High Sheriff outlines the challenges facing Suffolk – and how people can help tackle them

The winners with the High Sheriff, Geoffrey Probert, at the glittering event presented by BBC Radio

The winners with the High Sheriff, Geoffrey Probert, at the glittering event presented by BBC Radio Suffolk'�s Lesley Dolphin and Suffolk Community Foundation'�s Tim Holder. Picture: SIMON LEE PHOTOGRAPHY - Credit: Archant

In a landmark speech at the annual High Sheriff Awards ceremony at Wherstead Park, the outgoing High Sheriff Geoffrey Probert reflected on the challenges facing Suffolk. This was his speech in full.

Suffolk is famous for its big skies and fabulous market towns. But there are very real problems behi

Suffolk is famous for its big skies and fabulous market towns. But there are very real problems behind that facade. Picture: STEVE COATES - Credit: Steve Coates

When people think of Suffolk, they tend to think of sleepy Suffolk with its magnificent wool churches, its charming market towns, its beautiful marshes and its big skies.

But it is all too easy to pass by unaware that underneath the surface Suffolk has its fair share of the full panoply of societal problems - poverty, family breakdown, loneliness, homelessness, drugs, domestic and child abuse, low self esteem, entrenched state dependency – with an oversubscribed and creaking NHS plus a stretched police force trying to cope with the consequences.

Some of the figures jolt one out of complacency.

In Suffolk more than 15,000 old people don’t speak to a neighbour, friend or family member in over a month.

Food banks in Suffolk have come under increasing pressure as demand grows. Picture: ARCHANT

Food banks in Suffolk have come under increasing pressure as demand grows. Picture: ARCHANT

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A total of 83,000 people in Suffolk – including 19,000 children – live below the poverty line.

Foodbank parcel issues from the Waveney Foodbank on a like for like basis are up 80% versus a year ago.

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We have homeless – often unnoticed – on our streets even in my small local market town Sudbury.

But somehow the numbers don’t quite convey the raw reality.

When I grew up in Suffolk we were collectively materially poorer and more insular, but I think less selfish, less materialistic and more community minded.

Since then, on the credit side, we have much more affluence, we have more diversity and in some arenas more tolerance.

But on the debit side, Suffolk has by no means escaped the national picture of a widespread breakdown in traditional family structures and of all too often the most basic parenting skills.

Nor have we escaped the growing ‘me’ culture, and the phenomenon of people living disconnected from normal human discourse in an e-world of screens on what I call “not so social” media.

And, depressingly, we have the stubborn failure of wealth and opportunity to trickle down to the more marginalised in our society.

We have far too many children in Suffolk who have no role models, who suffer from inter-generational learned behaviours of low expectation and who feel they have little if anything to lose.

Layer on top of that the hideous exploitation of the weakest by the ‘County lines’ Class A drug dealers, and we get the young people whom I have seen all too often this year at the sharp end – with the police and probation and in our courts – and, I fear, our prisons.

The journey from low attainment and aspiration to the superficially glamorous world of drug wraps, rocks & gangs is all too easy. Breaking the cycle of poverty of purse and poverty of aspiration is much tougher than it sounds.

Sadly when you are face to face with the social ills that walk the streets of all our communities whether they be in Lowestoft or Leiston, or indeed leafy Bury St Edmunds or sleepy Saxmundham, you see the full unintended consequences of the age of austerity – with rising demand on local services.

Whilst for decades central politicians of all colours have quietly pared away at local funding with the inevitable manifestation being the disappearance of a whole plethora of social services that used to exist.

Just as one example – when I go to see the Level Two charity in Felixstowe, who help young children from chaotic and vulnerable families, I hear that they fight to fill the gap left by the three council-run youth centres in and around the town and three Mother and Baby units once funded by the council that just don’t exist today.

Those working in the arms of the statutory sector that do remain make a sterling job of it, but now a growing share of the burden has to fall fair and square on the charitable sector.

And sadly the same downward pressure on local government funding also means that the council can never give the voluntary sector the full funding it needs and deserves.

Bar the occasional gracious – but hard to count on – gift from the Lottery Fund, it is down to the community, to the private sector and to all of us as individuals to do our bit to help bridge that financial gap.

If my tale has been downbeat so far, that is of course but half the story. My hope rests on the remarkable work that I have seen our volunteers and our voluntary sector to be capable of.

Wherever we have been we have unearthed another remarkable troop of cheerful volunteers – whether manning our lifeboats, astride our fire engines as retained firefighters, on the beat as Specials or out in the marshes as guides & helpers for the Suffolk Wildlife Trust.

Then there are all those Samaritans manning the phones over the night, the cathedral choirboys struggling into rehearsal before school or the volunteer ladies from Home Start visiting first time mothers to help them get set right.

Not to mention St Johns, the Scouts, the Police Cadets and dozens of village Good Neighbour Schemes helping address the needs of the elderly and the lonely- and a hundred more examples.

Of course most organisations & charities need to support these volunteers with a backbone of paid professionals. The combo is a winning formula.

But if we are to expand the voluntary sector so it can take up the slack as the state downsizes, we also need to play smart – we need to tap into Suffolk’s capacity for non-politicised teamwork, to draw on our ingrained local bent for compassion, and to unleash the public spiritedness of our young.

Suffolk is a famously understated, friendly place with a long tradition of working together to face up to challenges. I have come across brilliant examples of statutory, private and voluntary sectors working arm in arm - none better than the remarkable Lowestoft Rising network. Compassion I have seen everywhere – from the custody sergeant sitting beside a drugged out offender in a cell in the Martlesham PIC to the 60-year-old retiree Grand Mentor sitting having coffee with the care home girl who never had a real granny.

And we have seen the helped become the helpers - whether those helped from debt or addiction, or young people volunteering who were themselves helped onto the right road by the charity they now serve.

I believe the young are even more conscious of their community responsibilities than we were in our day.

So, yes, I emerge from my year as High Sheriff concerned that we have a growing army of elderly people who risk not being given the good neighbours they have earned & deserve, and that far too many of our children are not being given the start in life they deserve and are leaving school without the self esteem that they so need to get on in life.

But hopeful, because of those special Suffolk qualities and hopeful because of our very special voluntary sector.

Which all leads me to say in conclusion that we can go a huge way to solving the problems in our midst if we all put our arms to the wheel to help that voluntary sector.

Which is why I am asking all citizens in Suffolk to seriously consider doing two things – firstly, to leave a legacy to one or more Suffolk charities. And secondly, to do that little bit more.

Maybe join or start a local Good Neighbour Scheme, give a night a month to the Winter Night Shelter, join the Samaritans or participate in the work of the charity closest to our heart.

As I heard Charles Croll the good minister of the United Reformed Church in Southwold encourage us last year.

“we should all volunteer for three reasons – it is good for the community, it is good for you and it makes God smile.”

Suffolk’s High Sheriff Geoffrey Probert is encouraging more people to leave a legacy for a local charity in their will.

He said: “Most don’t know that 78% of the money gifted to charity by generous Suffolk donors leaves Suffolk to go out to the big national charities rather than to Suffolk charities.

“Most people are surprised at how various tax breaks mean a small reduction in what they leave to their family can mean a very big gift to charity. And how simple it can be to revise your will with a codicil.”

To learn more, go to “Legacy Brochure” on this website.

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