John Barnes, Historian

Lord Bellwin of the City of Leeds

In the late 1970s Irwin Bellow was one of the three outstanding figures in Conservative local government circles. Joint Vice Chairman of the Conservatives Local Government Advisory Committee with John Grugeon of Kent, he was known to be an expert on local government finance, but it was still an enormous surprise, not least him, when he was plucked from the leadership of Leeds City Council, given a peerage and propelled on to the Government front benches in the House of Lords when Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979. Not altogether surprisingly he had some early difficulties, particularly when that November he was asked to introduce and pilot the Local Government, Planning and Land Bill through the Lords before it went to the Commons. Lady Young, who had got to know him when at the DOE in 1973-4 and was one of his sponsors, was able to give him advice and help, but it was almost certainly a relief to him when the Government gave way to its Labour critics and the bill was withdrawn. It was subsequently reintroduced in the Commons and Bellwin piloted on to the statute book in 1980. Its central provision was a major revision of the way in which the government grant aided local government, but among its other provisions were several that delighted Bellwin, the removal of a number of detailed controls over local government, the insistence that direct labour departments must show a return on their work and the first steps towards to introducing market competition into the provision of services. That the new block grant system was complex, Bellwin never denied, but he believed it to be more transparent and much fairer as a mechanism for equalising the position of local authorities if they conformed to an expenditure norm. If they insisted on spending more they would have to rely increasingly on the ratepayer to meet the extra. Although Conservative controlled, all three local government associations were bitterly opposed to the bill and in the Lords Bellwin had to confront both the Presidents of the Country Councils Association and the District Councils Association, Lords Ridley and Sandford. It was a baptism of fire handled with quiet good humour and common sense and it earned Bellwin a great deal of respect. He was less happy when in 1981 the Government imposed targets on local authorities that in the case of Conservative authorities were often below their grant related assessment, and although he loyally piloted the Local Government Finance Bill through the Lords in 1981, it was doubtful whether he really approved of capping. However, he was one of the old school of local councillors who believed that local authorities should respect the mandate given to government and he knew that they would play into Treasury hands if they resisted pressure to moderate their expenditure. Bellwin was rewarded for his efforts by being made Minister of State in the Department of the Environment in 1983, but he stepped down a year later, and became a member of the New Towns Commission in 1985. Although there may have been other reasons for his decision to leave the Government, there was good reason to believe that he was not entirely happy with the increasing grip the Treasury was exerting over local government finance. But an earnest search for alternatives was to no avail and the poll tax, even in the form advocated by his former colleague, John Grugeon, was thought unacceptable. Janet Young, a good friend, believes that he "was dismayed by some parts of his party's approach to local government and that the job simply became less agreeable to him".

Irwin Norman Bellow was born in Leeds on 7 February 1923 and was educated at Lovell Road Elementary School before taking up a place at Leeds Grammar School. From there he went on to take an LLB at the University of Leeds. He was intensely proud of his City and of his school. He became a Governor of the latter in 1966 and twenty-eight years later took on the Vice Chairmanship of the Governors, a post he held until he died. He was successful in business, but believed that it was right to give time to public service. He was elected to the City Council in 1965 and became a member of the bench in 1969. In 1965 he succeeded Lord Marshall as leader of the Council and in 1978 became in addition Vice Chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Councils.

Marshall was a hard act to follow, but Bellow was more than up to the job. He was a very hands-on Leader, once saying that he would never allow any man to be employed until he had assured himself that the post to be filled was actually needed. Leeds was in the forefront of a number of developments and Bellwin a man who really knew the ins and outs of local government. He was, it was said, "a wizard at finance". It was that which made him an obvious candidate to be drawn into front bench politics at national level. His first ministerial chief valued him as "one of the best of the Conservative local government leaders" and recalled his advice, when cutting back the civil service: "There is only one way, Michael, that you will control the numbers in this Department and that is for you to control recruitment." And the methods that had worked in Leeds were thus imported into Whitehall. In November 1979 Marshall was appointed by the GLC to review its future and to the horror of those in the party who favoured abolition recommended an ambitiously strategic authority. Nevertheless the pressures for abolition continued. When the issue came to a head just before the 1983 election, Bellwin seems to have shared the doubts of his new Secretary of State, Tom King, about abolition but the Prime Minister insisted on a manifesto commitment to that effect. Reluctantly Bellwin's third chief, Patrick Jenkin, issued a White Paper Streamlining the Cities and prepared, with Bellwin's aid to take the necessary legislation through. Few mourned the metropolitan authorities but resistance to the abolition of the GLC was strenuous and the bill did not go through until 1985.

After his retirement from the Government, he was a regular attender in the Lords, voting as recently as 29 January in support of Lady Young, but he did not often contribute to debate. He served on the New Towns Commission until 1995 and was Vice President of the International New Towns Association. Latterly, in addition to holding a number of directorships, he served for six years as Chairman of the North Hull Housing Action Trust, retiring in 1999. In 1990 he became Master of the Guild of World Traders in London.

Very softly spoken, shy and somewhat self effacing, he never talked much about himself and was modest about his achievements. He was even a shade overcome at the thought of finding himself in the Lords, although proud to be there. He was "a thoroughly nice man, straight as a die and said what he believed to be true", Janet Young recalls, "and everybody liked him."

Golf was his principal recreation - he was president of the Moor Allerton Club in Leeds - but he also took a great interest in basket ball, serving as President of the basket ball association and as a member of the National Sports Council 1972-75.

He married Doreen Saperia in November 1948 and was happy in his family, one son and two daughters, and their children.