What? No tourist office?

Warwickshire’s Shakespeare Country ceases trading I went down to the Stratford Tourist Information Office at the Bridge Foot yesterday. It was closed.

It was closed because it has closed down. On Monday, Stratford District Council decided to defer a decision to give it the £275,000 funding it relies on to trade. When I got there on Wednesday, I was greeted by a lady who had just been told she had no job. She introduced me to a circle of people — bright, alert people, who clearly have been a welcome and efficient sight to tourists arriving in the town — who had also just lost their jobs. They made me promise I wasn’t from the press.

Back in front of the now closed and papered up tourist office, I found a pile of leaflets which had been left for the wind and the rain and anybody who might want them. Two tourists — Chinese, I think — were looking round. I welcomed them to Stratford, and apologised that the tourist office was closed. What else could one do?

An hour before this, I was on BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire explaining why closing the tourist office was complete folly in the week before Easter. Not that this is a difficult thing to explain. I was followed by Stratford’s Conservative Council leader Les Topham. Topham began by saying that this was exactly the kind of stupid thing that a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate would say. I wondered if I had perhaps made an error of fact. Had I got the contribution of tourism to the local economy (£1 billion a year) wrong? Or perhaps I had got some of the other details wrong? It’s easy to make a mistake when you’re on the radio. But he didn’t accuse me of anything like that. Instead, he played the ‘It’s not our fault’ card. “It wasn’t the District Council that boarded up the office, it was the company”, he said. True, but irrelevant. The BBC presenter pushed the point for me. But Les was adamant: all they had done was withdraw the funding. It was the tourism company’s own decision to close.

Say what?

I used to work in a funding body (West Midlands Arts), so I know how this works. If the major funder pulls the plug, that’s it. The lights go off. Unlike a commercial company, which may be able to sell itself on as a going concern, a not-for-profit which has one major source of funding no longer has a financial future if that source of funding is taken away. Les Topham’s assertion that it wasn’t the council’s fault is eerily similar to other assertions made by Stratford District Council over the last few years. Somehow, it’s never their fault.

I accept that the company had problems. I also accept that it may well not have had a long term future funded by the tax-payer. But pulling the plug in the week before Easter? As one of my colleagues suggested, it looks like someone is trying to close Stratford down. With shops boarded up here and there it’s obvious that the recession has hit us. But take away the tourist information centre from the UK’s third biggest tourist attraction, and you send out a signal which can be read anywhere.

Apparently they are going to have some people giving out leaflets in the Leisure Centre (not, I think, that many people travel on buses from London or wherever else they have been visiting to go to Stratford’s famous Leisure Centre) and some in the town. Fine. But if you get out your SatNav and ask it for Tourist Information, it takes you to the office at the Bridge Foot. If you look on a map, or any of countless leaflets in circulation or treasured inside shoeboxes across half the world, the tourism centre is marked as where it’s been for years.

Except it isn’t.

Seriously, it is time for the Stratford Tories to go. Les Topham remarked (in the Stratford Herald) last year that they didn’t seem to be very popular in Stratford, and he couldn’t work out why. Les, you can call me ‘stupid’ on the radio if you like, but I and anyone else can see why your team is not popular in Stratford. Can’t you?