I feel a pang of guilt not nominating her sooner. A fantastic woman.
The long life of Margaret Simey, who has died in hospital aged 98, was dedicated to the people of Liverpool and especially to Toxteth and similar inner-city neighbourhoods.
She became a national figure - not by her own choice - from the mid-1970s, through her election as a member, and later chairman, of the Merseyside police authority, which led her to question the behaviour of the police and the role of the chief constable, Sir Kenneth Oxford, before and after the 1981 "disturbances" in Toxteth. She also came into conflict with Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine in their aftermath.
Born in Glasgow, Margaret Simey was educated at St Paul's girls' school, west London, where she sat in class with Churchill's daughter. She arrived in Liverpool aged 18, when her father became principal of the College of Commerce in Tithebarn Street. It was the start of a lifelong love affair with the city, and particularly its working class. She became the first female graduate in social science from Liverpool University in 1928.
She married Tom Simey, later Charles Booth professor of social science at the university. Together they spent most of the war years in the Caribbean as part of a small team of experts on social and economic development. This experience, and their other international interests, gave them both a deep respect for the Afro-Caribbean and Chinese communities in the hinterland of the Liverpool docks.
From the mid-1940s, Margaret became involved in many of the fields of voluntary service which have flourished in that city for more than a century. She traced the origins of this tradition in Charitable Effort In Liverpool (1951). Later, she and her husband wrote their definitive study of Charles Booth (1960), who first recognised its limitations, there and elsewhere.
In the immediate postwar period and until the 1970s, Toxteth was an area rich in voluntary organisations that signified, but also often bridged, many cultural and religious divides. It was here that the principles of community development were tested, neighbourhood projects proliferated and, eventually, community councils were set up to give local people a chance to voice their views, to respond to each other's needs and, increasingly, to put pressure on the city council, which often seemed remote and authoritarian, whichever party was in power.
Margaret Simey participated vigorously in these developments. As a Labour city councillor for Granby Ward from 1963, she demonstrated both the depth of her local knowledge and her impatience with many of the structures of local government. She realised that, despite all the community institutions, poor people were losing out further, as Liverpool went deeper into economic decline.
When local government was reorganised in 1974, Margaret was elected to the Merseyside county council, and in 1981 became chairman of the police authority. In Liverpool, relations between the police and local neighbourhoods were often fragile, especially among the increasingly segregated black communities. The eventual breakdown of relations came soon after. At the time, she said of those local people involved in the confrontation with the police that "they would be apathetic fools ... if they didn't protest."
She found it hard to bear the subsequent abuse directed at her by most of the media, crass or supposedly intelligent. There was a tense period as she and her elected colleagues sought to establish the accountability of the police and the role and responsibility of the chief constable. Her story of this period, and of the interventions in Liverpool of central government, was told in Democracy Rediscovered: A Study In Police Accountability (1988).
When, from 1986, the county council was abolished and she had been succeeded as local councillor, to her great delight, by a young black woman, she continued as an informal counsellor, working with family groups, youth clubs, voluntary organisations and ecumenical enterprises. She was much sought after as a public speaker throughout the country.
Over more than 60 years of social activism, Margaret Simey became the best-known of local figures, tall and purposeful, as she urgently strode the city streets, fearless for herself and indomitable in her support of local people, urging them to speak and act for themselves and identifying with them in good times and bad. Her style and the strength of her convictions were such that, to many in authority and in the media, she invited contention and misunderstanding. "I am," she would say, "a dogged woman. I never condoned violence but I warned of it. I saw people being neglected and disenfranchised: a community being subjected to dependence." Her work became legendary.
She could sometimes appear austere and intimidating. Her quiet, cultured Scottish voice could be forthright and vigorous in public advocacy. She recognised that her "habitual irony" was offensive to many. Yet she remained gracious and generous in her personal relationships and was able to elicit a warm, individual response from people of all ages.
In old age she was awarded an honorary doctorate of the University of Liverpool for her services to the community. In her eighties she was an honorary senior fellow of the university, still actively learning, teaching, writing and speaking, though when she was offered the freedom of the city, she turned it down flat. Her last book, about how the university took up social sciences, was published last year.
Her husband, who died 40 years ago, had been made a life peer by Harold Wilson, but she preferred to be known simply as Margaret Simey. It is a name that eluded Who's Who, but takes its place among a group of exceptional women - including Josephine Butler, Eleanor Rathbone and Dorothy Keeling - whose service to the city and its people covered more than a century, and resounded far beyond Merseyside. She is survived by her son Iliff.
· Margaret Simey, social reformer, born 1906; died July 27 2004