John Riddle, Bellingham farmer and councillor

He's a farmer, councillor and a man of decided opinions. Jo Blakemore spoke to Northumbrian John Riddle

Farmer John Riddle, at Blakelaw Farm, Bellingham
Farmer John Riddle, at Blakelaw Farm, Bellingham

His roots go deep into the Northumbrian soil from which he makes his living as a fourth-generation farmer.

But John Riddle also has a stake in the warp and weft of his home turf, as a long-time councillor and member of the national park authority. All these roles give him an in-depth knowledge of the people and places that make up England’s most northerly county.

Riddle farms 1,000 acres, stocked with sheep and cattle, just outside Bellingham, north of Hexham, on the edge of Northumberland National Park. He took over from his father Lance and it looks likely that his son Iain, 24, will run the farm in his turn.

However, it wasn’t a given that young John would follow his forefathers on to the land. His first career choice was a world away from the rural life.

“I actually wanted to be an airline pilot,” he said. “Not that I’d done any hands-on flying but I’d been abroad on trips and loved it. I enjoyed travel and I liked the idea of mechanical things and speed and all the rest, I suppose, and it was quite a good job.”

He left Haydon Bridge High School, aged 16, and like so many young people in his position, got involved in the local Young Farmers club.

“The Bellingham Young Farmers had been a very active club, but then it had died and there was a move to get it restarted. We had some meetings at Bellingham School and I seemed to get roped into starting to do things. In the next few years I held various positions in the club, from secretary to treasurer to chairman, and then I got involved with the county side.”

He got the chance to travel abroad on study trips, the pilot dream having receded, and his final overseas trip with Young Farmers was leading a group to New Zealand in 1980. He was being lined up – by county organiser Irene McLaren – to step into the role of county chairman. But then suddenly everything changed.

“I was on my way back from New Zealand when I heard that my father had had a major stroke. I had to pull back from Young Farmers and take over the farm proper, so to speak.

“I was thrust into taking the reins completely and my life changed dramatically. You can’t plan your life, things happen and you’ve got to react and just get on with it.”

Having married Zaina in 1987, a year later his political career began when he was 30.

Riddle explained: “We had a visit from two very well-respected ladies – Coun Mary Smith from Haltwhistle (of Smith’s paintworks) and Coun Angela Allen from Bellingham who was a legend of a district councillor – and I had my arm twisted to stand as a county councillor because there was a by-election.

“To be honest I had no interest whatsoever in politics at all but because of my background in Young Farmers, they thought that I would be a good candidate. I agreed to stand as a Conservative to take over from Sean Foley, again a legendary district councillor.

“I was a natural Conservative but not politically-minded. I always voted Tory in general elections but always voted for Sean Foley, who was Liberal, for local elections, it think it mattered to me then much more what somebody did than what their politics were so that was how I came to become a councillor

“I won it with a landslide, it think it was a 30-something % swing. I suppose there’s a lot of loyalty in farming communities and affinity to somebody else who they hope will understand the same issues as they’ve got.”

Since then Riddle has been returned at every county council election, beating opposition candidates every time. “I’ve never had a free run, and every time I’ve managed to win it very convincingly.

He represents the largest geographic county in England, bigger in square miles than some counties. It stretches from Kielder across to Carter Bar, down to Kirkwhelpington – added to make up the magic Audit Commission number of 4,000 constituents – and Capheaton, then skirts Wark and back up to Kielder. He also sits on the planning committee for Northumberland County Council.

The patch is rural, with major employers being the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Defence, but a major bugbear for its inhabitants is one that urban dwellers will appreciate.

Riddle said: “The condition of the roads is the number-one issue – it’s mainly money, getting it in the right parts of the budget. There’s a lot of money being put into drainage this year but I would also like to see money going into trees because the number of people we’ve got who can go around and cut the trees back is hopeless for the size of the county, and branches and hedges are starting to encroach on to the road in more and more places.”

And it comes as no surprise to hear that the other issue filling his inbox is wind turbines.

“In principle I haven’t got a problem with the smaller ones, single or dual turbines for individual farms or communities. In principle I’m not particularly keen on large-scale wind farms but I judge each one on its merits and basically the main criterion that I will take into account is the visual impact and the impact on the economy.

“So the likes of the Kielder one that’s been scoped at the moment, I will be judging that against the effects I think it might have on the setting of the national park, on the setting of the landscape, on tourism, noise and all these things as against the public benefit and benefit to Forestry Commission.

“The national park is ultimately funded by Defra and the Forestry Commission is ultimately funded by Defra. That’s very odd, isn’t it? It’s going to be absolutely ridiculous if it goes to inquiry. I’ve got to be very careful what I say because I’m chairman of the national park authority but it the national park authority members debated it and if they came out against it, it would be very odd if there was something forced it to a public inquiry and it would be a total waste of money for one department of Defra to be fighting another part of Defra, it would be absolutely crazy, madness.”

He admits the need for renewable energy but is roused to ire by the compensation paid out when the turbines are closed due to windy weather.

“There was a freedom of information request last year, I think it was in Scotland, and the payment was £1.8m as compensation for a short period they were shut down, it’s not made very public, I was quite appalled by that information.”

And in common with thousands of other county residents, he is also of the opinion that Northumberland is getting more than its fair share of turbines.

“That’s very definite,” he said. “You just need to talk to someone like (environmental campaginer) Bill Short, there are various websites, and when you take the ones that get permission but are perhaps not yet built we’re far, far over the percentage that we need to be, we’ve got the lion’s share of it. The one saving grace that I see is the fact that unless they’ve been started and commissioned, the Government is going to reduce the subsidy in the new year by about 20%. It might make some of them unviable to build.

“It’s one of the main topics in my inbox when there is anything to do with wind farms, it’s very emotive and I think I’m right in saying that every one of those who contacts me is against it, not for it, I don’t think I’ve had one email supporting them.”

After 30 years as a councillor, he still gets a buzz from being able to help people and says that the only reason he might think about giving it up is to please his wife.

“When you go out at night, if you go anywhere local you can guarantee that you’re going to get your ear bent in the pub from somebody – they don’t mean it, it’s just nature. I don’t particularly mind but it does hack Zaina off. You could be nasty and say, ‘Not tonight, ring me on Monday’ that’s the only reason I would be thinking of giving it up, really. I still enjoy it and there’s a lot of satisfaction in being able to sort things out and make a difference.”

He also treasures his role in the Northumberland National Park Authority: “Within the park boundary we are the planning authority but after that we have no other functions like the county council do with highways. Our statutory purpose is to conserve and enhance and to promote the enjoyment of the national park. We get a grant from Defra, which has been cut significantly, and employ all our own staff. We have our own chief executive and small core staff.

“We have nothing to do with Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd. I think that is a thorny issue on the ground with local people, the fact that they’ve got quite lavish headquarters up at Peterel Field out of Hexham and really they’ve got a chief executive and a few staff but what do they actually do and what do they actually do for local people?

“They would argue that they promote the area and all the rest but it could be done in other ways, perhaps, although it’s probably not politic as chairman of the national park authority for me to say that. They’ve done some good things, the lighting up of the Wall was fantastic and it got some high-profile TV coverage and what’s that worth?

“We’ve got this dark skies initiative at the moment (Dark Sky status has since been bestowed on Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water and Forest Park) and already the observatory is booked up ages ahead and the bed and breakfasts are getting booked up and since Robson Green’s been on the television about the dark skies, there have been people emailing into county saying, ‘We’re really busy, it has been fantastic, we’ve got bookings for months and months ahead,’ so there are lots of ways to get publicity without lighting up the Wall, that’s what I’m saying. Still, I wouldn’t like someone to say that the national park wasn’t value for money ...”

Another issue he speaks frankly about is the unitary council imposed on Northumberland in 2009 against the wishes of many of its residents.

Riddle explains: “I was never in favour of going for unitary authority, I had never been a district councillor so I had no baggage that way but I did know that Tynedale had been a beacon district council.

“On the other hand I could also see that to have a budget of about £9m and to have as many staff as they (the six district councils) did have was not perhaps seen to be good use of public money.

“If you took all the money that all the district councils had, and looked at the number of people they employed, and looked at it as a business, well, you could see where they were coming from but I never supported the unitary council. I did think that we would lose a lot of the local connection and accountability and I think we have lost quite a lot of that, but by the same token we’ve saved £100m since local government reorganisation and it had to be done so how else would you do it.

“Three years down the line, if you had the money I would prefer the old system but that’s not going to happen. The reality is that we’ve got to save even more money going forward.”

One way that has been suggested to achieve that is to reform the county council and lose its top tier of management. He is diplomatic on the subject of the wages paid to the chief executive, saying: “That’s the pond you’re fishing in.” The council’s CEO has since voluntarily left his position.

The problems facing the farming industry are well documented, and the recent proposals for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy have had a mixed reception.

Put simply, the UK Government must decide how much EU money to give to farmers for farming – direct payments under CAP Pillar One – and how much to give to environmental projects under Pillar Two (rural development).

EU member states may move up to 15% of funds from one pillar to the other and Defra proposed to move the full 15% despite opposition from the National Farmers’ Union which argues that farmers in England should see their basic payment fall by only 9%.

Riddle, who has 1,000 ewes and about 80 suckler cows, has seen his income fall with former changes in farming subsidies, especially as an upland farmer with cows.

He said: “The main problem has been the fact that since we moved away from the headage payment (paid to producers based on the number of head of a specific type of livestock) to area payment, we’ve lost out quite substantially.

“It’s a trend ... a lot of people have actually done away with their cows on hill farms like this because they’re not economical but the problem is there are getting fewer and fewer cows on the hills and they’re a tool to keep the grass right and keep the vegetation right, sheep can’t do it alone.

“So I’m very much in favour of the new CAP proposal to move the payments uphill, so to speak, and increase the area payment for moorland because the area payment for moorland, which replaced the headage payment, is abysmal and it does need to increase.

“I did the sums the other day and it would make a significant difference to us. If the CAP proposal was implemented, it would probably increase our income by about £10,000 a year for the farm which would make the difference between whether it’s worth bothering or not, basically.”

And he has hope for the future of farming if the new CAP proposals are implemented.

“Through the national park we ran an apprentice scheme led by farmers for hill farmers. It was a great success but the funding was pulled so we can’t do it any more. Under the new CAP rules, if they shift money the way they’re talking, we can maybe do it again.”

That, he is certain, would address the difficulties of recruiting people to the field.

“It gets back to it’s all right being keen but they’ve got to be able to see that it’s going to lead them to a reasonable standard of living at the end of the day. It’s a dilemma.

“The average age is nearly 60 now and that was why these farmers came to us and asked us to invent a scheme to train young apprentices. I think we had six completed in the first year and it was universally great but there is no more money for it.”

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