Influential North East figure Sue Webster dies after lengthy illness

Longtime friend and former journalistic colleague Martin Huckerby remembers influential North East figure, Mrs Sue Webster

Mrs Sue Webster (nee Whittaker), a popular and well-known figure in the North East and beyond
Mrs Sue Webster (nee Whittaker), a popular and well-known figure in the North East and beyond

One of the North East’s most distinguished public servants, Sue Whittaker – Mrs Sue Webster – has died in hospital in Newcastle after a lengthy illness, at the age of 70.

Her multi-faceted career encompassed success as a journalist in both print and broadcast media before she became a regular choice to chair public bodies and tribunals - regionally and nationally - in such fields as health, justice and sport.

Lord Beecham, a Labour frontbench spokesman in the House of Lords, and a lifelong friend, said: “Sue brought her journalist’s eye for detail to her wide-ranging contribution to public service in the NHS, the magistracy and the Public Guardianship Office.

“She had a wide range of interests and a ready wit which made her lively company. Her fortitude in the face of her illness was remarkable.”

Born in Nuneaton, she came to the region as a young journalist on the Shields Gazette, before moving to the Newcastle office of the Northern Echo.

Covering meetings at Newcastle Civic Centre, she spied a rising young Labour councillor, Derek Webster, and before long she had become Mrs Sue Webster. She went to Manchester to join The Guardian, but returned to Tyneside to raise their son Alexis – though she still managed to hold successive reporting posts at BBC Radio Newcastle and BBC TV North East.

As her husband rose in the council, her civic role increased, culminating in service as Lady Mayoress in 1988-89. Her work as official consort was notable for her efforts to develop the city’s international links, and she was an enthusiastic proponent of President Carter’s Friendship Force.

After Derek Webster stepped down as Lord Mayor, the family moved to north Northumberland, initially to Chatton and finally to a cottage on the edge of the Cheviots, outside Wooler. From that base, she began to take on an increasing number of public posts.

She was appointed a JP, sitting as a magistrate at Berwick-upon-Tweed, where she became a regular chair of the bench. This was something of a pattern: when appointed to a public body, she frequently rose to become its chair – a tribute to her qualities of sound judgement and ability to reconcile widely varying opinions, as well as to her intense hard work.

She became chair of the Northgate and Prudhoe Hospital Group – a learning disability trust where her work with both staff and patients was much appreciated. Subsequently she took over the chair of the Northumberland Mental Health Trust.

Her work in the region brought national recognition: she was appointed to a new board for the Millennium Dome, when her media and marketing expertise helped in finding a new role for that embattled project. More recently she served as a member of the Board of the Public Guardian, supervising the service which protects those unable to manage their own affairs.

Quite recently she started chairing tribunals of the Nursing and Midwifery Council, sitting in both London and Edinburgh.

She was brought in as the inaugural chair of the English Women’s Golf Association’s management board to lead their merger with the men’s association – a vexed task which tested even her considerable reserves of patience.

An indefatigable worker, she was just as active in her private life, whether guiding visitors around the region’s scenic and historic sights or pursuing a variety of sports, from golf to sailing – and as a walker who delighted in roaming the Northumbrian hills with her many friends.

The funeral is today at 1.30pm at the West Road Crematorium in Newcastle, and afterwards at the West Benwell Cricket Club.

The latter might be thought an ironic venue, hosting one of the few sports she had not tried, but not so, said her son, Lex. Apparently she’d been reprimanded at school because she didn’t want to do cookery and said she’d rather play cricket with the boys.

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