Interview: Lord Lieutenant who is promoting pride in South Yorkshire

Lord Lieutenant of South Yorkshire Andrew Coombe.
Lord Lieutenant of South Yorkshire Andrew Coombe.
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If the Queen was ever seeking a fittingly regal landscape to add to her estate, she could do worse than stake a claim on the stunning countryside view of the Mayfield Valley from Andrew Coombe’s comfortable sitting room in Sheffield.

But in its own playful way, his Fulwood home is already a low-key Royal outpost here in Sheffield – given his title of Her Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant of South Yorkshire.

The historic ceremonial role, dating from the 1500s, means Andrew is the monarch’s personal representative in the county, arranging Royal visits, advising on honours, presenting awards, backing good causes and generally ‘upholding the dignity of the Crown’.

And the title’s phrasing is crucial, he immediately points out.

“The hyphen is quite important,” says Andrew.

“Lieu is French for place, and tenant is the place, so lord-lieutenant means you’re the lord tenant of that place. I’m absolutely not a lord!”

Despite the office’s prestige, Andrew is keen for more people to understand his duties – and wants members of the Royal family to come to South Yorkshire as frequently as possible, to witness the progress being made in different sectors, from business and health to devolution.

“It’s important that the lieutenancy is seen to be relevant,” he says.

Andrew grew up in Dore, born into the family that owned the Sheffield garden tools firm Spear and Jackson – his middle name is Jackson.

He was schooled at Wellington College, Berkshire, but on leaving at 17 decided not to go to university. Instead he became a chartered accountant after securing a job at Cooper Brothers – now PriceWaterhouseCoopers – and subsequently qualified as a solicitor, eventually spending ‘20 happy years’ at Keeble Hawson. It was demanding work, but good for building contacts.

“If you get a client as a chartered accountant, you do their books every year, but if you’re in corporate law, you’re only as good as your last deal. So you’re constantly having to go out and meet people,” says Andrew, who retired nine years ago.

The military has played a part in his life too – he served in the TAs with the Sherwood Foresters – and there is a touch of the Army in his no-nonsense, but hospitable, manner.

A former High Sheriff, Andrew has a large portfolio of charitable work as a trustee of St Luke’s Hospice, the Bluecoat Educational Trust and more, and serves as chair of the Sheffield Cathedral Council.

Before David Moody, his predecessor as Lord-Lieutenant, retired according to the rules on his 75th birthday in 2015, Andrew discussed taking the role with his wife of 44 years, Sue.

The couple – who have a son and daughter, Emily, aged 42, and Bill, 39 – had just had a house built, and Andrew, 70, was intending to spend more time with his four grandchildren, and maybe ‘playing a bit more golf and doing a bit more fly-fishing’.

“But it was just such a huge honour. With my education, you were brought up to serve – it may sound old-fashioned, but there we are.

“I got a letter from Downing Street asking me if I’d let my name go forward.”

He was already a deputy Lord-Lieutenant, and had met the Royal Family before, but was properly introduced to the Queen two years ago following her Maundy Thursday service at Sheffield Cathedral.

“I knew by then I was going to be Lord-Lieutenant, so I was presented to her, and she said: ‘Are you ready for this?’

“And I said ‘Well, Ma’am, not as much as I’d like to be, because we’ve moved house last week.’ Halfway round the room she’s presented to Sue, and says ‘I hear you’ve just moved house’.

“Bearing in mind she was 89 then, and 91 now, that’s astonishing, when you think of all the people she’d spoken to. That’s the calibre of person you’re dealing with.”

Inevitably the question he’s always asked is – what’s she like?

And the answer is ‘she’s absolutely fantastic’.

“There is no side to her, you know you’re in the presence of someone special. She’s extremely well-briefed and so knowledgeable.”

Andrew has 35 deputies, including a Vice Lord-Lieutenant and his office in Barnsley is ‘the link’ with the Royals, he explains. “Everything has to go through us.”

He supports all of the family’s charities – the Prince’s Trust, Duke of Edinburgh Award, Duke of York’s Community Initiative – as well as his own projects. Andrew is trying to establish an initiative to tackle anti-social behaviour in the Abbeydale Road corridor where, he says, there were 5,000 incidents of anti-social and criminal behaviour reported in 2015, ‘from kicking a wheelie bin to murder’. He is encouraging groups to work closer together and to submit funding bids collectively. Another priority is ‘community cohesion’ – Andrew, who is secretary of the South Yorkshire Muslim Community Forum, helps to officiate at citizenship ceremonies.

Royal visits take ‘a lot of organising’, he admits, with tight security always a consideration. Often different counties ‘pitch’ for an appearance, looking for a good reason for them to come and a full itinerary.

“You have to find something that will hit the right button. It’s got to be a worthwhile day.”

In South Yorkshire, a little creativity is required, too – there’s no HMS Sheffield any more, and the military regiments have moved. The Duke of York, Prince Andrew, was the most recent guest, when he opened the £42m Factory 2050 research centre at Catcliffe.

“I’m on the inside of the ropes because I walk round with them,” Andrew reflects.

“I’m always just behind – you’re there just in case something goes wrong.”

The monarchy is in ‘remarkably good fettle’, Andrew thinks, given the ‘strong line’ apparent with Princes Charles, William and young George, all future Kings. But with the Queen still working ‘assiduously’, change could be some years away.

“There’s so much volatility at the moment, Her Majesty is a constant. And people like stability.” He adds: “There’s a huge appetite for them. When the Royal entourage has left after a visit, people are fired up by it. People get dewy-eyed about the Maundy service, and even about Princess Diana when she came to the Children’s Hospital 20-odd years ago. They don’t have to come often, but if they do, it’s wonderful.” He has put ‘several things together that hopefully tick the boxes’ for a visit from William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, that would likely be a big crowd-puller.

“I would be delighted if they, or Harry for that matter, were to come to South Yorkshire. The things they are very keen on are very pertinent here – mental health in young people, for instance, is a huge problem.”

The county has plenty to be proud of, he argues, and was ‘well ahead of the game’ in getting a devolution deal for greater powers from the Government. “We need to see it through. But we can’t trigger the money until we’ve got the mayor. People coming to invest in South Yorkshire want to deal with a bigger unit.”