We'll be more caring when pandemic is over, says North Yorkshire's High Sheriff

It was a ceremony beyond the imagination of the first high sheriffs, appointed by the king to keep the peace in Yorkshire more than 1,000 years ago.

Saturday, 9th May 2020, 5:45 am

David Kerfoot, the latest incumbent of a role which dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, was at home in the village of Ainderby Steeple near Northallerton as his appointment by the Queen was carried out in an online ceremony broadcast on YouTube.

With the usual venue, the Assizes Court in York, unavailable due to the social distancing restraints, the Recorder of York Sean Morris donned his official robes and conferred the honour on Mr Kerfoot over the computer.

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It was an unusual start which has set the tone for the entrepreneur's first month of his year-long stint as high sheriff of North Yorkshire, coinciding with the imposition of lockdown measures which have kept much of the population stuck at home.

Early holders of the office of high sheriff, responsible to the monarch for the maintenance of law and order, could raise taxes, were in charge of the local militia, could hold court and hand out punishments, or raise “a hue and cry” to pursue villains.

Their modern-day successors' role is ceremonial, focused on aiding the Crown and the judiciary by supporting crime prevention agencies, the emergency services and to the voluntary sector.

Mr Kerfoot, who founded a firm manufacturing edible oils with his wife Elizabeth in 1980 and grew it into a major business, talks to The Yorkshire Post after carrying out a virtual visit with a local school.

The new High Sheriff of North Yorkshire David Kerfoot at his North Yorkshire home. Pic: Gary Longbottom

"I had massive plans to do certain things in a really different way but obviously Covid has stopped that", he says. "I'm taking the challenge of doing it virtually wherever I can."

He has appointed a cadet for North Yorkshire's fire service and plans to do the same for the British Transport Police, which has a unit in York, as part of his motivational efforts. His role involves working with charities and highlighting exceptional community work, often by making a High Sheriff's Award to a member of the public who has been involved in a court case.

But the current social distancing measures are limiting his ambitions. "There are all sorts of interesting things to do," he says. "But I really need to get going as there is only so much you can virtually."

By the time he had sold his business, The Kerfoot Group, to a French firm in 2015, it had sales of £75m, was exporting to 52 countries and had sales offices in Poland and New York.

Less than three years later he took over as chairman of the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), a joint effort by civic and business leaders to grow the economy in England's largest county.

"I'm a Yorkshire lad who's done well in his life," he says. "When I got the position of High Sheriff I was rather blown away because people like me don't normally get a position like that.

"I really believe in whatever role I take, whether it's chairman of the LEP or High Sheriff, whatever you're doing, it's no good doing it unless you really make a difference, and you make a difference on the ground.

"And that's what I really want to do in the high sheriff role, is get out there and tell people what it's about and what they can achieve. One of the interesting things that has come home to me already is, just by getting this new position, by crikey it doesn't half open some doors.

"If you really want to do something, you can open some doors that perhaps might not have been open before, because you're high sheriff it happens, that's a force for good in my book."

The current crisis has meant his ability to lobby and persuade on behalf of local businesses has never been more vital, as lockdown restrictions continue to lay waste to economies up and down the land.

With the North Yorkshire district of Richmondshire among the worst-affected by the lockdown and 97 per cent of firms in his whole patch being small businesses, he has been pushing hard to make the case for rural Yorkshire when decisions are made about which spending taps to turn on.

"It's going to be a massively long haul and I do worry about where all the brass is going to come from," he says. "There is only so much the Chancellor can do and there's so many calls for funding and further support. The borrowing is going up and and up."

Despite the crisis and the lasting damage it will do, Mr Kerfoot predicts some "real positives" will start to emerge in a changed society, not least on our working practices and how they affect the environment and an increased willingness to volunteer.

And in a county with a large older population, he says the plight of care homes and their residents during the pandemic may prompt a major shift in mindset about how society treats the elderly.

"There has been a bit more emphasis on old people, and how we look after them. After this we're going to be more caring. We're all caring about our elders but this is going to highlight it more in a real positive way."

A major concern for Mr Kerfoot is whether the Government will be in a position to fulfil its promises about 'levelling up' the economy due to the scale of its debts.

"[Transport Secretary] Grant Shapps has said the Government are still behind the levelling-up agenda and it will still go ahead," he says. "But I have my grave doubts and concerns simply because of the cost of this at the moment is huge, it is going to be trillions.

"We haven't finished supporting the various industries, there is more of this to come, and the cost of this undoubtedly will have an impact on what they decide to do for the North.

"It is upsetting in a way because we were just at a point before this happened, where we were starting to make really good progress and I could really see things happening and coming together but I think this is going to knock us back a few years.

"With any national recovery plan that they start to put in place they are going to cost it. So let alone what they've already borrowed now to actually shore up all the various industries and the cost of the pandemic, you have to add the actual cost of what the recovery programme and it is going to be huge, that is without looking at thee infrastructure projects.

"It's a mess, I can't think of any other word for it. We in the North have to continue to be a strong, loud, united voice. We have to think positively. We've got the grit, the determination the passion, the drive, the enthusiasm to make Yorkshire something and to make the North something and we have to keep at it."