Mike George, writer and social justice and environmental activist, who died at the age of 75 after contracting a rare form of tuberculosis, was instrumental in promoting ideas for socially useful manufacturing and in developing understanding of consumer vulnerability.
George questioned the assumption in the regulation of essential services that there were fixed groups of vulnerable people whose interests needed to be protected. Rather, he argued that vulnerability could potentially affect anyone at any time for a variety of reasons, including income pressures or illness, and he devised an approach to risk factors that is now standard practice.
His work for the Center for Consumer and Essential Services at the University of Leicester has had a strong influence on energy regulator, Ofgem, which in 2013 produced the first comprehensive vulnerability strategy in the essential services sector. Other regulators have since followed suit and it is now common for utility and broader service providers to take proactive steps to identify those at risk, maintain records and offer targeted help with bills and d other forms of support.
George had long had a scientific approach and vision that put him ahead of mainstream thinking. By the late 1970s, he was already advocating the manufacture of solar cells, wind turbines and road-rail vehicles by displaced auto and defense workers.
In 1978 he was appointed co-ordinator of the Center for Alternative Industry and Technological Systems (Caits) at North East London Polytechnic (now University of East London). Caits was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to advance the work of the Joint Committee of Shop Stewards representing workers at Lucas Aerospace, a major UK manufacturer, to examine how to manage the potential decline of their industry and avoid loss of jobs. As part of the radical “Lucas plan”, the committee proposed to switch from the production of military equipment to products such as kidney dialysis machines.
George led the preparation of a 200-page report, Turning Industrial Decline into Expansion – a Trade Union Initiative, which set out detailed, costed proposals for manufacturing 150 socially useful products. Although the report failed to win political or investor support at the time, much of its thinking has since become orthodox and many of its ideas have been put into practice. There were no forced layoffs at Lucas.
After running Caits for 11 years, George turned to freelance research and writing. He was a regular contributor to the Guardian from the 1980s to the 2000s. His articles for Society Guardian typically focused on emerging issues under the media radar, and sometimes even beyond career guidance, such as hoarding, refugees with disabilities, the sex life of people with learning disabilities and poor rural mental health.
This concern for marginalized people led George and his wife, Linda Lennard, a consumer policy consultant whom he had married in 1983 after they met through his work at Caits, to reevaluate the concept of consumer vulnerability. . Lennard was already a visiting researcher at the Leicester center and he became a research associate after setting up a joint consultancy in 2006. George led the development of the risk factor approach, arguing that vulnerability could be caused not only by individual circumstances but also by actions or inaction of a regulator or service provider, and could result from a combination of economic, environmental and social factors, called intersectionality, the identification of which could force service providers different departments to pool their knowledge of customers.
In April this year, BSI, the Business Standards and Improvement Society, launched a new standard and kitemark for the energy, water and finance sectors which requires service providers to identify vulnerability through means such as data collection and sharing.
Born in Brighton, Mike was the only child of Catherine (née Symonds), a saleswoman, and Ronald George, an engineer. The family moved to Hampshire, where he attended Cowplain County Secondary School, Waterlooville, and then Purbrook Park County Grammar in Purbrook. After a short spell working in the chemical industry, he moved to London to study psychology and zoology at North East London Polytechnic, where he graduated in 1969.
After a false start to his career in the management of the Rochdale-based asbestos manufacturer Turner & Newall, which convinced him that he would be better placed on the workers’ side, George left after four years to travel through the United States and then completed a master’s degree in industrial relations at the London School of Economics. He joined Caits in 1978.
George held firm to socialist principles throughout his life, but left the Labor Party under the leadership of Tony Blair. As a fervent environmentalist and co-founder of the Socialist Environment and Resources Association (now Sera), he has in recent years been involved with the Green Party in St Albans, where he and Lennard had moved from north London. He campaigns in particular against air pollution.
While living in London, George and Lennard helped found the Hornsey Vale Community Association, which secured substantial lottery funding to take over disused local school buildings and adjacent land to create a thriving community center and the Stationers award-winning park.
George’s later life was marred by illness. He endured two years of long hospital stays until he was finally diagnosed by specialists at the Royal Free Hospital in North London as having contracted BCG-Osis, a rare side effect of immunotherapy BCG for bladder cancer.
Typically, George has used his experience to write a series of insightful and thought-provoking blogs on health and social care from the recipient’s perspective. “Too often,” he wrote, “the actual experiences of people who receive services don’t matter as much as they should in shaping policy or designing and delivering services.”
George has co-edited three books: The Politics of Nuclear Power (1978), Japanese Competition and the British Workplace (1984) and Developing the Socially Useful Economy (1986). He wrote unpublished poetry and performed with the Pennine Poets while living in Rochdale, where he also developed his undying love for the English countryside and nature.
He is survived by Linda.