PFI 1 (which confusingly also stands for Partners for Improvement) covers 2,340 homes in Highbury, Mildmay and Canonbury and expires in 2033; and PFI 2, which covers 4,100 homes across the borough, runs out in three years. Islington expects to pay Partners £44million this year, £44.9m in 2020-2021 and £45.9m in 2021-22.
Steve also tried to broker a deal between the Whittington Health Trust and Ryhurst, a subsidiary of Rydon, which was shelved last year following an outcry.
Sarah added: "He wasn't political in recent years and got on with Labour people in both boroughs because he very much focused on improving services for local people."
Steve met Sarah at Oxford University through his friendship with her brother. She said they were "chalk and cheese" because she was at LSE and he was a "football playing Christchurch College student".
Labour leader and Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn said: "I am saddened to hear of the passing of Steve Hitchins. Despite being in different parties, I recognise his commitment to my borough and the work he did in support of Whittington Hospital. My condolences go to his wife Sarah and family."
James Kempton, Lib Dem leader of Islington Council from 2006 to 2009, added: "I'm deeply shocked. I thought Steve was indestructible. We all did.
"Steve is without equal in Islington Council's recent political history. Before Steve set about transforming this borough Islington was known as a loony left council, with the highest council tax in London but offering residents some of the worst services in the country. Steve cared passionately about this community. He knew it didn't have to be that way: that residents deserved better. He made sure they got it.
"Steve always believed in the team but one he led from the front. He recruited people from all walks of life to become Lib Dem councillors who shared his passionate belief in making Islington a better and healthier place to live, work and learn. Me included.
"After unexpectedly losing his council seat he was determined to continue in public service and in service to this community. Which he did with great."
Islington's current Labour Leader Richard Watts today said: "I'm very sorry to hear of the passing of Steve Hitchins. My deepest sympathy to his family."