John Durrant
John Durrant

Tributes are pouring in for a former Cambridge Mayor – and champion of the homeless – who has died after battling cancer.

John Durrant, who was 64 and had been suffering from liver cancer, has been described as “deeply principled”, “compassionate” and “inspiring”, as well as a fount of knowledge about Cambridge’s history and a sterling supporter of the city and its people.

He was a man of seemingly endless talents: a committed Labour councillor in Cambridge for more than two decades, who became its First Citizen and an Honorary Councillor; an expert on the university city’s complex planning issues, who was passionate about its future development; a keen student of local history who worked to protect Cambridge’s heritage; and a tireless crusader on behalf of homeless people, both in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, where he was born.

Among those who have spoken of their sadness at his death are senior politicians in Cambridge, the heads of charities he helped, and personal friends – including former hostage Terry Waite, who praised his “passion for justice and fair dealing”.

John Durrant was born in Woodbridge, and adopted when he was seven months old by John and Nancy Durrant, who already had a daughter, Enid. The family moved to Cambridge, where John attended Netherhall grammar school before doing a BA degree in history at Anglia Polytechnic.

Later in life, he traced his birth parents in America, and also two brothers and a sister, who came to visit him in Cambridge.

He leaves his wife Elena, who was at his side for 45 years, as well as three children – Daniela, Andrej and Karina – and eight grandchildren.

Lewis Herbert, leader of Cambridge City Council, said John had given 21 years of continuous service as a councillor, beginning when he was first elected in 1987 and ending in 2008, when he lost his seat to the Green Party.

Councillor Herbert said: “He served as Deputy Leader of the Council and as Chair of the Property Sub-Committee, Chair of the Planning Committee and Chair of the East Area Committee. He was also a member of the City Board, City Centre Development (Grand Arcade), and the Civic Affairs Committee, as well as Mayor of Cambridge in 1996-1997. He was also a leading member of the Committee of the East Barnwell Centre and other organisations in Abbey Ward, where he lived.

“Many of us learned a lot about planning from him, and he was much respected by councillors from other parties.”

In the 1990s, John helped to spearhead Cambridge Futures, a town-gown research project set up to examine how the Cambridge region might best develop over the next half century. The project, which was backed by planning experts Marcial Echenique & Partners and Cambridge Architectural Research, included senior figures from local government, business and the university sector, and it came up with seven options for growth. A public opinion survey found the three most favoured were housing densification, especially along the railway line, selective extension into the green belt in places that were less sensitive, and development of new settlements and existing villages.

Prof Echenique said: “John was an enthusiastic contributor and together with the then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, now Lord Broers, and an eminent industrialist, now Sir Michael Marshall, he helped to raise the necessary funds for the work and to gather the support of the people of Cambridge.

“He was particularly interested in public participation, organising meetings and exhibitions in several places as well as gathering people’s preferences for the different options. The result of the work can be seen today, 15 years later, with the densification of the railway area and Brooklands Avenue, with the southern extension including the medipark, with the extension in the north-west, progressive development around the airport, and the new Cambridge North station. This work has made a great difference to Cambridge and has been praised nationally and internationally.

“John was pivotal in both the vision and the political support which was necessary to get the plan implemented. We should be immensely thankful for his contribution to unlock the potential of the sub-region.”

John was also a staunch supporter of efforts to help homeless people, working with Jimmy’s night shelter in Cambridge, the Emmaus community at Landbeach, and Newmarket’s Open Door.

Simon Grainge, Chief Executive of Emmaus UK, said: “John was chairman of Emmaus Cambridge when I was in charge there. He was a deeply principled and hard working guy who was a tremendous advocate of Emmaus. His unassuming nature, practical approach and passion for supporting those in need will be sorely missed.”

Terry Waite, also a long-term supporter of the charity, is currently in New Zealand, and spoke of his deep sadness that his “dear friend” had passed away. He said: “I cannot express just how much I respected John. He had a passion for justice and fair dealing and did not simply stand on the sidelines. He was willing and ready to roll up his sleeves and get on with the job alongside those who were less fortunate in life than he had been.

“Just before I left the UK I visited him. He was far from well but insisted on coming to the door of his house to say farewell when I left. We both knew that this would be the last time we would see each other in this life.

“I simply remember John as I knew him. A decent, honest, hard-working compassionate man and a dear friend. May he rest in peace.”

Open Door came into being as a Churches Together initiative to tackle homelessness in the Newmarket area. It provides supported housing on two sites at Newmarket and also runs two big charity stores selling donated goods at Newmarket and Mildenhall. John Durrant was Open Door’s charity correspondent and company secretary.

Tracey Dove, administrator and accommodation manager at Open Door said: “He became involved with Open Door in 2000, and with his help the organisation has grown from being able to provide seven bedrooms to providing 24. After he left the council he threw himself wholeheartedly into supporting Open Door, and all of us here are devastated that he has passed away.”

John was fascinated by the history of Cambridge, and was a stalwart of Cambridge’s Museum of Technology, and the Museum of Cambridge, formerly the Cambridge and District Folk Museum.

Friend, fellow historian and Folk Museum advisor Allan Brigham said: “It reflected his commitment to the history of the town, which in most books is just a footnote to the history of the university. His own books included a history of the University Arms Hotel, and a very popular book of photographs showing ‘Cambridge Past and Present’ which he turned into a slide show that entertained groups in every corner of the city.

“John was chairman of the Folk Museum twice, stepping in at difficult moments and giving much energy into guiding us through always challenging times. His most significant contribution remains leading the successful bid to win funding to modernise the building.

“He was always a keen supporter of the Museum Friends, concluding his 2001 Report by saying: ‘Without our Friends, be they volunteers who staff the reception, catalogue and clean the artefacts, provide refreshments, entertain and educate through lectures and tours, or support our grant applications, we would not have a museum’. These words reflect his belief that the museum was far more than a collection of objects, but that it brought together local people who loved what the museum represented to make it a genuine ‘people’s museum’ telling a ‘people’s history’.

“This idea of working with people to make Cambridge a better place extended into his many other activities in the city. John represented ‘social capital’ in Cambridge long before the phrase was regularly used. He appreciated that he was lucky to have been brought up here, sought to improve the city for all, and was keen on involving people from different political persuasions – or none – to look for pragmatic solutions.”

In 2001, John was one of the founders of the Cambridge Blue Plaques Scheme, which puts plaques on buildings associated with influential figures in the history of the city. He was chairman until it merged with conservation charity CambridgePPF in 2017, and maintained his involvement afterwards.

A spokesperson for CambridgePPF said: “His knowledge of the history of Cambridge was invaluable when the Blue Plaque Committee was considering who to commemorate. John was also a valued member of CambridgePPF’s volunteer Planning Committee and its Heritage Working Group for many years. His contributions in these areas will be much missed.”

Many ex-political colleagues have paid glowing testimonials to John, who was made an Honorary Councillor for his service to Cambridge.

Former councillor Ben Bradnack, Labour Group Leader in 2004, said: “John Durrant was deputy leader of the Labour Group on the City Council when I was elected in 1994. He never aspired to be leader, though by 2004 he had become the longest serving Labour councillor by some distance.

“He was a supremely loyal Labour councillor, and was elected in 1996 to serve as a wonderfully effective Mayor of Cambridge. He worked night shifts stacking supermarket shelves so that he could fulfil his mayoral duties during all the rest of the hours that he could give. The mayoralty can be just a long-service award to members who are heading for an honourable retirement. For John, it was much more: it was a springboard to action on behalf of the city, and a high point in a life spent working on behalf of the communities where he lived and worked, in Cambridge and then in Newmarket.

“As Mayor, John became involved in many local charities and activities, particularly those concerned with homelessness and environmental issues, including continuing to be a director of Jimmy’s for nearly two decades until he died. Once involved, he never lost interest. Well before he ever became Mayor, John established the first recycling scheme in Cambridge, in his own Abbey ward, which he then spread to the city, long before recycling became a national priority.

“His mayoral year is recorded in a much-admired montage of all councillors and senior officers serving then, on the wall near the council chamber, next to one from exactly 100 years previously. And amongst those past mayors, John stands out as being amongst the greats: his own man, but also a man for all Cambridge.” Colin Shaw, former Labour county councillor for Abbey, said: “I got to know John, and became good friends with him, after I was elected in 1996 in Abbey, one of the most deprived wards in the city, John’s city council ward. He was a very good and caring local councillor, aware of the needs of his patch, and an inspiration. He certainly inspired me, first to work closely with him, dividing up our work in the ward, and getting me involved with, first, his passion, the East Barnwell Community Centre, then with the city council’s Abbey Action community group.”

Mr Shaw said John helped to lead a campaign to save the centre when it was threatened with closure in 1998.

He said: “John decided it must remain a vital community asset and rallied round local people using the centre and formed a steering group, which became the charity, the East Barnwell Community Association, to take over running the centre. To me, this was typical of John: seeing a problem and doing something about it quickly. He was worried about the centre closing, because it was – and is – much used by the local community, particularly young people.”

Cambridge’s MP Daniel Zeichner said: “John is a big loss to our city – he had a depth of knowledge and understanding about Cambridge that was unparalleled. Long before food banks were established, John was working with supermarkets making sure that surplus food went to those who needed it. That was typical of John, who was passionate about social justice and homelessness and tried to find really practical solutions.

“He was a lovely man, cheery and positive, and I am privileged to have known him.”

In a statement, John’s family said: “John was a devoted husband, father and grandfather. His absence has left a void in all our lives.

“We are all comforted and very proud to know that he was loved and respected by so many people in the community and organisations he worked with over the years, many saying what a remarkable man he was and how much he will be missed.

“As heartbroken as we are, we will treasure our time spent with him and all the things he taught us. He was a loving kind man, full of laughter and very proud of his family and the work he set out and accomplished. He will forever be in our thoughts and hearts, always.”

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