'This region has given me so much' - David Kerfoot reflects as he steps down as LEP chair and High Sheriff

After nearly a decade, David Kerfoot is set to step back from the North Yorkshire LEP. It has been a bumpy ride but for Mr Kerfoot the region’s finest days lie ahead, writes Mark Casci.

It is fair to say that for nearly a decade the prosperity of North Yorkshire has taken up much of David Kerfoot’s life.

He has been part of the North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership since its inception nine and half years ago, having served as chairman for the past three.

It has been an all-consuming journey for the businessman. During his time with the LEP he has had to face two national LEP reviews, one proposed merger, Brexit and, in the past 12 months, the Covid crisis which threatened to devastate the region’s vital tourism sector.

David Kerfoot is stepping down after nearly ten years.

However, in the space of the next two weeks all of this will come to an end. On Monday, he will step down as chair of the LEP and on Friday, March 26 his tenure as High Sheriff comes to an end.

As Mr Kerfoot puts it: “Two huge parts of my life disappear within a fortnight.”

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, he said: “I am sad to step down but you can only do it for so long. I think nine and half years is by far long enough. But I know I am handing it over in really good condition with a great team and a really strong board. There have been a lot of challenges but I would not have missed it for all the tea in China. It has been a tremendous run.”

Mr Kerfoot’s commitment to the LEP is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that in nearly a decade of his being associated with it he has missed only two board meetings. For the LEP chair, he sees it very much as a means of giving back to the region that helped make him a success.

Mr Kerfoot has been involved in Yorkshire business for decades.

His career began like so many successful entrepreneurs when he and his wife Elizabeth founded the Kerfoot Group in the back bedroom of their home in 1980. The business they created grew to become the UK’s leading provider of oils to the food, technical and personal care industries.

“I see serving the greater public as a duty, as a return on what this wonderful county has given me in business terms,” he said.

“Having set up a very small business, grown it and employed people – it has really supported me. I am really passionate about the region. I believe it is important that we shout loud, particularly in Whitehall. And I have enjoyed those ambassadorial roles.”

He added: “I have always felt that if you start to make a bob or two, wherever you are you have got to give back in a certain way. I felt I had the odd few skills to help business and help the county grow and thrive and prosper.”

The LEP patch is the most diverse in the nation.

The LEP that Mr Kerfoot runs is without question the most diverse and arguably the most challenging to oversee. The patch it covers takes three-and-a-half hours to drive across.

It takes in the historic city of York, the smaller city of Ripon, 17 market towns, two national parks and more than 30 miles of coastline. It is this diversity, along with the lack of an elected mayor, that for Mr Kerfoot present the biggest challenges.

“I have always said from day one that two things hold us back,” he said.

“One, we are not devolved so we are sat in the second division away from the top table with the mayors, and secondly Government doesn’t understand rural. The first one I think ultimately we will get there. The second one, it is simply a case of continually reminding Government who we are and what we need.”

His tenure as High Sheriff comes to an end this month.

On the devolution front the Government has taken in a submission in the form of a 130-page document which the LEP was instrumental in drawing up. The funding allocation request is for £2.4bn which Mr Kerfoot concedes is a “huge ask” but one he considers appropriate to the needs of North Yorkshire.

“I see what West Yorkshire have got and thought, given our size, we had a shot at getting something like that. The longer we leave it, the less time we are going to be invited to that top table. They are the ones getting the decisions. I see it time and time again in the NP11, those are the regions that are going places.”

The submission of the devolution proposal marks the final chapter in his time with the LEP and was a task which inspired him to extend his tenure as chair to this month.

However, the campaigning for an empowered North Yorkshire is one which takes on a higher purpose for Mr Kerfoot in many respects. He was thrust into the chair’s role following the tragic death of his friend and colleague Barry Dodd in May 2018.

He remembers receiving the news while driving from Thirsk and Malton MP Kevin Hollinrake who told him to pull over before relaying the terrible news. Like everyone in the region who knew Barry and was aware of his work, it was for Mr Kerfoot a massive shock but it left him inspired to continue his friend’s work.

“It was devastating,” he says. Over the coming days I got thinking Barry is going to leave a big legacy and that legacy should be continued. We worked together in the LEP for nine years, we started businesses together.

“That is what we have done. I often think when I have had tough decisions to take what Barry would have done. He will never be forgotten in our region because he did so much.”

While his responsibilities as High Sheriff and LEP chair may be at an end but he is gearing up for his latest challenge on another subject which is close to his heart.

The businessman is an avid collector of political memorabilia and has amassed over the years a collection of some 240 pieces. Included among them is a tea caddy belonging to William Gladstone and a rare statue of Lord Palmerston.

Mr Kerfoot intends to write a book on the items he has amassed.

He may, for now at least, be leaving public life but stops short of ruling something out in the future.

“I am still young enough to do things for the region,” he said. “Something may cross my desk that I fancy.”

Concluding the interview, I ask Mr Kerfoot what he was most proud of during his tenure with the LEP. He turned this question around, and in doing so, provided a much better answer than my original query would have yielded.

“It is not a question of what I gave or did for the region,” he said. “It is what the region has given to me.”