Tribute to Lord Kerslake

An outstanding permanent secretary, and later also civil service head, Bob Kerslake became a champion of social housing and sustainable communities
Source: Alamy

By Lord O'Donnell

12 Jul 2023

Bob Kerslake first came to my attention in 2010 when we were thinking about who would make a good permanent secretary for the-then Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG). We had the usual internal civil service candidates but it seemed sensible to consider chief executives of local authorities. It became apparent that one person stood out who had been an exceptional leader of Sheffield city council, and before that Hounslow, and had taken over as chief executive of the-then Homes and Communities Agency.

That was Bob Kerslake, who was duly appointed and became one of the top performing permanent secretaries of his generation. His insightful contributions at the annual get togethers of permanent secretaries and local authority chief executives meant that he was warmly received into Whitehall and over time he developed an excellent relationship with Eric Pickles (now Lord), his secretary of state.

When I retired David Cameron decided to split the roles of Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service and Bob was chosen as civil service head, which he combined with his DCLG job. This showed the high regard in which he was held by ministers and civil servants. However this job was always something of a poisoned chalice as it is very hard for anyone who isn’t cabinet secretary to get the attention of prime ministers on civil service issues. Despite this he made a significant impact by using his experience in local government to help establish functional specialisms which improved operational capability in the civil service.

Bob left that role in 2014 going on to take on numerous public service responsibilities including chairing the King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and conducting an independent review into the preparedness for, and emergency response to, the Manchester Arena attack.

He joined the Lords in 2015 as a crossbencher. He was a passionate believer in an impartial civil service and his own impartiality as a civil servant was never questioned. However in his later years he struggled to hide his progressive instincts.

He championed social housing and sustainable communities but Bob’s commitment to social justice and quality in the built environment is most closely associated with his time at Peabody, one of the United Kingdom’s oldest housing associations. Taking over as chair of the organisation in 2015, his pragmatism and ability to get things done was clear. His connections and vision enabled the organisation to keep delivering desperately needed social rented homes through various partnerships. In the last year of his life Peabody delivered more new social rented homes than anyone else, which is a fitting legacy.

While chair of Peabody he made the case for public investment in social housing, eloquently setting out his vision for the sustainable, inclusive growth this would bring for the country. He advocated for “Children’s Communities” in inner London as drivers of social mobility and positive change. He championed placemaking and community investment alongside great design in the built environment. His footprint can be seen in the fabric of London which may well outlast all of us.

His work with Peabody, Be First and the New Economics Foundation, and his commissions on rough sleeping and preventing homelessness, are testament to his expertise, empathy and egalitarianism. As one of his final acts he asked that people should donate to St Mungo’s, the leading homelessness charity, in lieu of flowers.

He was a legend among the social housing community and will be greatly missed by all who worked with him. I will always remember him as a kind, thoughtful colleague with wonderful values who taught me a great deal about life for those disadvantaged groups in our society and how best to help them.

Click here to donate to St Mungo's in memory of Lord Kerslake

Lord O’Donnell is a crossbench peer, and former cabinet secretary and head of the civil service

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