A year in the life of the High Sheriff of Surrey 2014-2015 - Reigate’s Peter Lee
- Credit: Archant
Like many people, High Sheriff Peter Lee was surprised to find that real deprivation could exist in a county like Surrey. As his year in office comes to a close, here he talks to Matthew Williams about some of the other things he’s learned along the way, the place of this historic role in modern society – and getting used to its fashion demands...
If most people are honest, the word “sheriff” probably conjures images of attempts to round up Robin Hood and his Merry Men or black-clad cowboys in the Wild West before anything vaguely “Surrey”.
Even the High Sheriff himself admits to being a little bemused when he was first invited to take on the role.
“No one was more surprised than me when four years ago I got a tap on the shoulder and was asked whether I’d like to become High Sheriff of Surrey,” says Peter Lee, the current incumbent, as Surrey Life meets him at his Reigate office. “If memory serves, I replied: ‘Huh?’ and then ‘why me?’”
Despite his initial shock, the appointment actually made a lot of sense. While the powers aren’t what they once were, the historic High Sheriff role had much to do with law enforcement (see more details at the end of this piece) and Peter’s original career path was in the legal world, before later helping to set up and run a charitable foundation.
He’s also from east Surrey – and the last High Sheriff from this side of the county was Sir Richard Stilgoe, a small matter of 16 or so years ago.
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Taking the high road
“I was lucky to go from being a solicitor to helping to run a fantastically dynamic computer networking business, until it was sold for a significant amount of money,” explains the 49-year-old, as he describes his path to becoming High Sheriff. “So since 1999, I’ve overseen the Peter Harrison Foundation, which supports disabled and disadvantaged young people through sports grants. Therefore, once I had read the literature, I had a good idea of how I could do the role – because, in reality, the modern day role is mainly about promoting and supporting the voluntary sector.”
Peter likens it to having a VIP, access-all-areas pass to the county.
“It’s still a position of influence,” he says. “There’s a tremendous amount of goodwill out there because it is independent and non-political. There’s no hidden agenda.”
While some of the traditions, like the court dress, came as a bit of a shock (“I can’t lie and say I relished having to wear it but I’m told I cut a reasonably dashing figure!”), he says the office is definitely what you make of it.
“At first, I wondered whether it was all still relevant,” he says. “But the more I explored, the more I realised that it really is. Coming to the close of my year, I’m convinced it has been positive. And, yes, it might be a ludicrous outfit, but it really does add something to an occasion – can you imagine how bored people would be if I turned up in my suit?”
Official engagements are fairly limited, but Peter estimates that by the end of his term he will have attended around 250 events across the county.
“I think you’d be mad not to do as much as possible; it’s such a great opportunity,” he says. “Admittedly, I’m very lucky, as I’m in theory self-employed and have a very understanding business partner and family.
“After you’re approached, you have a few years to plan for what you’re going to do in your year – diary management is definitely one of the biggest challenges!”
A legal life?
Peter first moved to Surrey in 1986. He started his legal career at Guildford School of Law, while living in Farncombe and then Chilworth, before heading into London to seek his “fame and fortune”. His return to Surrey came in 1996, when he moved back to Hascombe with his wife on the birth of their daughter. They would have settled there if they’d found the right place to live.
Fate intervened, however, and they ended up house hunting in Reigate, where his wife was brought up. Eventually, they found a place near Godstone: “a complete wreck that we had to spend four years renovating.” And, that remains home today, with their son, daughter, dog and cat. Despite having this deep connection to the county, he says that his year as High Sheriff has been truly eye-opening.
“I’ve realised just how remarkable a county Surrey is and I’ve become very proud of it,” he says. “Also, like most people, I certainly had a perception of it as an affluent place with no serious deprivation. But, while we are blessed with beautiful countryside and a lot of wealth, there are still areas that have been allowed to fall down the cracks.
“We contribute more to the central government purse than many but receive less because it’s Surrey and ‘we don’t have any problems’ etc. Dr Helen Bowcock’s publication of Hidden Surrey for the Community Foundation for Surrey highlighted the many areas of genuine need in the county. Their next publication, Surrey Uncovered, hammered the points home with alarming statistics. They have become bibles of sorts for High Sheriffs.”
In a bid to tackle such issues, each High Sheriff is encouraged to pick a theme for the main bulk of their year’s work. It’s no surprise that Peter focussed where his experience and passion already lay.
“I’ve yet to come across a sport that you can’t participate in, regardless of your abilities or indeed disabilities,” he says. “And yes, it’s about health and fitness but there’s more that sport can give you: confidence, self-esteem, discipline. These are core life skills. It’s no accident that successful sportspeople so often go on to be good businesspeople.
“The cost to the NHS of obesity in children is crazy and it’s something that we can do something about. It’s not really the kids’ fault. They have more distractions than any generation before them. Even as adults, we have a tendency to live our lives from the screen: shopping, exploring, entertaining, even socialising etc. You need to do something really special to engage people with exercise nowadays. Even the Olympic buzz has started to wane.”
The spirit is still there in Surrey, however, as he has found out while promoting this year’s High Sheriff Youth Awards, which provide grants to youth projects across the county with a focus on crime diversion.
“I’ve found that I’m pushing through a lot of open doors with sports initiatives – it’s something people are still very keen on,” says Peter. “We’re lucky in Surrey that the High Sheriff has their own charity. It’s small, funded by the 11 boroughs and various foundations, and makes grants normally up to £5,000. We’ve supported a number of sporting organisations this year, from five-a-side football to angling via boxing.”
The youth awards have been running for over 20 years now, with an annual event showcasing some of the young talent involved at ExxonMobil in Leatherhead every March. Peter says they would welcome support from other businesses too.
“There is a lot of potential philanthropy in Surrey,” he says. “There are many people who want to give, but maybe have no idea how to go about it.”
And that’s why schemes like the youth awards and organisations such as the Community Foundation for Surrey, which Peter came across when he was nominated, are so important to him – they offer precision grant making on a relatively modest scale.
“Surrey was pretty late in the game in having a Community Foundation, but Wendy Varcoe and the team have done an incredible job,” he adds. “As we discovered with our foundation, it’s not only difficult to set up and run a charity, it’s also difficult to give away money effectively because you get swamped. What we found was that it was better for us to focus on larger grants because of our admin resources. It was a great shame and being back on the coalface as High Sheriff made me realise the need.”
With the Community Foundation plugged into Surrey’s heart, however, it has also enabled PHF to re-establish its small grants.
“They find projects that have a genuine need,” says Peter. “One example: we’d nearly given away our year’s quota when I found the Saturday Sports Club (activities for young people with disabilities at Surrey Sports Park in Guildford). They exist by baking cakes; hand-to-mouth stuff with volunteers from the university. We made a relatively small grant of £600 and that evening I must have got half a dozen thank you e-mails. That’s what it’s all about.”
Professionally, Peter says that being High Sheriff has been the most rewarding thing he’s ever done – “although, being a solicitor originally, that’s perhaps not saying much.”
“I’m determined to keep a quarter of my time focussed on the voluntary sector in Surrey,” he continues. “A few of the groups I’ve visited have asked whether I’d consider being a patron and, once I get time to reflect, I’ll see where I can best contribute. I’m sure I don’t need the badge or fancy dress! I love the cut and thrust of the commercial world, but there is a lovely balance with the voluntary sector.”
As I leave, Peter returns to an earlier question I had asked about what he finds the most fulfilling aspect of his work.
“There are people who do far more than me but there’s an often repeated story that sums things up,” he says. “It’s about a chap who walks along a beach where thousands of starfish have been washed ashore. He sees a little girl picking them up and putting them back in the sea. He says: “Why are you doing that, you can’t save them all.” She says: “Well, I can save this one and this one and this one…”
Who knew the “sheriff” and Robin Hood would one day find a middle ground: encouraging the rich to help ‘feed’ the poor, if you will…
My Favourite Surrey...
Pub: I love pubs. They’re where I go to relax and get my head together. You go through transitions and don’t do it so much when you have children, or certainly go to different pubs! My favourite was The White Horse at Hascombe, which was a short walk from our home. Back over this side of the county, and I’m actually not so sure. My nearest pub is the Fox and Hounds on Burstow Hill but that seems to change ownership pretty regularly – and the standards with it. The Red Barn near Lingfield is really nice with the family.
Restaurant: I tend to think that the best restaurants in this area are in Reigate. With all due respect to Tony Tobin at The Dining Room, I do tend to prefer the more relaxed style of La Barbe – it’s good French eating.
Place to relax: On the bike. You can’t cover enough ground on foot. I’m firmly of the off-road persuasion though, rather than a road cyclist. We’re lucky to have bridleways springing off in all directions from our farmhouse, which is part of a former hunting estate near Godstone. Considering how densely populated Surrey is, I still find that amazing.
Place to visit: I have to admit that while I have visited and admire many of the National Trust places, I’m not really a massive fan of that sort of thing in my spare time. One of the things I did for YMCA DownsLink was cycle the Downs Link via the old train lines from Guildford to Shoreham. That was something I hadn’t even realised was possible. I was met on the border, in my Lycra, by the High Sheriff of West Sussex.
What is a High Sheriff?
The High Sheriff of Surrey is appointed by the Sovereign to hold office for one year.
In theory, the High Sheriff is The Queen’s legal representative in the county. In practice, today it is largely a ceremonial role but still the oldest secular office in England and Wales other than the Crown.
The role dates back to Saxon times, when the name was ‘Shire Reeve’.
Originally, the Shrievalty – as it is known – held many of the powers now taken by the Lord Lieutenant, High Court judges, magistrates, coroners, local authorities, the Inland Revenue and police.
Historically, the prospective High Sheriff must hold sufficient land within the county ‘to answer the Queen and her people’. Other than that, there is no formal qualification for the role. The office is unpaid.