LSE colleagues from across the School pay tribute to John Hills (1954-2020)
Published/Broadcast 24 June 2022
In December 2020 a shock wave went across the School, and reverberated well beyond, with the news of the premature death of our highly esteemed and greatly valued colleague John Hills. John embodied the very best of LSE and of academic life. He was a standard bearer for, and an outstanding example of, an LSE tradition of excellence and leadership on social policy which runs from its beginning to the great figures of William Beveridge, Richard Titmuss, and Tony Atkinson. Within the LSE John was a key figure, universally respected across the institution for his intellect, fair-mindedness and collegiality. It is impossible to exaggerate the deep admiration with which John was regarded and his impact across the School.
Reinforcing John's passion for social justice was great wisdom and judgement; when John spoke, people listened. His communication skills were exceptional. He was a great communicator of ideas as well as detail, making him indispensable for students, colleagues, civil servants, politicians and the media. He changed views across the nation, and beyond, on everything he touched, from fuel poverty to pensions.
In the mid-1980s, Tony Atkinson asked John to help set up the Welfare State Programme in the, then, Suntory Toyota International Centre for Economics and Related Disciplines (STICERD) [later to become Centres] with Julian Le Grand. Nick Stern arrived at the LSE at the same time, and they worked closely to help build STICERD, together with its two pioneers and first chairs Michio Morishima and Tony Atkinson. All had distinct research areas, but were united around the idea of bringing theory and evidence together to take on the major economic and social issues of the times. One common strand was the use of official household level data to understand how wealth and incomes were distributed. Efforts to access such data from government surveys came to fruition in the mid-1980s, thus enabling household-level distributional analysis which paved the way for much of today's research on inequality and the impact of policy on how resources are shared.
The Welfare State Programme was a massive research effort, much of which was undertaken by John. Perhaps its biggest success was the production of The State of Welfare: The Economics of Social Spending. This magisterial work provided an authoritative account of the development and impact of the welfare state in the last few decades of the twentieth century. Everyone in the Programme contributed to the book (which went into several editions), but, along with Howard Glennerster, John was the lead as editor and the author of several key chapters.
In the production of the book and in the wider activities of the Welfare State Programme, John honed skills as a policy analyst that were to serve him so well as both a distinguished academic and an influential policy adviser. He also displayed a human touch that was such an important feature of the Hills persona, supporting the development of younger staff, many of whom have gone on to become distinguished academics in their own right. And it was not only the younger staff who benefited from his leadership, but his peers as well, with his drive, energy and sense of cheerful optimism inspiring them to take on ambitious challenges, but always with a fundamental wisdom that helped rein in wilder flights of fancy.
Earlier work at the LSE (The Economics of the Welfare State) stressed the welfare state's role in redistributing incomes not only between individuals but also within individuals own life cycles. John played a leading part in developing models to quantify that insight, including an important early volume on life-cycle aspects of the welfare state (The Dynamic of Welfare: The Welfare State and the Life Cycle) and later his influential book (Good Times, Bad Times: The Welfare Myth of Them and Us). In John's customary vivid way this book comprehensively holed the 'them and us' narrative below the water line; debunking the fallacy that one group covers the cost of welfare while another group reaps the benefits. Instead of a dry statistical account of the evolving way in which different individuals and families rely and benefit from the welfare state over their lives, John brings to life the hard facts with a series of vignettes about the lives of members of two fictional families - the Osborne family, who are well-off, and the Ackroyd family, who are less fortunate, who had originally featured in TV documentaries by Julian Le Grand and Don Jordan. The result is a masterclass in how to present academic research to a wide readership.
John's mastery of communication and clarity of exposition was also central to his brilliance as a teacher. He is remembered by generations of students for his ability to communicate analytical concepts and policy ideas both precisely and intuitively. He ensured that students gained the essential building blocks for understanding complex systems such as social security and the distributional consequences of policy, doing so in ways that made sense to students at all levels, and those without as well as those with a background in economics. He continually found original ways of teaching unfamiliar or complex ideas, and many students remember the moment when a particular concept, whether income dynamics, or elasticities, or Pen's parade became clear, following his exposition of a graph or his careful explanation in one-to-one student meetings, or his enactment of real life inequalities using bamboo canes or different height students. Many of his junior colleagues learnt from his examples of teaching and student engagement, and his prioritisation of students even in the face of other demands on his time was notable. John was always generous with his time and attended to his students' welfare as well as their education. Even during his final illness he continued to think about their needs, including searching for new readings or fresh illustrations.
Certainly among John's many legacies will be his influence on all those who were taught by him as undergraduates, graduates and PhD students. But it is not only for his own published work, his policy impact or his students that he will be remembered. He was remarkable also for his team building capacity. When an opportunity arose towards the end of the 1990s to create a research centre focusing on the less advantaged, John expertly built an inter-disciplinary team of co-Directors from the Welfare State Programme and the Department of Social Policy (Howard Glennerster, John Hills, Kathleen Kiernan, Julian Le Grand and Anne Power; Carol Propper would join a little later) and convinced the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to fund the centre for 10 years. After receiving confirmation of funding in early 1997, the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) was launched in October 1997, shortly after the Labour Party won the 1997 general election and shortly before the establishment of the Social Exclusion Unit in the Cabinet Office. The timing could not have been any better. John led CASE by example, both by producing high-quality, policy relevant research, and in the way he nurtured and championed the careers of cohorts of CASE researchers and PhD students. He directed with a gentle touch and even after stepping down as director in 2016 stayed on as CASE chair, and generously continued to contribute to the work and life of the Centre.
During his years at CASE, John, working with colleagues, led a series of large scale studies assessing the distributional impact of UK government policy across key areas of social policy. Detailed research papers were supplemented by a series of books aimed at disseminating the main findings to a wider audience: A More Equal Society? New Labour, poverty, inequality and exclusion; Towards a More Equal Society? Policy, poverty and inequality since 1997; Social Policy in a Cold Climate: Policies and their consequences since the crisis. The latest study in this series (Social Policies and Distributional Outcomes in a Changing Britain) was nearing completion at the time of his premature death.
Underpinned by high quality academic research, John took knowledge exchange to a new level (well before the concept had been formally recognised). John's command of large bodies of research and ability to identify salient facts, coupled with exceptional communication skills, meant that he was sought-after. Notable examples of John's highly influential policy work include the independent review of social housing policy in England, Ends and Means, the independent review of fuel poverty, Getting the Measure of Fuel Poverty, which changed official understanding and measurement of fuel poverty, and the independent National Equality Panel (NEP) which produced the first detailed anatomy of economic inequality in the UK. In addition, John was one of only three members of the government's Pensions Commission, which established three fundamentally important reforms: auto-enrolment, a basic pension not below the poverty line (a return to Beveridge), and a workable proposal for simple savings plans, eventually introduced as widely-praised NEST pensions. These studies - as with so much of John’s work - had a heavy focus on less well-off members of society.
The trust which colleagues felt in John as both a distinguished scholar and a generous and gifted institution-builder, alongside his quite extraordinary work ethic, were the foundation stones on which the International Inequalities Institute (III) was built with wide and enduring support. John was co-Director of III from its inception in 2015 until 2018. With his visionary imagination, John recognised that a major initiative was needed to bring together expertise across the School, to provide a strong inter-disciplinary platform from which inequality researchers could speak to wide public and policy audiences, and to nurture new generations of students and academics. At this stage of his illustrious career, he could understandably have decided that he could leave to others the sheer grind of getting a full Institute up and running from scratch and that he could enjoy a figurehead role. But this was not his way. John threw himself into the tireless and demanding work of persuading academics to engage with the III, teaching the MSc in Inequalities and Social Science, and managing the fledgling Institute in the early days. His role in fund raising was decisive. It was after John's warm overtures that negotiations with Atlantic Philanthropies took place which ultimately led to the award of the Atlantic Fellows Programme in Social and Economic Equity (AFSEE) and secure core funding for the III into the 2030s.
Thoughts of John Hills are, for many, indistinguishable from thoughts of 'John and Anne'. In the early days of the Welfare State Programme one young colleague referred to John as 'probably the most eligible young man in the LSE'. A few months later she remarked 'no longer, I think'. Anne Power and he had met.
Anne was already one of the country's leading housing policy experts and that was John's early specialism. As a team, in every sense, they were inseparable and invincible. Anne shared his passion for the Lake District and hill walking. His list of every major peak he had climbed with Anne was one of his proudest trophies. Their small mining cottage in Glenridding was their treasured retreat where so much of his and her work was written. Every crag around Ullswater was intimately known and explored. His devotion to Anne extended to her three daughters, Carmen, Miriam and Lucy, and their five grandchildren, Jasmine, Sophie, Lucia, Bella and Isla-Rose. He introduced them to fell walking, organised ingenious treasure hunts and would even read up on biology to help with revision. John also shared with Anne a deep concern about climate change. He was keenly aware of its profoundly unequal consequences; and full of practical and thought-through policy ideas. Indeed, he could tell you, with great precision, the different heat-saving potentials of double-glazing, loft insulation, and wall cladding.
John's passion for the Lake District was perhaps matched only by his passion for cricket. While he had had to abandon playing himself, his enthusiasm for the game and interest in the varied fortunes of the England team were a constant. This was a topic he discussed with infectious enthusiasm with friends and colleagues and it became a thread that bound many of them together.
John will be remembered by so many as the wonderful friend and colleague he was. However difficult a day or week you were having, if you saw John and his smile, experienced his warmth, listened to his anecdotes, absorbed his insights, you felt so much better. He had the gifts of warmth, happiness and friendship in extraordinary measure.
Professor Nicholas Barr, Professor Howard Glennerster, Professor Nicola Lacey, Professor Julian Le Grand, Dr Abigail McKnight, Professor Lucinda Platt, Professor Mike Savage, and Professor Lord Nicholas Stern