With the sudden and shocking death of Wiltshire Councillor Jeff Osborn, the Health Service in our county has lost a constant champion. Jeff died in the Royal United Hospital in Bath on April 1, a few days after suffering a severe stroke. He was 73.
Jeff was a long serving member of the Council’s Health Scrutiny committee, where he was a vigilant critic of the new world of fragmented and commissioned health services, while at the same time speaking up for those who are trying to make and keep the NHS free and fairly available to all those who need it.
Jeff also saw very clearly what is happening to the NHS as a result of the Coalition Government’s Health and Social Care Act, one of the reasons why he (and I) couldn’t continue in the Liberal Democrats.
Jeff cared deeply about the NHS, but that was one among many of the battles that he fought. He was twenty years a Councillor in Wiltshire, first elected as a West Wilts District Councillor in 1996 and then to the old County Council and as a Wiltshire Councillor in 2009.
His political journey included membership of the Labour Party, then the Lib Dems, and then becoming an Independent. He always insisted his values hadn’t changed, others had. He stood up for his people in his Trowbridge ward, and was so well respected there that he was re-elected in 2013 (now as an Independent) with a huge 700 majority, and an extraordinary 86 per cent of the vote.
He served twice as the Town’s Mayor. Most recently he supported Trowbridge residents in their fight against excessive development (though he was a strong supporter of building more affordable homes), and campaigned against government plans to impose fracking on the Trowbridge area. He also cared about the town’s wartime heritage and was a leading light in the campaign for a memorial to the Trowbridge factories’ construction of Spitfires in the Second World War.
I first got to know Jeff when Chippenham Hospital was threatened with closure. He supported the successful local efforts to keep it open by arguing the case on the then County Council scrutiny committee.
Later we became colleagues in the unitary Wiltshire Council, first as Liberal Democrats and then as Independents. We shared many values, including a belief in the positive contribution of local government and the public sector, which seems all too often to be under threat these days.
One of Jeff’s most recent and high profile campaigns was to keep the Hopper bus service to the RUH in Bath. He saw cutting it as a glaring example of how the needs of a vulnerable few were seen as dispensable in the name of the austerity programme to which he strongly objected. It is a sad irony that the last email I had from him was about his visits to the RUH, proudly travelling on the Hopper.
It is extraordinarily sad that his wife Helen, also a Wiltshire Councillor, was in hospital after a serious operation at the time of his death. They were an inseparable pair, and our thoughts are with Helen at such a difficult time.
In public, Jeff came across as bluff and genial, usually seen of late in his signature greatcoat. He was a very effective public speaker, with his own very individual style. One of his great strengths was his deep understanding of the system, and an uncanny ability to get it to work for the causes he cared about.
He was well respected across the political divides. He was rather a private person, and others will have known him better than I did, but he was also a genial and, when necessary, a critical friend, always supportive when needed. When I challenged the established view that all was well with Wiltshire Council’s care in the community, Jeff was always there to back me up.
Personally I will miss him terribly. I know many others will too – deeply and genuinely, over and beyond the many public expressions of condolence. He is a huge loss also to progressive politics in Wiltshire. It is a sometimes an overused expression, but I believe it in this case to be true: I don’t think we will see his like again.
Councillor Chris Caswill represents the Monkton Division of Chippenham on Wiltshire Council.