It has been a busy start – here’s how April has panned out . . .
9th April: I zoomed into office – literally! My online induction as High Sheriff of Shropshire was the type of detached ‘get together’ we’ve all sadly become used to over the past 13 months with the ban on group gatherings.
Virtual guests included Lord Lieutenant Anna Turner, outgoing High Sheriff Dean Harris, Under Sheriff Madeleine Butcher, my chaplain Rev Christine Simpson, my wife Clare, sons Marcus and Tom and daughter Lucy.
The formality of the occasion, with the legal and traditional oaths and ceremonial costumes, combined with the fact we were all in our own homes, made it a slightly surreal experience. Nonetheless, I think it went well. I certainly felt a great sense of honour. The many messages of support I had on the day from Shropshire and beyond were greatly appreciated.
I must thank Dean for her terrific year in office in hugely challenging circumstances.
The gloss was taken off the day, however, by the sad news, which broke almost as the ceremony was coming to end, of the death of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. He was a great statesman with an enormous sense of duty and a fantastic consort to the Queen for over 70 years. He will be sadly missed by the whole country.
12th April: While the bulk of my meetings are virtual, it was nice to get out of the office – and the frock coat and gaiters – for a more conventional meeting this afternoon. I had the pleasure of visiting Bradford Estates to chat to managing director Alexander Newport. I was interested to see the newest addition to the estate’s 12,000 acre holding in the form of Burlington Farm, purchased in 2019 along with a modern grain store. It supports the estate’s expansion of its growing regenerative farming business, which focuses on soil health, ecology and sustainable practices.
My family have been friends with Alexander’s family for many years so it was a pleasure to visit at the start of my first full week in the role of High Sheriff and to share my plans for the year ahead.
Earlier I had an online meeting about The Armed Forces Covenant, a charity aimed at supporting ex-servicemen as they leave the forces.
These days army personnel tend to serve for a relatively short period – it is now rare for somebody to serve 20 years in the armed forces; there are fewer career soldiers.
These former soldiers are often from less advantaged areas and come out of the army with little or no training or skills for the wider world. Their problems are generally with employment, housing and adapting to civilian life in general.
It would appear that Shropshire Council and Telford & Wrekin work closely together on this.
I sense that the charity struggles to raise awareness of what it is trying to achieve. It is an important cause – there are potentially 10 million people encompassed by the wider Covenant. This includes not only ex-members of the forces but also widows and widowers and families who have military connections.
They normally have various fundraising events but, like so much else, these are on hold because of Covid 19. They would very much welcome me being involved at a number of these events when they resume and it is a cause close to my heart, as they have a strong link to the Shropshire Yeomanry, of which my father was Colonel and subsequently Honorary Colonel.
They would like to be able to focus on Shropshire Yeomanry and restore its pride. At the National Arboretum at Alrewas the Shropshire memorial plaque/statue is relatively modest compared to a number. Part of the problem, it appears, is that the Shropshire Yeomanry was absorbed into the Mercian Yeomanry and support has died off as a result. There are 119 businesses supplying funds to the charity, at present, and it would be good to build on that.
I had a meeting this morning, again online, with Hanna Sebright, CEO of Midlands Air Ambulance, together with Emma Gray, the COO (Chief Operating Officer) and Roger Pemberton, the Chairman.
At present, the Midlands Air Ambulance works from a portacabin on Cosford Airfield, which is far from satisfactory.
The charity is in the process of building and developing a £12million state-of-the-art facility on 20 acres of the Ruckley Estate. It is to be an eco-friendly build with access to the general public. Around £1million still needs to be raised.
The aim is to have two permanent helicopters. There will not only be the crew and medical equipment but a substantial training facility. It is envisaged that there will be meeting room space for third parties and a viewing gallery.
This new Midlands Air Ambulance facility will be the largest in the country, covering West Midlands, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, a population of six million. Annual running costs will be £10million and about 200 volunteers will be involved. The charity receives around £1.3 million from the Department of Health and £2.5 million from The Heath Appeal. The National Lottery provides further income. The charity, which is now 30 years old, also relies heavily on legacies.
This is an organisation – and project – I intend helping in any way I can over the next year.
13th April: I held a Teams call (from the car) with Cllr Raj Mehta, former Mayor of Telford & Wrekin. He is a doctor and practice manager in Birmingham and his wife is a doctor based in Telford.
Cllr Mehta is a very interesting man. He speaks seven languages and has had various professions including being a police officer, bodyguard and interpreter for MI5.
He has set up the local Interfaith Council, with the aim of binding various faith groups and, as importantly, encouraging respect between the generations. He runs a charity called Building Bridges (visit http://www.communitiesbuildingbridges.com/ )
At the end of his mayoral year, he celebrated with a ball entitled East and West. The dress code required guests to dress up in a different culture’s clothing – Lord Lieutenant of Shropshire Anna Turner arrived in Indian regalia.
Councillor Mehta has invited me to speak at one of his interfaith meetings, which I look forward to.
14th April: I had a very informative Zoom call with West Mercia Police and Crime Commissioner John Campion and his assistant, Gareth Boulton.
While the Chief Constable Anthony Blagden has total executive authority for policing, the Commissioner is responsible for budgets and setting the overall strategy.
West Mercia Police Authority encompasses Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, within which are seven different police forces.
Mr Campion made the point that policing is overwhelmingly for the good of the community and it is important that it is fully upheld and promoted.
We discussed the balance between the policing demands of urban and rural areas and also county lines drug dealing. There are county lines in both Bridgnorth and Oswestry, consisting largely of drug dealers coming in from away who can be quite ruthless.
We talked about the drink culture in our main town centres at night, as well as rural crime. We also discussed national issues.
15th April: I had a Zoom meeting with Joanna Hunt of The Children’s Society, whose ethos is to try to help children and young people from infants up to 25 with minor mental issues.
A major challenge is that Shropshire is very rural and difficult to service properly. The charity is considering a pop-up service in places such as Oswestry.
All children who are helped are done so with the full knowledge of their parents. Recently, all the consultations have had to be via Zoom.
What I found impressive was that they are in contact with
3,000 young people every year.
Most young people receive their help via walk-ins though, during lockdown, children were encouraged to look at Beam on the web.
The aim is to provide consultation within 48 hours of being contacted through a combination of full-time staff and volunteers. All the staff are trained to offer different levels of support and parents are fully aware of any consultation.
The society says that the ages of 10 and 11 prove to be the most difficult for children, often because of the transition from primary to secondary education.
Joanna talked about CAMS (Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality) and says the society also has a good relationship with the NHS.
Another very worthy cause that I’m keen to help in any way I can during my year in office.
I had a really good visit to Broseley, which is a hidden jewel of Shropshire. I met the mayor, Councillor Tarlochen Singh-Mohr and a number of other influential people from within the town. These included Steve Dewhurst, of the tourism group, Anne Suffolk of Telford and East Shropshire Rambling Society, Kirsty Jones, who is responsible for youth work on Broseley Town Council, locum Town Clerk Ann Wilson, town admin officer Jenna Monday and Mark Hooper of tourism group Visit Shropshire.
It is clear Broseley has a fantastic sense of community. Its frustration is that
The Ironbridge Gorge Museums (IGM), a World Heritage site, is only a mile away with hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, few of whom, at present, cross the bridge to see Broseley – unless they are visiting Broseley Clay and Pipe Works, one of IGM’s network of 10 museums.
Broseley has the great advantage of having a good number of small, mainly family-owned, shops and businesses. The town is enchanting, and somewhat reminiscent of old-world towns in France or Italy with a plethora of small houses and narrow alleyways.
I could quite envisage that people might come as an add-on to their visit to the Ironbridge Gorge to, say, have lunch or tea.
The visit to Broseley was another rare chance to get out and about again. This, fingers crossed, will be an increasing occurrence as we come out of lockdown and restrictions ease. Zoom and Teams are well and good but there is no substitute for meeting people face to face.
19th April: I had an online meeting with Kathryn Jones, manager of the Marches Local Enterprise Partnership, which covers Shropshire, Telford & Wrekin and Herefordshire.
I’m studying the LEP’s draft Economic Recovery Strategy and background about the Marches Growth Hub. I am due to receive briefings from
Yasmin Sulaman, LEP’s Business Support Lead, and Dave Courteen, the private sector independent chair of the LEP’s Business Support Steering Group. It’s my intention to keep abreast of Marches LEP developments through the year and help where I can.
20th April: I met Assistant Chief Constable Rachel Jones and Chief Superintendent Paul Moxley on Zoom. We were joined by High Sheriff of Herefordshire
Joanna Hilditch and High Sheriff of Worcestershire Richard Amphlett.
ACC Jones is responsible for local policing while Supt Moxley, who lives in Shropshire, covers all five police areas.
There are currently around 2,500 officers in the West Mercia Police authority – 200 more than last year.
The officers warned of the dangers of negative social media, which is becoming a common theme, as is mental health in society.
There are 60 community police officers in the region. Both officers stressed the importance of early intervention to prevent crime and 20 officers are designated specifically for this work.
There is a great deal of community policing, aimed at educating children against crime. The parental bond is, once again, of key importance and those with stable families are significantly better placed. The value of a stable family base is a theme that recurs again and again.
I spoke with Owen Paterson, MP for North Shropshire who is passionate about the wellbeing of the county.
The main focus of our conversation was the tragic death of Owen’s wife Rose, who took her own life last summer. I pledged to do everything I can to support the Rose Paterson Trust and its aim to make people aware of the hidden dangers of mental health which, in extreme circumstances, can result in suicide.
Here is a link to a podcast involving Owen and daughter Evie talking movingly about the loss of a wife and mother.
22nd April: I had an online meeting today with Steve Adams and Jo Cooper of the Shropshire Community Foundation. They are overseeing a new award scheme, Shropshire’s Outstanding Community (SOC). I’m on the steering committee and the initiative aims to cast a spotlight on all that is positive about the county and its people.
Communities across Shropshire can put themselves up for recognition by the scheme – and the definition of community is broad, from a town or village to a housing development, street or block of flats.
SOC will celebrate community spirit, the collective effort that adds to the pleasure of living in a place for its people. Taking a pride in your town, street or village’s appearance is part of it but it’s also about good neighbourliness, looking after one another, a community’s sociability and about collective day-to-day attitudes and actions that make life that little bit better for everyone.
It is about celebrating the Shropshire communities that have a strong sense of their own identity and in which their residents have an emotional stake. We want to show off communities that aren’t just places where people reside but that have a heart and soul.
The winning community will receive a plaque for display and £1,000 to be spent on something that will benefit the community. Second and third places will receive a plaque each and £500 and £250 respectively.
Visit www.oustanding.community for details of how to enter.
Tourism is a big part of Shropshire’s economy and promoting it in all its forms is one of my aims for this year. I think it important we make more of Charles Darwin, one of world history’s most important figures, who was born and raised in Shrewsbury. To this end I had a fascinating Zoom call with businessman and philanthropist Glyn Jones, who has bought Darwin’s childhood home, The Mount and has some exciting plans for it. He aims to restore the house and for part of it to be a museum which I think would be a great attraction to visitors from far and wide. I plan to visit The Mount and meet Glyn in person in May.
26th April: Tourism, and how it can help Shropshire’s economic recovery from the pandemic, is a central theme of my year. I held a Zoom call with Paul Goulbourne, Anne Wignall, Nicky Stokes and Joan Mowlin of Ellesmere to discuss how one of the county’s most attractive towns, which already holds great appeal to visitors because of its meres, can play a part in that. The challenge is to get more of those people who visit the meres to take a look at other areas of the town. Some positive ideas emerged.
Tourism again and I make no apology for it. It is so important to Shropshire’s economy and employment that I want to do all I can to help the industry’s recovery out of lockdown and beyond. To this end, I held a Zoom meeting with specialists Mark Hooper and Beth Heath, both of Visit Shropshire, Lee Lucks, of Visit Oswestry and Paul Hutchinson of Virtual Shropshire. They are all main players in the county’s tourism industry and are doing great work to raise Shropshire’s profile locally and nationally.
The past 13 months has caused such pain and disruption for so many, it is hardly surprising it has put a strain on mental health and wellbeing. Samaritans, the charity which provides round-the-clock support for people in desperate distress, has never been more important.
I spoke to head of Shrewsbury-based Samaritans, who have 89 volunteers covering the whole county, as well as over the border in Welshpool and Herefordshire. There is a separate organisation in Telford.
They are listeners, encouraging people to open up. They try to help them to help themselves.
Most recent Shropshire figures show there were 131 suicides in two years, over two thirds of which were men.
There is a variety of reasons. The main causes for men are the break-up of relationships, debt and gambling; for women it is mainly relationship problems, including abuse.
Samaritans are totally self-funded with no grant aid or public money.
I think it important, in these challenging times, to highlight their wonderful role as a friendly voice at times of personal crisis.
27th April: I plan to use the High Sheriff costume quite sparingly during my year but wore it today for a traditional ceremony in Stafford. This was the ceremonial opening of the Easter session of Stafford Crown Court, which was marked with a service at The Collegiate Church of St Mary’s, Stafford.
29th April: I met Heather Ireland, CEO of Shropshire Mental Health Support, at The Square in Shrewsbury. The charity has a very well put together display.
They had actor Stan Streather, who professionally plays Winston Churchill, and is a supporter of the charity.
Shropshire Mental Health Support was previously part of Mind. They work closely with, but independently of, Samaritans.
They receive some council funding but need to raise a great deal by general support.
It’s quite clear that there is a common theme recurring of mental health issues. I do think this needs to be at the forefront of my shrievalty year.