The son of late Walter Best DL and Frances Chignell, Best was educated at Shrewsbury School and the University of Nottingham. He married Ima Akpan in 1970, divorcing in 1976, then Belinda Stemp in 1978. He had two daughters and two sons with his two wives.
From 1970 to 1973, Best served as Director of the British Churches Housing Trust, then of the National Federation of Housing Associations 1973-88. From 1988 to December 2006, he led the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust. He has written extensively on housing and been involved with commissions on housing for Westminster, Birmingham, Glasgow and Hull.
Best has served as a Commissioner of the Rural Development Commission 1989-98, a member of the NCVO Advisory Council, Patron, of the National Family and Parenting Institute and Council Member of the Royal Society of Arts. He was awarded the OBE in 1988. He is President of the Local Government Association and was a member of the Minister of Local Government's Sounding Board 2002-2005. On 21 September 2006 he was appointed Chair of Hanover Housing Association.
On 4 June 2001, Best was named a life peer as Baron Best, of Godmanstone in the County of Dorset. He sits as a crossbencher in the House of Lords. On 13 July 2007 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of York.