A real high flyer
Renowned barrister, holder of fellowships from three Royal Societies, Honorary Legal Advisor to aviation charities, John Steel QC is a recreational pilot with his feet firmly on the ground and a tremendous sense of loyalty and duty to his former institution. John took time out of his busy schedule to talk to Rebecca Grundy about his involvement with Durham University, past and present.
Can you describe a typical day?
I don't really have a typical day. That is one of the benefits of my work. Planning work at the Bar takes you around the country a great deal and I have over the years got to know a large number of areas of Britain including many of which I would probably not otherwise have had occasion to visit. Recently I have just finished a long case in Wales concerning the redevelopment of a redundant reservoir at Cardiff, which has been on and off for nearly three years. I am involved with the expansion of Farnborough airport in Hampshire for TAG Aviation and I have advised on the expansion of Heathrow, Gatwick, and Birmingham and Stansted airports over the years.
I am also very much involved with the regeneration of the North East, a place I love visiting as regularly as possible. I have in the past worked on compulsory purchase orders to clear areas in Stockton, including the University's Queen's Campus.
Tell us a bit about your interest in aviation.
My interest in flying has always existed. My father had a pilot's licence and my uncle was in the RAF. I first learned to fly helicopters and then gradually moved on to fixed wing aircraft including biplanes, like the Tiger Moth vintage aircraft.
I am heavily involved as a trustee with some aviation charities, especially through my flying links with Mission Aviation Fellowship UK. This is a fantastic organisation which flies medical supplies and missionary workers into war zones and other remote places, such as Darfur and Madagascar, unable to be reached by other aid agencies and non-governmental organisations. MAF is a Christian organisation in that those who contribute their time and skills are inspired to help because of their faith, but it is completely multi-faith in its outreach, missionary and humanitarian roles.
What made you choose Durham?
I listed Durham on my UCA form (as it was then) because it was a collegiate university and yet totally different to any of the other collegiate institutions in the UK. I applied to University College because of its location and atmosphere. In the end I stayed in college for 3 years, but when you're living on Palace Green, why would you want to live out?! Knowing that I intended to become a barrister in due course, I decided to read Chemistry, as I wanted to be dually qualified.
Durham was also appealing because of its strength in sport, and whilst I thought I was reasonable at one or two sports, I soon realised how much better everyone else was! The standard was international and it was hopeless to try to get in to some of the teams but everyone was willing to ensure that students achieved their own level.
How has your Durham education benefited you throughout your life?
It has been the foundation for nearly everything that followed. As well as providing grounding in sport and many other activities, Durham gives you the impetus to do anything you want. Everybody seeks high standards - it's just the norm.
It is quite surprising the way in which many of my contemporaries have gone into positions of substantial responsibility in the UK. To name but a few: Andrew McFarlane and Caroline Swift, Justices of the High Court; Tom Troubridge partner in PwC, (incidentally, he also introduced me to my wife, Becky, who was at St Mary's); Richard Dannatt, Head of the British Army; Tim Lawrence, Vice-Admiral and Head of Defence Estates; Ed Mitchell and George Alagiah, BBC reporter and News Reader; and Gavin Featherstone, erstwhile England Hockey Team captain. We all had a fantastic time at Durham and gained many skills which have helped us attain the levels we have reached.
Are you still in contact with any of your Durham contemporaries?
I keep in touch with a good number of friends from Durham. The collegiate atmosphere meant I made friends in many different colleges, many of whom have become friends for life. In fact, each year I have a reunion with many of them, even though we all now arrive from different corners of the globe. We all believe that the reason we have achieved so much and had the opportunity to live all over the world is down to our Durham education. Because of the ethos of the place, and the sense of respect that's instilled for one's fellow human beings, Durham students are encouraged and inspired to aim high in their chosen careers, without stepping on others on the way. It is enough simply to achieve one's best.
What do you think makes Durham different?
Durham has the great advantage of being small enough to be a tight-knit university, concentrated in a city which is perhaps one of the most beautiful in the world. The University has sufficient depth, breadth and strength in its subject matters to be a hitter on the world stage and punches well above its weight.
In what ways are you still involved with Durham University?
I have stayed involved in various way over the years but recently I have been asked by the Vice-Chancellor, Chris Higgins, to assist the University in forming a ‘Constellation of Fellows'. These people will be drawn from the highest echelons of politics, academia, industry and the sciences both here and abroad, in particular from the developing world. The purpose is both to forge links with the rest of the world and to build up an endowment over time which would cement those links. It is hoped that this hub, created of world leaders from various fields, will not only inspire undergraduates and graduates but also place Durham on the world stage as a major influencer in world affairs. We are seeking to obtain a bedrock of £100m over the next 10 years which will be the foundation for Durham's future and will also fund chairs and research projects.
I am also working with Durham Law School on various issues. This includes looking to strengthen Durham's links with Gray's Inn and the Bar. The Vice-Chancellor has also asked me to look at ways in which the curriculum at Durham for students can be made more interesting and rewarding. The growing involvement of theology in world politics means that it is useful to have a theological base when looking at world powers and their religions, and to have an understanding of all types of faith. It is important to develop a broad mind and consider concepts obtained from subjects including the sciences, philosophy and politics. Our country is changing and it is vital for future generations to have a cross-fertilisation of ideas in order to be able to tackle world problems knowledgeably and considerately. Students should be more conscious about these matters and be educated in a way that they learn to make decisions on the basis of their own conclusions and knowledge rather than prejudice from the press or elsewhere. Durham is able to produce that form of understanding and knowledge by virtue of its breadth of disciplines, and could provide interdisciplinary lectures, whether voluntary or integrated into specific courses. We are looking to ways in which this can be put into effect to ensure that all students who leave Durham have a wide education and think outside the box. It is almost certain that some will become leaders of their generation.
John Steel was at University College from 1973–1976 where he gained a BSc (hons) in Chemistry.
John was called to the Bar by Gray's Inn in 1978 and appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1993. He is a Bencher of Gray's Inn and sits as a Recorder in the Crown and County Courts in the Midlands. His main areas of practice are planning, compulsory purchase aviation and environmental law and he is cited as a recommended leader in these fields by the current editions of Chambers and Partners and The Legal 500.