I want the East Riding to punch its weight says Richard Burton, the farmer and landscape artist who became local council leader

"It's all about being open to new ideas, open to new approaches," says Richard Burton. "Just because you've done something the same way all your life doesn't mean you don't need to change with the times."

The leader of East Riding of Yorkshire Council could be addressing any one of the seismic changes facing the country and his own area after a year when old certainties were turned on their head.

But his words are as much a reflection of his own personal experiences which took him from his farming background to being an artist, holiday cottage owner and latterly into local politics, taking on the leadership of his local council at a time of unprecedented challenges.

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East Riding council leader Richard Burton wants devolution to get to the 'front ...
Richard Burton, Leader of East Riding of Yorkshire Council. Pic by Gary Longbottom

Coun Burton has been leader of the Conservative-run council since May 2019, taking over from Stephen Parnaby whose 23-year stint at County Hall made him the longest-serving political leader in the region.

And according to his website he is also an "award winning creative landscape artist who enjoys painting in all mediums but especially enjoys the wonders of watercolour" and "gains inspiration from the stunning local scenery and wildlife along the East Yorkshire Coast".

His family has farmed at Rockville Farm in the village of Bempton, near the famous nature reserve and Flamborough Head, for five decades and have kept pigs, poultry and sheep.

"Farming has always been challenging," says Coun Burton during an online call with The Yorkshire Post. "And it's always had its ups and downs.

"Over my lifetime pure farming farms have got bigger and bigger and bigger and those that are smaller have always had to diversify, look to do other things, look to add another income stream into that mix and that's been that's been key. I had to follow that route and so I added a cultural element to it."

In the 1980s he decided to diversify and converted a farm building into an art gallery, which later expanded and became the Richard Burton Art Centre.

Art was initially something he did to supplement his income while at agricultural college but after selling his pictures on the seafront he realised that as a venture it was "quite lucrative".

And it was his artistic flair that got him involved in the local authority he would go on to lead, already a parish councillor and school governor but first getting elected in the Bridlington Central and Old Town ward in 2007.

"One of the ward councillors in the area came to see me and wanted somebody to stand in the local area for the council and he was determined to persuade me to stand," he recalls.

"And the story was that he was wanting to buy a picture, one of his conditions was that I'd stand for the council if he bought a picture. So on the back of that I thought 'I'll stand for the council', and it wasn't my first thought to do."

He served as Cabinet member for Leisure, Tourism and Culture for a number of years on what is one of the country's bigger councils, which supports some 14,000 staff and intervenes in 600 different service areas.

And taking over from Stephen Parnaby after the 2019 local elections gave him little time to get his feet under the table. "There was a lot going on and you take over from a leader who's been leading for 23 years, it's a long period of time," he says. "And obviously there's just big shoes to fill.

"But then we not only go through the normal cycle, then to setting out a cabinet setting out an agenda, wanting to bring in ways of making the council more sustainable, commercialism, digital, forward thinking, trying to help with the economy, invest that sense of economy of place, trying to really sort of do our utmost to ensure that we are a powerful area.

"We have been seen to be on the periphery of the region and Yorkshire but we want to make sure that we punch above our weight."

Flooding was a huge issue in 2007, the year he joined the council, and in February 2020 it returned in the area around Snaith and East Cowick. ""It was like the Lake District coming to the East Riding, it was a colossal event," he says.

"It affected so many people and so many properties and it was devastating to see so many properties and so many residents having to leave their homes, because of the flooding and the stress that caused was very profound."

A command centre was quickly put in place, with recovery work done by the Local Resilience Forum. Coun Burton says that despite the disaster East Riding has one of the largest flood defence schemes outside London, costing more than a billion pounds, as a means of protecting the economy.

There was a week of respite and then Covid hit, rendering what came before as "a bit of a sideshow". "Having the council meeting in March, we're signing away executive powers to the chief executive, you don't expect to be doing that in a lifetime, never mind in your first year as leader," he says. "It's quite a unique situation."

And just as he has in his career, he hopes the East Riding, with its market towns, coastline and countryside, can roll with the punches and take advantage of the boom in staycations as travel habits change.

"Tourism is so important to the local economy and hospitality and then we shut down, so we missed Easter, we missed Spring Bank, we missed Mayday, we missed a big chunk of the season.

"But what became apparent was when we came out of lockdown in July was how staycations were really important and we had a terrific bounce back in the tourism sector at that point and it does seem as though people were coming to the East Riding who hadn't probably realising how great the East Riding was.

"We're not just getting our traditional businesses, we're getting visitors who were otherwise probably going abroad or doing something different and were coming to the East Riding, so we had a real bounce back on the tourism element, and that is something that I think will put us in a good place going forward.

"We need to capitalise on that because I think staycations are going to be with us for some time to come so it's going to be important that we really promote ourselves.

"Also there's been a real sort of sense of people wanting to move to the East Riding. Anecdotally, I'm picking up an awful lot of noise, a real powerful indication that the houses are selling all over the East Riding and people are looking for a lifestyle change. .

"Home working is becoming a real big thing now. The councils have had to adapt, we've gone through 10 years of change with IT in a matter of months, we've adapted to Microsoft Teams, we've adapted to Zoom, we're doing online meetings we're doing so much more with people living at home and being able to be able to hold a full time job is a terrific change.

"But it also means that people are staying in their own localities now and it means that people can work from further afield potentially, they have much more choice about where they want to live, they haven't got the commuting distances in quite the same way.

"So going forward there will be a real opportunity for us to capitalise on that, so not only have we got a sense of tourism could potentially be in a strong place but we need to make sure that we protect the businesses that we've got and try to do all those to protect the economy."