Remembering Steve Berry OBE, Head of Highways Maintenance, Innovation, Resilience, Light Rail and Cableways at the Department for Transport - a personal reflection from Mark Stevens, Chair of ADEPT’s Engineering Board.
Since the early part of 2020, the world has seen the untimely death of many people struck down by the COVID-19 virus. The scale of human loss has perhaps got to the stage where the numbers now – as vast as they are – don’t quite resonate in the way that they did when coronavirus first took hold and impinged so massively on the way of life that we had known and enjoyed for so long. Of course, the impact of COVID-19 is felt far deeper and longer by the families of those who have either lost loved ones or are providing support to those afflicted by its lingering after-effects.
And yet, when it was announced by the Department for Transport, on the morning of Friday 9th April 2021, that Steve Berry had died of incurable cancer two days beforehand, I and many others were left shell-shocked. Steve was only 48 years old and was a guy who had shown almost boundless energy in his desire to have the right impact on the whole of his portfolio, not just the highways maintenance element over which he and I would often muse. I sat pole-axed in front of my computer screen, trying to think of something that I could share with others through the online book of condolence that would partly capture who Steve was. Although much of the nation’s attention was drawn that Friday to the news of the passing of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, my mind repeatedly returned to Steve.
Quite simply, Steve made things happen. He was much respected by Government Ministers – Jesse Norman referred to him as the ‘OBE-Wan Kenobi’ of local roads and the current Roads Minister, Baroness Vere, posthumously thanked him (through the online book of condolence) for saving her from drowning through in-depth briefing and guidance, having been thrown into the often stormy waters of highways maintenance. After the nightmare winter of 2010/11, he joined some of us at an Engineering Board meeting in Exeter and asked for our views about what to do with the huge stockpiles of salt stored around the country’s ports. Having recently closed down a Leicestershire Highways depot alongside the M1 near the A14 Catthorpe junction, I half-jokingly suggested sticking up a vast salt barn there that many could easily access. By 2015, a 55,000-tonne salt barn was in operation there!
But that encounter in the west was the starting point for Steve attending as many Engineering Board meetings as he could then get along to – even provincial meetings, such as the one at Warrington when we went to view the work on the emergency Mersey Bridge. To give himself and colleagues the best opportunity to attend, meetings at Great Minster House soon became the norm. In one, he and Tony Boucher threw down the gauntlet given to them by Jesse Norman of putting together a joint DfT/ADEPT ‘Pothole Prevention Guide’. Steve ensured the document negotiated its way through relevant Ministers and 10 Downing Street to get published. He kept the Board as up-to-date as he could on what was filtering through from the nation’s corridors of power and, in turn, fed information back through the other way. After I gave him a detailed briefing on the paucity of capital and revenue funding for highway maintenance in mid-July 2019, he shared that with Baroness Vere and, lo and behold, the Government’s next manifesto contained the commitment to invest £500m iin tackling potholes for the next five years. Steve at his influencing best.
I know from conversations and exchanges with counterparts that Steve was, until extremely recently, embroiled in ongoing battles to get the best that he could for local government in whatever way that he could. But there was one battle that Steve accepted that he just couldn’t win, and that was the one that has taken him from us. ADEPT has lost a great ally, a 48-year old man on the inside trying to work the angles that will remain invisible to others. Many of us have simply lost someone whom we regarded as a mate, a bloke that you could chew the cud with. He was a truly fine fellow and one that I will never forget. Rest well my friend.