Obituary: Douglas Sinclair CBE, council chief executive, Cosla head and consumer champion

Douglas Sinclair CBE. Former Cosla chief executive, consumer and public spending watchdog chairman. Born: 28 January, 1946 in Ellon, Aberdeenshire. Died: 4 May, 2017 in St Andrews, aged 71

Douglas Sinclair OBIT
Douglas Sinclair OBIT

Douglas Sinclair’s impressive career in public service began not by design but as the result of his rather sceptical views on social work.

Newly married and recently graduated with an MA in politics, he had his reservations about the field when his wife, a trainee social worker, spotted an advert for graduate administrative assistants in a fledgling social work department. Legislation had just established social work as a professional service within local government and these were new posts to support the initiative.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Despite his misgivings, Sinclair applied, secured an interview and told them what he thought about social work. Surprisingly, he got the job and so, somewhat unintentionally, began three happy years with Midlothian County Council. The role led to him climbing the ranks in local authorities across Scotland, culminating in posts as chief executive of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) and chair of Consumer Focus Scotland and the Accounts Commission.

Throughout it all he was a passionate advocate for local democracy – “If you cut my veins there would be local government blood running through them” he once joked – and a champion of consumers, known for his leadership, integrity and commitment.

Born in Ellon, Aberdeenshire, to joiner Douglas Sinclair and his wife Agnes, a medical receptionist, he was educated at Peterhead and Inverness Royal Academies before heading south to the Scottish capital. He graduated from Edinburgh University in 1969, taking up the post with the social work department covering Midlothian, East Lothian and Peebles that same year.

From there he went to Barnardo’s as an administrative officer before moving to the newly formed Western Isles Council in Stornoway as depute director of administration in 1975. Promoted two years later to director, he spent a total of ten years in the Outer Hebrides. His tenure had coincided with the reorganisation of Scottish local authorities and in 1985 he was appointed chief executive of Ross and Cromarty District Council, a post he held until 1990.

The following five years were spent in charge of Central Regional Council in Stirling until the council system was reorganised yet again in 1995, a move he felt came too soon. Pursuing a new direction, he became chief executive of Cosla but four years later returned to a role delivering services to the public as chief executive of Fife Council, an opportunity he described as “too good to miss”.

Retiring from there in 2006, he became chair of the Scottish Consumer Council, which subsequently merged with energywatch Scotland and Postwatch Scotland to become Consumer Focus Scotland. Appointed to a second term as chair in 2011, he championed the rights of a huge range of consumers from tenants to patients, energy users, shoppers and solicitors’ clients, contributing to work at local, national and European levels in a bid to get a fair deal, better customer service and more responsive public services.

Meanwhile he was also a member of the Accounts Commission, the public spending watchdog, serving as its deputy chair and then, from December 2013, as chairman. Looking back on his first year in that post he told Holyrood Magazine one of highlights had been a report on the role of councils in improving school education which found that the most successful councils were the ones where elected members were most effective in holding council officers to account.

Another issue he had been looking at was the auditing of the integrated of health and social care partnerships. He also had high praise for local government and the way it administered the 2014 Scottish Referendum vote, saying it did an outstanding job.

Still serving the public at the age of 71, he only stepped down due to ill health in March this year.

His long-standing friend and former colleague, the former Provost of Stornoway Sandy Matheson, who worked alongside him as convenor of Western Isles Council, said: “His wide range of knowledge, his capacity for real work and his extensive and comprehensive range of administrative detail made him invaluable, even indispensable, and most of all an unforgettable example to all who worked with him, for in his splendid career he had no other ambition but to serve.

“His extensive range of publications, articles and letters to the Press give proof of his acute and logical brain, of his foresight and vision and of his firm belief in the primacy of community.”

Away from his professional life, Sinclair enjoyed gardening and was on the board of St Andrews Botanic Garden Trust until this year. He was also a prolific reader, particularly enjoying Scottish literature and political biographies, an enthusiastic walker and keen Aberdeen Football Club supporter.

He is survived by his wife Mairi, daughters Ailsa and Eilidh and grandchildren Sophie, Benjamin, Annabel and Flora.