In the latest in a series of features inspired by Middlesbrough Soroptimists’ list of outstanding local women, Jan Hunter spoke to community campaigner, Suzanne Fletcher

"I WANT justice and fairness for people who cannot stand up for themselves," says Suzanne Fletcher, from Eaglescliffe. She has spent her whole life striving towards this goal through her tireless work as a community activist, politician, and mayor. She has been a voluntary worker for 58 years, and since her retirement, she has continued to be an advocate for the most vulnerable in society.

Suzanne grew up in what was at the time a grim area of South Yorkshire, where her father was a police officer. The family's experience of living in a police house next door to the cells had a profound effect on her early life.

"We lived in an awful place, near the slag heaps," says Suzanne. "It was difficult and dangerous as there was so much pollution in the air. Coal gas came up through the cellar, our plants died, as did my pet mouse, and the curtains rotted. My mother and father were both hardworking and did their best to keep everything clean, but when we complained the authorities didn't listen. They considered our living conditions to be fine.

"The noise and swearing from the police cells at night kept us awake. My mother would prepare meals for the prisoners. They were sometimes sent back uneaten, but she was determined they would be treated with dignity."

The family moved to York for seven years when Suzanne was three, and her stay there showed her another world, and gave her a love of the environment through school nature walks. Her father's job meant another move back to South Yorkshire but eventually the family relocated to Skipton where school trips to Malham cemented her passion for nature, and although lonely at school, she was hard working and discovered a love of chemistry. After A-levels she got a job at ICI in Harrogate and worked on research in the labs, ironically, on a substance which kept net curtains white.

After meeting her future husband, John, they eventually settled in Eaglescliffe in 1979. "I'm a Yorkshire girl, I belong in the North," she says.

In 1981 as a Liberal, she was elected onto Stockton Council, and broke the mould by being the first Liberal woman to speak out and ask questions, and the first women's group leader. She began a campaign to give women more of a voice, and for them to be treated with respect, not just for her party but generally, attending conferences at home and abroad on equal opportunities for women in decision making and sharing power. She was also a major player in campaigning for a Regional Assembly in the North-East. In April 2016, Suzanne was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). She is known nationally amongst Liberal Democrats for her tireless campaigns in support of refugees and asylum seekers, and in particular for setting up Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary.

In 2006, she became mayor of Stockton, and one of her aims was to bring together people of different faiths and backgrounds. She did away with the traditional slow hand-clap at the inaugural meal and had a group of African drummers, who were asylum seekers and refugees, playing instead.

Suzanne was determined to make changes. "As mayor, I was interested in my community," she says. "I got to know these wonderful people and understood the problems of asylum seekers and refugees. I used my office to raise the profile of two local charities, Butterwick Outreach and The Mary Thompson Fund. I was the first mayor to have a blog, and it became popular."

She began fundraising in earnest, campaigning to improve the environment. and she opened up the Town Hall for visits and talks. As a councillor she had already secured the first bottle bank in Stockton, and as mayor she played a major part in Stockton becoming a Fairtrade borough. For 40 years she was a volunteer at the Citizen's Advice Bureau, as well as a volunteer for Catalyst, the umbrella organisation for the voluntary sector in Stockton.

Her work with the Tees Valley of Sanctuary is legendary. Tees Valley of Sanctuary is part of a national network building a culture of hospitality and link with a wide range of projects supporting refugees and asylum seekers, including the Redcar, Stockton, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Darlington areas.

However when Suzanne really stuck her neck out in tackling the issue of red doors in Middlesbrough, she became, in her words, "infamous".

The contract for housing asylum seekers in Stockton used to be directly with the council but when the government took out a private contract, the company involved decided to paint the doors where asylum seekers lived red. Consequently, these homes became targets of terrible abuse from, what Suzanne calls, racist yobs, causing real distress to the occupants.

Suzanne began writing and sending evidence to those she thought could help, but it was not until the press picked up on an article which had been written for the Times, that a media storm began on Tuesday, January 19, 2016. After very late phone calls that night, from the BBC, the next day at 6.30am she was in a taxi on her way to a television studio. The points she made in her non-stop interviews were not only about the red doors of the asylum seekers, but on their housing conditions in general, and the contribution they make, and want to make, to their communities.

Through her determination and hard work, the issue was raised in parliament, the Home Office listened and the doors were changed. She made a difference to lives in other parts of the UK too. In one city refugees and asylum seekers had to wear armbands, and this was soon stopped. At the moment she is campaigning to "Lift the Ban", a national push to allow asylum seekers to work, whilst waiting for their status to be changed. "There are many people, some highly qualified, who want to contribute to their communities, and they are not allowed to," she says.

At the moment she is also fighting against a proposed detention centre for female asylum seekers at Hassockfield near Consett, the site of a notorious youth centre, known nationally for abuse of inmates. She is chairing meetings and organised a demonstration which took place on June 27.

"People should be treated with dignity, and be able to live in a community of love and respect for each other and for our environment," she says. "It's about justice and fairness, which has driven me on."