Peter Spillett BSc MSc PhD FIFM CEnv

A Tribute to our former Chairman and President

Peter in full after dinner speech mode

It is with great sadness and a huge sense of loss that we report the death of Peter Spillett. 

Peter will have been known to most of you, if not personally then through his long and distinguished contribution to the life of the IFM and the wider promotion of fishery interests. He held demanding senior roles in the water industry and positions of leadership within the IFM as Chairman, President and more recently a Trustee of the Institute. He served the Greater London and South East Branch as Secretary and Chairman. His vision, intelligence, candour, commitment and humour all contributed to the development of the Institute and the wider fisheries scene. In his long and influential career he made many friends. He will be greatly missed,

The Early Years

Peter grew up in Croydon, obtaining a scholarship to Dulwich College, from where he went to study at Durham University. A keen sportsman in his youth, he also had a trial with Crystal Palace FC – although Arsenal were his team of choice. His playing prospects were not helped by his cruciate ligament injury, although he managed to be very good at squash and table tennis.   

After completing an MSc (and forsaking possible further studies into avian biology) Peter undertook his PhD on fish at Queen Elizabeth College in Kensington, with Dr Alan Brafield. Following a spell with the newly formed Severn-Trent Water Authority Peter moved in the mid 1970s to the then recently formed fisheries section at the Thames Water Authority as the Fisheries Research Officer where Mike Bulleid was Regional Fisheries Manager.

Thames Water and the IFM

As Peter himself noted in the John Gregory Memorial Lecture in 2019 this was a period of rapid change and opportunity for fisheries in the newly constituted water industry following the 1973 Water Act. Here, Peter had the abilities to begin to make his mark. He commanded respect and developed enduring friendships with colleagues within Thames, at the various statutory committees and in other Regional Authorities. Research projects within Thames and with external organisations such as Reading University were established. Students joined for placements. It was a lively and progressive place.

Peter joined the IFM in 1976 and was soon working hard to expand the scope and reach of the Greater London and South East Branch. With the encouragement of the pioneering initiatives of the Midlands Branch, under Peter’s watch regular meetings at Fishmongers Hall were supplemented by site visits and trips at home and abroad (particularly to locations with good wine and seafood availability). Theoretical and practical workshops for angling clubs were organised and membership grew. Regular Committee meetings in Peter’s favourite Chinese restaurant became (as Peter would say) de riguer to plan branch programmes and events. The Annual Sherry Evening was the highlight of the social calendar.

Life Without Fish?

By the late1980s Peter was seeking other ways to influence the bigger picture for the benefit of fisheries. Changes at Thames Water’s head office had seen Peter move to an area operational job based in Oxford. The fisheries function was losing influence as spending cuts were enforced by governments trying to contain public expenditure. This was a time of hot debate about water privatisation and the prospects for fisheries. 

Peter’s response was to change roles to be in a place of greater influence. He joined a small team at Thames Water’s headquarters, back in Reading, initially involved in monitoring authority-wide performance on behalf of the Managing Director. He became involved in some very ”un-fishy” work on strategic industry planning with the Department of the Environment, as it was then. When water privatisation was announced he moved to joined the equally small but even more influential team planning and running the process and programme for what was to become Thames Water Utilities Plc.

Initially a role that challenged even Peter’s confidence, he was soon in his element, meeting with DOE officials, putative company directors and external advisors in everything from economics to engineering. He developed and presented company strategy and investment plans in key areas such as improvements to sewage treatment works performance to meet River Quality Objectives, drinking water quality to meet European Union Directives and long-term water resource plans. 

After privatisation in 1989 Peter’s qualities and contribution were recognised in the subsequent reorganisation, when he was promoted to the (still small) team to manage planning and company performance in the new regulatory environment, under Bill Stanley. Peter’s knowledge, abilities and personal qualities enabled him to be equally at home with company directors and senior staff in the regulatory bodies including the National Rivers Authority, now home to many of Peter’s friends and ex-colleagues.

Notwithstanding his new role and responsibilities Peter still made time for the IFM. Indeed, he saw it as the professional body for people with fisheries interests and was fully involved both at national level as a member of Council and locally. As branch chairman Peter lead the organisation of the annual conference at Royal Holloway College in 1990, titled “Fisheries in the year 2000” This is still the best attended annual conference, lasting a full five days. As usual Peter was keen to get everyone looking ahead.

The 1990s were a busy decade for Peter. In 1993 he became Chairman of IFM Council. Back at Thames Water he was now the Head of Planning and Regulation, leading the upcoming review of water company plans and pricing. The first since privatisation, this massive technical and organisational challenge involved staff across the company, external advisors (again), financial auditohttrs and engineering certifiers, as well of course as the three industry regulatory bodies.  Once again, water quality improvements were to be a major driver of investment. After the price review it was Peter and his team that monitored the company’s plans and performance, undertaking annual returns of progress to Ofwat and explaining any deviations from agreed outputs. No small task.

Back to the Environment

Peter was also in charge of the next review of prices but was then asked to take on   overall charge of the company’s environmental and water science department. Here he managed and motivated a large team of highly professional scientists with his usual style and panache. Despite these commitments Peter’s input to the IFM continued unabated as he contributed to Council and committee work. Each year saw very full branch programmes involving partner organisations such as CIWEM KCL and ZSL and preparation for the 2001 Conference in the august surroundings of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. He also joined the editorial team of Fish. It was during this time that Peter and his Thames team started on the long journey of preparatory work that would culminate in the Tideway Project to address excessive storm discharges to the Thames in London. 

Having worked occasionally during this period with Thames Water International Peter’s somewhat surprising next move was to the USA. Thames had acquired a number of privately-owned local American water supply companies across the states. These operated in a completely different legal and regulatory regime. Each required approval of the local legislature. Peters job was to address any and all environmental concerns about the proposed change of ownership. The project worked well; at one time Thames had more customers in the USA than in the Thames Valley. Peter’s last role there was to relocate to California to assist with the planning and operations around the increasing problems of drought in the state. As he said at the time, on his way to the beach, a tough job but someone had to do it. 

Unsurprisingly Peter’s direct involvement in UK fisheries and IFM affairs took something of a back seat during his American sojourn but his return to the UK enabled his full involvement once again. After leaving Tames Water Peter became a non-executive director of APEM, assisting the development of company strategy and organisational development. He joined the England Fisheries Group. Back at the IFM Greater London and South East Branch, Peter worked with colleagues to produce another successful Annual Conference in Oxford. As IFM President from 2008 Peter worked hard with colleagues and externally to develop the IFM to achieve its declared objective for the 2020s as the professional, purposeful and competent organisation needed to promote the science and practice of fisheries management.

Beyond Fish

Throughout his career Peter maintained a wide range of outside interests. A keen birdwatcher, he chaired the Reading Branch of the RSPB with comprehensive annual programmes of talks and visits. He also edited their newsletter, wrote many articles and supplied many photographs. Always a keen traveller, Peter visited many overseas locations including Africa and South America to find and photograph the local fauna, particularly the iconic species. His abundance of photographs of Thames Water and IFM people and events provided a rich vein of material for his trademark caption competitions. His appreciation of food and wine played a key role in many settings. He had a wide and eclectic taste in music that ranged from Elvis via Gilbert and Sullivan to high Opera. In both work and beyond Peter touched many lives.

Peter Brian Spillett died on Wednesday 19th January 2022, peacefully in the Royal Berkshire Hospital after a short illness.

With thanks to Jerry Cresswell for producing this tribute