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Stephen Hewitt obituary: A rebel with a cause

StephenHewitt

Stephen Hewitt: He was ‘universally admired for his straightforwardness and integrity’. Photo: Mike Starr

When I started writing for New Start in 2005 my column was about the biggest Single Regeneration Budget scheme and neighbourhood management pilot in the south west of England. For three years I exposed the inner workings and idiosyncrasies of Hartcliffe and Withywood Community Partnership (HWCP) in Bristol and any reader will have noticed how much everything revolved around ‘the boss’.

The boss was Stephen Hewitt, who died from cancer on 24th of October 2014 aged 56. He worked his whole life in regeneration and public health on a local and national level. The loss is enormous and is felt around the country.

There is a tendency in obituaries to make a person sound perfect. I think this is to strip them of their humanity and gives lie to the truth of our relationships. Stephen was far from perfect and drove all his staff to distraction on a daily basis. He was always late for everything and had his own temporal reality which we adjusted to like British Summer Time.

Stephen was the most intelligent person I’ve ever known and the depth and breadth of his knowledge awed me. He was also the most annoying person to work with on the planet, mainly because he was nearly always right. We fought like cat and dog over everything we did – from window envelopes and fonts to how to tackle poverty and deprivation. Me making judgements based on my internal how-much-do-I-care meter, he on sensible and sensitive logic. I got used to losing.

Stephen always gave people the space and time to say exactly what they wanted: he listened and you knew you had been heard. He would then filter out all the emotional claptrap (of which there was much) and proceed to persuade you of his original viewpoint or decision. His ability to apply an almost infallible logic was a remarkable skill. He possessed a single-minded determination to always work for the benefit of Hartcliffe and Withywood, which resulted in a fierce loyalty in his staff.

He would not bend to pressure from mainstream services or government bodies

if he believed what he was doing was right for the residents of Hartcliffe and Withywood

Stephen and I worked together from the very beginning of HWCP in 2000 and I knew I’d have a job on managing my boss when he introduced himself by saying, ‘I like your hair, it matches the orange walls’.

On his first day he began his habit of changing out of his cycling lycra in the walk-in stationary cupboard whilst shouting out a list of stuff he wanted me to get on with. I tried to explain how disturbing it is to know your boss is nearly naked a couple of feet away and could he wait until he was decent to start ordering me about, but he carried on regardless until I became immune to the weirdness of it all.

Communication was a challenge because he had an inability to control his face and it was disconcerting to realise you could see him thinking you were a bumbling twit as you struggled to put your own incoherent thoughts into words. On the phone was worse because he never bothered with those verbal signals people use to assure you they’re listening. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve asked ‘hello, you still there?’ simply because he was quietly letting me rant about whatever bonkers shenanigans had gone on that day.

Stephen was never troubled by convention and would turn up at the office dressed in ways that left us shaking our heads in despair. He’s the only man I’ve seen wear combat trousers with braces and I’m pretty certain he didn’t possess an iron. He happily accepted me casting him as the scarecrow in an HWCP production of the Wizard of Oz based on his scruffiness and his enormous brain.

He refused to pay more than £5 for a haircut, no matter how much we took the piss out of him. It simply didn’t matter to him what others thought about how he looked. He rode the tallest, ugliest bicycle I’ve ever seen (he was 6’ 4”) because his theory was that no one would steal such an uncool monster. And he was correct, I never did see a thief riding off on a blue penny farthing with a ‘one less car’ sticker down the cross bar.

He also possessed a peculiar and disarming charm. He told the most ridiculous jokes and his favourite film was Mary Poppins. You sometimes felt you were in the presence of a very large schoolboy and I fell easily into the habit of mothering him, constantly telling him to stop leaning too far back in his chair until the day he did actually fall out of it in the office. His computer always sported a Northampton Town FC pennant, proudly stuck to one corner, which at Christmas was joined by tinsel until we discovered that was what was blocking the office wifi signal. His taste in Christmas decorations is legendary and his gaudy over-the-top, light strewn, inflatable Homer Simpson Santa bedecked house in one of the poshest bits of Bristol must have delighted his neighbours.

I’m not telling you this stuff to show how ‘quirky’ he was, because he wasn’t really; he was just possessed of an extraordinary self-belief that meant he marched to his own beat and wasn’t bothered what anyone else thought of it. He applied the same approach to the work we did and would not bend to pressure from mainstream services or government bodies if he believed what he was doing was right for the residents of Hartcliffe and Withywood.

Residents asked for a complementary therapies project so that prohibitively expensive alternative health services could be tried by people on low incomes. The Primary Care Trust fiercely opposed this, based on the reasoning that these people could not be trusted to understand the therapies on offer and might damage their health. Stephen fought against this with the belief that if the rich can buy themselves acupuncture or massage to relieve chronic symptoms, then why shouldn’t the people of Hartcliffe and Withywood be given the same opportunity? It turned out to be one of the most popular projects we funded and, unusually for a regeneration initiative, delivered immediate benefits for those using the service. GP practices came to recommend it to patients.

When the home secretary wanted to be seen to be tackling antisocial behaviour the Home Office tried to use a visit to the area to illustrate the problems on national TV news. Hartcliffe and Withywood was already badly stigmatised and Stephen fought back, threatening a media storm of massive proportions to expose how they had rejected the positive examples we provided of older residents working with young people, and showing how they were distorting the news for exploitative political ends. The Home Office backed down and one of the volunteers we had put forward went on to receive an MBE for his work.

He worked with absolute openness and transparency: there were no hidden agendas and he would infuriate others by spotting theirs and refusing to accommodate them. He was a constant thorn in the side of mainstream service providers, but he was also universally admired for his straightforwardness and integrity.

We both left HWCP in 2008, due to the national cuts in regeneration funding, but we remained good friends. My final duty was to recruit a new chief executive to the much reduced HWCP and deep inside my irrational soul it felt like an act of betrayal: I gave away the boss’s job when really he was irreplaceable.

Stephen never wasted a moment of life and his interests and activities were wide-ranging and often eccentric. There will be celebrations for him of a life well-lived in Bristol and Manchester during January. He was a life-long blood donor and organ donation supporter and he donated his body to medical research.

He was involved in many local and national organisations both professionally and as a volunteer, which you can read about in the Guardian obituary written by his wife Helen.

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Paul Drew
Paul Drew
9 years ago

I’ve been shocked and saddened to hear of Stephen’s death, and it’s brought back many memories of my time working with him in Bristol. Stephen was very helpful in inducting me into the ways of Hartcliffe and Withywood, and for a while I seemed to be constantly heading south to join him in one of the many panels, sub groups, and boards that went hand in hand with regeneration funding at that time. Although I recognise (and was often on the end of) some of the infuriating and challenging behaviours that Keren outlines above, what always shone through was Stephen’s knowledge, integrity, and commitment to the cause. Some time after leaving Bristol, I bumped into Stephen and Helen in Manchester and it was a genuine pleasure to see him again, however briefly. I can honestly say that I’ve never worked with anyone quite like Stephen and I’m certain that the world is a far less interesting place without him.

Peter Newnham
Peter Newnham
9 years ago

I hope when I pop my clogs someone like Keren will be around to write a similarly loving, respectful and balanced tribute. Mr Hewitt sounds like a brick: I wish I had met him.

Keren
Keren
9 years ago
Reply to  Peter Newnham

Thank you Peter.

Jane Bowyer
Jane Bowyer
9 years ago

I just wanted to say that I was on the board of Hawks with Steve and went on the weekends with HWCP a few years back and I felt like if I could not understand the meetings we had to go to, he always had time to explain to me and that made me feel so much better all I can say is thanks Steve and I will always remember you. God Bless.

Mike Robbins
Mike Robbins
9 years ago

I have just read in the local Wham magazine that Stephen Hewitt is no longer with us and I am deeply saddened. I had known Stephen for many years through my connections with HWCP and later on a more personal level through my connections with HAWKS. What a wonderful man!!

alick davies
alick davies
9 years ago
Reply to  Mike Robbins

Hi Mike. I can only find anything with you on the net on this site, I’m trying to contact you regarding the angling club, could you drop me an email please.

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