New Lord Lieutenant of Tyne and Wear talks about her life serving the community

Susan Winfield talks of stitching up prisoners and piloting a programme which saw a young Cheryl Tweedy cleaning loos

Susan Winfield the Lord Lieutenant for Tyne and Wear
Susan Winfield the Lord Lieutenant for Tyne and Wear

By coincidence the night before I met Susan Winfield, the new Lord Lieutenant of Tyne and Wear, the historic drama Wolf Hall was broadcast on BBC2.

The series, based on the award-winning Hilary Mantel novels, deals with the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell who ended up as adviser to King Henry VIII.

The role of Lord Lieutenant was created by Henry VIII around 1540 the year when - Wolf Hall spoiler alert - Cromwell was beheaded for treason. Its functions were to start off with military, to raise and be responsible for the local militia units of the county, and afterwards of the yeomanry, and volunteers.

Today it is an honorary title bestowed upon someone who is, in effect, the monarch’s representative in a designated area.

Another coincidence, though admittedly a bit of a stretch, is that on a grand piano positioned by the window of her equally grand home in Sunderland, Susan has a copy of the book Killers of the King about the men who beheaded Charles I.

It was written by Charles Spencer, brother of the late Lady Diana whose emotional speech at his sister’s funeral must have had her ex-husband and the man who would be Charles III stroking his neck with more than a little concern as the crowd murmured its approval outside.

Susan Winfield the Lord Lieutenant for Tyne and Wear
Susan Winfield the Lord Lieutenant for Tyne and Wear

And it was Prince Charles who visited the region on January 19, a week after Susan took over the role, her office being responsible for ensuring the visit ran smoothly.

A bit of a baptism of fire, I suggested. Susan just laughed. Maybe a bit nerve-wracking?

“I wouldn’t have said so. My role is fairly limited - to make a very important person feel very welcome.

“He was very charming to talk to. I’ve met a number of the Royal family in my previous roles and activities.”

She took over from Sir Nigel Sherlock OBE who stepped down after 14 years in the post. During 2014 the Cabinet Office had organised a consultation process before her nomination went to the Queen who had the final say. There was no ceremony in Buckingham Palace, just a formal letter.

“I feel honoured to have been appointed,” said Susan. “I’m delighted to be undertaking the role and very much looking forward to carrying out my various responsibilities.”

With a laugh Susan revealed she no longer had the right to raise an army.

Owen Humphreys/PA Wire The Prince of Wales at the Sunderland Nissan plant
The Prince of Wales at the Sunderland Nissan plant

“It was only in 1921 the Lord Lieutenant lost the power to call on able bodied men to fight in case of need,” she said.

However she added there was still a link between it and the voluntary reserve and cadet forces.

As for the rest, Susan said: “I have to uphold the dignity of the Crown and seek to promote the spirit of responsibilty across the county over all sectors - industry, education cultural, religious the armed forces and voluntary services and organisations.

“I think its particularly important within these groupings to be able to recognise excellence and acknowledge it. Her Majesty is always keen to make awards.”

As Susan herself knows. She was awarded an OBE in 2002 for services to the probation service.

It was after reading law at Newcastle University and graduating she joined the service in 1970 at the age of 22.

Although her father, Richard Heron, was a well known local solicitor, she decided a different career path was for her.

She said: “My mother had done substantial voluntary service and I was very aware of social issues. I was very determined that I wouldn’t be a lawyer but become a probation officer.

“In the 1970s there were not all that many woman probation officers. I had a fantastic career.”

Cheryl Tweedy (now Cheryl Fernandez-Versini) performing in 2003 with Girls Aloud
Cheryl Tweedy (now Cheryl Fernandez-Versini) performing in 2003 with Girls Aloud
 

Starting off in County Durham it was around 1974 Susan helped pioneer a new scheme, now known as ‘community payback’, where offenders worked in the community as part of their punishment, one of only six schemes throughout the country back then.

This work could be removing graffiti, clearing wasteland or, as Cheryl Fernandez-Versini - then Cheryl Tweedy - found out in 2004, it can mean a bit of work at your local sports ground or, reportedly, cleaning loos.

The X-factor star was ordered to do 120 hours community work after she was found guilty of assaulting a nightclub worker.

Susan said: “It’s been a very successful order of court. It’s a wonderful scheme which shows the importance of communities working together.”

The theme of communities and organisations working together is a recurring one for her as she moved from one role to another.

In 2002 she retired from the probation service after working her way up to Deputy Chief Probation officer in Northumbria, taking on a new post as Chair of the Sunderland Teaching Primary Care Trust

Susan said: “I think that rationale influenced me when I retired from probation service and went to work for the trust. Its primary responsibility was to improve health of community amongst its better known responsibility to commission health care.”

She worked there for 11 years until re-organisation saw its role taken over, following controversial Government reforms, by Public Health England and local Clinical Commissioning Groups.

Susan Winfield the New Lord Lieutenant for Tyne and Wear
Susan Winfield the New Lord Lieutenant for Tyne and Wear
 

Susan revealed perhaps another requirement of her new job when it comes to possible areas of controversy - diplomacy - saying she wouldn’t comment on whether she thought the transition had been a successful one.

“The role of the Lord Lieutenant is non-political,” she explained, “but it does have the influence to bring parties together across the region.

“Here I must pay huge tribute to my predecessor in the role Sir Nigel Sherlock. He worked tirelessly in office and achieved so much. He will be an extremely hard act to follow and I will do my best to maintain the high standing of the Lord Lieutenant.”

The Lord Lieutenant’s role is unpaid so why do it?

“The honour of doing it,” she said, and a sense of public duty.

Her sense of public duty was, she says, inherited from her parents. Her father Richard, mentioned earlier, was not only a solicitor but a well known local councillor. Her mum Margaret received an MBE for her community work.

Home obviously means a lot to Susan who describes herself as “Sunderland born and bred”.

She actually lives in the house she was raised in by her parents. Her brother Paul Heron is a Sunderland solicitor. Husband Tony was also a solicitor when they met while her children Catherine and Richard, both in their 30s, live in the area and run Rosie’s Bistro and Patisserie cafe in Gosforth, Newcastle. Richard is the pâtissier - pastry chef - there.

“We’re all huge fans of the North East,” said Susan. “I would always say the Tyne and Wear spirit of co-operation and working together is far better than many other places. During my career in the criminal justice that spirit of co-operation was well known - and I found it in the NHS.”

Susan Winfield the Lord Lieutenant for Tyne and Wear
Susan Winfield the Lord Lieutenant for Tyne and Wear

And, she said, she had already found this spirit of co-operation in her new job just 12 days in. She praised fulsomely the work of the 43 Deputy Lord Lieutenants, also unpaid and working across Tyne and Wear, and name checked Lin Elder-Atterton who runs the office.

“I couldn’t do the role without that level of support,” she said.

As she speaks she plumps up one of the cushions on the sofa. Interestingly the embroidery work is a result of yet another scheme she is involved in - Fine Cell Work.

It involves her going into prison to teach inmates - mainly male prisoners - how to sew. Their work is then sold on to help finance the scheme while some cash goes to the inmates themselves.

It seems odd to think of hardened criminals delicately doing a bit of embroidery and a joke about stitching up prisoners springs to mind.

But that would trivialise the scheme and she is evidently very pleased with the results.

“It keeps them occupied and they seem very enthusiastic about it, at least the ones I spoke to,” she said.

Susan keeps the Lord Lieutenant’s role until she is 75. While she demurs when it comes to revealing exactly how many years that gives her, she smiles: “It’s less than the 14 years,” referring to length of time her predecessor was in the post.

She is already getting stuck into the role at a time of life when some people are winding down.

“That’s me,” she shrugs. “I like to be busy and doing things.”

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