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Lord Northfield made vision for Telford a reality

Telford | News | Published:

Lord Northfield has died, aged 89. Toby Neal pays tribute to a man who helped shape Telford.

Lord Northfield changed the face of Telford new town and steered its development through some of its most difficult and momentous years.

As Donald Chapman, the former Labour MP for Northfield in Birmingham, he was appointed in 1975 as chairman of Telford Development Corporation, amid some controversy.

One of his early acts was to demand better designs for the thousands of corporation homes being built. He simply sent them back to architects with the message: "You can do better than that."

His influence can be easily seen in the Leegomery estate, which comprises homes of varying design, pools and greens. He pushed too for more attractive office developments and continued the work started under corporation general manager Emyr Thomas to revitalise Ironbridge.

He was a visionary who had the drive to steamroller though his ideas, against the misgivings of others, and the political clout to fight Telford's case at Westminster.

"He made an absolutely incalculable difference," said David Everington, who was his personal assistant and picks out three qualities.

Lord Northfield escorting the Queen at the celebrations to mark the opening of Telford Town Centre in November 1981

"He had a very high intellectual quality. He got a first class honours degree from Cambridge and was mentally equipped to deal with anything that could come up.

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"Secondly, he had immense personal drive. By and large, if he set a course of action going, he saw it through right to the end. And thirdly, he had a vast array of political contacts in Westminster in both political parties which he used to Telford's advantage."

He had arrived in Telford as deputy chairman at TDC, under chairman John Dugdale. Labour had cemented its hold back in power and Mr Dugdale stepped down when it was clumsily leaked in London that his deputy would succeed him at the first opportunity.

Lord Northfield, who made a point of actually living in the new town, faced some difficult times as unemployment soared to 22 per cent in Telford in the early 1980s, but then began to reap the dividends of the groundwork which had been done.

The arrival of Maxell at Apley heralded the start of a flood of foreign investment, and the opening of the M54 in 1983 was another vital step towards a brighter future. The second phase of Telford town centre, marking a vast expansion in the shopping centre, was opened by the Queen in 1981. Telford then secured the go-ahead for its own general hospital.

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Lord Northfield also appreciated the area's heritage and described Ironbridge as its "jewel in the crown".

He had the knack of charming, or disarming, opponents. At one public meeting a well-known local Left-wing firebrand heckled him loudly. Lord Northfield sat down and let him vent forth, until the audience got so tired that it told him to shut up.

Lord Northfield left TDC in 1987 and was succeeded by Frank Jones. He lived in retirement in Hawaii, but often returned to the town, where he was chairman of the Maxell Educational Trust.

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