OPINION: Plenty of positives across Norfolk in my year as High Sheriff

The former High Sheriff of Norfolk, Michael Gurney

The former High Sheriff of Norfolk, Michael Gurney - Credit: Denise Bradley/Archant

Outgoing High Sheriff of Norfolk Michael Gurney reflects on the current state of the county as he sees it

I have been very fortunate to be High Sheriff of Norfolk for the last year as we come out of lockdown. 

The High Sheriff is a volunteer, apolitical, unpaid role, which lasts a year. As I have just handed over to David Hill this is a good time to take stock and reflect on my discoveries from visiting schools, prisons, courts, market towns and city wards across the county. I have met with the most extraordinary volunteers and charities and seen both the best and the worst of Norfolk.

As High Sheriff one’s primary responsibility is law and order in the county. I have found the Norfolk Police are exceptional. I have gone out on patrol, visited stations and talked with officers across the county and I am always impressed by their commitment, professionalism and their humanity in working with the least fortunate in society. 

I have had the honour to attend three police award ceremonies during my year – at each one I have been humbled by hearing the citations of the bravery, initiative and compassion shown. Our police deliberately put themselves in harm’s way to protect us, day after day. We are lucky to have them and please give them your support.

The magistrates, all of whom themselves are volunteers, have done a terrific job in catching up following the pandemic. Why not consider if you could be a magistrate? It is a valuable role in the community and our youngest is aged 20. It is important that the magistrate’s bench fully reflects the community at large.

Justice is the bedrock of a civilized society. My impression is that the courts have been the Cinderella for far too long – the courts are in a poor state, there is a shortage of defence barristers because they earn so little and despite the very best efforts of all concerned there is now a long wait for justice in the crown courts because of Covid.

The judges and court staff we have are exceptional but it will take a long time to catch up.

David Hill with High Sheriff of Norfolk, Michael Gurney, right, at Mr Hill's High Sheriff declaratio

David Hill with High Sheriff of Norfolk, Michael Gurney, right, at Mr Hill's High Sheriff declaration at The Bay restaurant in the Jarrold store in Norwich - Credit: Jarrold

Our three prisons during Covid have regularly had to be locked down for 23 hours a day – a prisoner can then only be out of his cell for one hour a day and there is little chance of any training or rehabilitation.

The prison staff work really hard in difficult circumstances and there is good news with an initiative to increase training in prisons and for probation to provide jobs and accommodation for those leaving; but mental health generally is unsurprisingly poor.

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I was very pleased to be able to open a mental health unit in HMP Norwich a month ago. Can we do more with restorative justice? Our youth offending team do an excellent job and keep young people out of prison.

Because of the pandemic and the resulting risks to children I visited some 40 schools and colleges across the county from Terrington to Gorleston and Thetford to Sheringham.

Teachers have worked miracles in keeping education going in uniquely difficult circumstances. There are still major issues around mental health and some young have still not returned to school. Talking with young people many admitted that they are having difficulties in starting and holding conversations – and again the best schools have extended lunch times simply to have time to talk.

There seems to be a lack of curiosity Good academies are building personal resilience in their students including areas such as spending time outside, taking regular exercise, having a balanced diet, sleep hygiene turning off IT before bed and an awareness of the dangers of social media and the internet.

Children from disadvantaged homes should not be doomed to disadvantage themselves.

They currently start school five months behind the average but finish two years behind – that is something we should care about.

The safest place for children is unquestionably in school. If a child is permanently excluded or taken out of school for home schooling they have a much greater chance of ending up in the justice system. We should publish the league tables of schools who exclude pupils.

There is a strong argument in my mind for having more vocational training for those who are not good academically – this does not mean that in any way these young are a failure but rather they have different skills and strengths. We should build on these so that they can make a greater success of their lives, have good jobs and not get into trouble.

We should also undoubtedly encourage more STEM subjects and train in skills for the future. I have encouraged all schools, parents and young to use www.icanbea.org.uk which is a free careers and CV service specifically created by young people for young in Norfolk and Suffolk. We need to raise aspiration now across the County.

The lack of after-school activities is a problem but many have still not yet restarted after Covid. I would like to thank all the volunteers who run sports clubs, lead scout and cadet groups or give their time to mentor vulnerable young people. I would also encourage all communities to provide more facilities for children and young people – we cannot complain about anti-social activity if we do not do so.

The pandemic taught us that volunteers and communities are the life blood of Norfolk.

I have met extraordinary people doing wonderful things across Norfolk this year. It is invidious to single any out but include all those working in food banks, dementia clubs and men’s sheds.

A Polish dentist who cooks in a homeless shelter as a thank you for being made so welcome in Norfolk; volunteers on the SOS bus in Norwich and King's Lynn helping young people at 3.30am; all those who have manned vaccination stations in the cold and rain; witness support volunteers in courts; victims of sexual and domestic abuse helping others in the same situation.

I have to include the knit and natter group in Dereham making 1950s infant clothes to put on life-size dolls for dementia patients. The list is endless and heartwarming.

How can we keep that extraordinary community spirit going into the future? I would encourage everyone to give back to your community even if just checking your neighbour is alright or giving to the food bank?

I have been very impressed by the Help Hub in South Norfolk and Broadland which is supporting communities to help themselves with local solutions for local issues and undertaking social prescribing. We know there is no magic money tree and we need to help ourselves. Sadly this situation will get even worse with inflation and energy price rises.

I was told something early in my year by Rebecca White of Your Own Place which has stuck with me. We have to ‘change the conversation’ and be fully inclusive of everyone in society. All of us could have taken the wrong decisions in life and ended up on the street – we should try to help lift everyone up. In turn we will make Norfolk an even better place to live.