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?

Don’t break up the BBC

The Tory-backed Policy Exchange think-tank has today called for the BBC to be dismantled, with BBC Worldwide privatised, the BBC Trust scrapped, and sport and popular entertainment dumped to create opportunities for commercial channels, according to a preview to the report “Changing the Channel” covered by the BBC website and the Guardian.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what the Policy Exchange is saying because, although they have given away copies to the BBC and to the Guardian, they have yet to publish their own report on their own website.

But, based on what we know now, this is the old right-wing (Policy Exchange actually calls itself ‘centre-right’, but you don’t need to read very far before you realise that ‘centre’ is a euphemism) animosity to the BBC. While the Labour party has long decried the ‘Tory Press’, Conservatives get equally frustrated with the ‘liberal BBC’. Of course, at the moment they are able to build on popular opposition to large salaries, such as the one Jonathan Ross is giving up, but the truth is, they want to take away from the BBC many of the things we most love about it.

Following the Policy Exchange’s prescription, we would lose sport and popular entertainment. So, no more Eastenders, no more Doctor Who, no more football, athletics, Wimbledon, the Olympics, and definitely no return for the cricket. Based on current schedules, the new look BBC might be something like this on a Saturday evening:

7pm – nothing – replaces ‘So you think you can dance’
7.45 – National Lottery draw, probably extended edition
9pm – nothing – replaces “Casualty”
10pm – nothing – replaces “Live at the Apollo”
10.45pm – News – extended edition
11.00 pm – nothing – replaces football

Of course, they wouldn’t really leave all those nothings in. But what would they fill them up with? Not re-runs of old classics, as that would be popular entertainment. Certainly not cutting edge wildlife shows — they cost as much as popular entertainment to make. Ditto Horizon, Panorama, Shakespeare productions, Grand Opera, Jane Austen. Policy Exchange’s prescription would be about taking the money away from the BBC which currently goes on those shows.

There is, of course, a channel which already does what the BBC would be like if Policy Exchange had its way: it’s BBC News 24. The same news, over and over again, all day and night long. It doesn’t cost much to make. But, equally, it doesn’t have many people watching it for long.

If you take away the things that people like on the BBC, you will not assuage their opposition (if there is any) to the license fee. You will increase it. They will be paying the same amount of money (Policy Exchange wants to beef up Channel 4), but getting nothing they like.

How long before the BBC is abolished?

On that basis, not long at all.

But have a care. Policy Exchange is publishing a new report every three or four days. They are setting out the programme for a Tory government — the things that David Cameron dare not put in his manifesto. Britain after Cameron might well be a place with marginally less debt, if he can somehow get his sums right. But it will be a joyless, grey place, where only sure-fire hits are played on commercial TV (in other words, US shows six months after they were shown on Sky), and where home-grown television has as much interest and creative flair as a 1970s Czechoslovakian cartoon.

Tory MP to step down

Stratford on Avon’s Tory MP John Maples today announced he is stepping down. His delay in doing so, which he explains in a letter to the Conservative Home website, means that the Tory selection will now be under their by-election rules, with a centrally imposed shortlist.

John Maples has served the community of Stratford on Avon for thirteen years, and deserves the thanks of opponents and supporters alike. I believe he has chosen the right time to retire. Liberal Democrats have taken seat after seat from the Tories in this constituency over the last two years, culminating in a dramatic by-election win in supposedly safe Tory Alveston in November.

With Warwickshire Tories now deeply unpopular in Stratford following the fire consultation debacle, it is our intention to press on and take this vacated seat at the General Election.

Why I don’t respond to blanket ‘pledge’ campaigns

If you’re visiting this site looking for my email address so that you can send me a two-sentence pledge to sign up to, you’re wasting your time. Like many sitting MPs, it’s my policy not to respond to them.

Why is this?

First, I don’t want to encourage the approach to politics which says that everything is really very simple, and if only MPs would realise that it all boils down to a simple pledge, the world will be a better place.
Second, I know from experience that many — even the majority — of these pledge campaigns are very carefully worded so that no sensible person could disagree with them, and then used to support something which is really very, very different. It’s like the (now banned) adverts which say things like “9 out of 10 mothers said it was the same or better than product x”, when the actual survey showed that one of the 10 mothers they asked liked it, one didn’t like it, and the other eight couldn’t tell the difference either way.

Does this mean I’m not interested in your campaign? No — I am interested. Send me your literature, and I’ll read it. In some cases — Help for Heroes, Jubilee Debt, Anti-slavery international, for example — I will actively back your campaign. But, if I’m not convinced enough to sign up to your mailing list and get your newsletter, then I won’t sign your pledge.

I’ve had some really good stuff sent to me. My old boss from West Midlands Arts, Sally Luton (it’s now Arts Council West Midlands) wrote to me to tell me about all the art in Stratford on Avon. Fair enough. The police have written to me to tell me about what police really need. The Federation of Small Businesses have sent me useful information.

If you want to persuade me, inform me. I won’t necessarily agree with everything you tell me, but you’ll have my ear, and I won’t forget it.

The very worst kind of pledge campaigns are the ones which are essentially a veiled threat: 75% of people believe this, sign up to our pledge and we’ll publish it. If you don’t sign up to our pledge, then we’ll publish that, and 75% of people won’t vote for you. Some of them really are as blunt as that. Others are slightly more sophisticated, and, in so being, even more ridiculous. I had one today, for example, from the Albion Alliance. I had to read it twice to check that it wasn’t from a football team. The Albion Alliance offered me two very stark choices, and demanded that I sign up to one or the other, because they were ‘mutually exclusive’. It’s true they were mutually exclusive, in the same way that fascism and communism were mutually exclusive. But there was lots of territory in between where reasonable people live. What made it worse was that they had the gall to demand a simple ‘yes/no answer’ without what they termed ‘obfuscation’. Interestingly, they didn’t actually include their pledge in the email, so I had to go to their website to check it out. I saw that the few candidates who had bothered to reply were treated very shabbily — failure to sign up to the exact words of their pledge resulted in an accusation of ‘obfuscation’.

Needless to say, I will not be replying to the Albion Campaign. However, if you are from the Albion Campaign and are reading this, my message to you would be: if you want an honest answer, then ask an honest question, and if you want a sensible answer, then ask a sensible question.

Finally, though, if you as a private citizen — or as an honest representative of a pressure group — want to email me with ordinary questions, I will certainly reply personally. Just don’t ask me to sign up to a particular form of words which you’ve already drafted. I will give you my own words, and then you can be certain that I really do mean what I say.

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