Neck and Neck nationally

Two polls are now putting the Lib Dems ahead of Conservative and Labour. No poll has put Lib Dems ahead since 1985, and all the polls are now agreeing that the gap between Lib Dems and the others is lower than the sampling error — in other words — we are truly neck and neck, and everything is to play for.

A Tory blogger is already claiming that this is all rubbish and he hasn’t noticed any of this on the doors. I don’t know what doors he’s been knocking on, but out on the streets of Shipston, Alcester, Tanworth and Claverdon, the story is totally different. People have been coming up to me for weeks telling me that they will vote for me for the first time because they are not satisfied with the Tory Central Office candidate here in Stratford. As of yesterday, people are walking up to me and saying “I have been a Tory voter all my life and I am voting for you for the first time because you have the finest leader in the land.”

It is changing. And it is likely to change more. Lab/Con spin doctors are saying that the Clegg will not have it his own way next time. My observation is this: in competitive situations, although the scores can reverse, they usually don’t. We all remember the great reversals of fortune because they make compelling stories. But, usually, the one who starts out in front increases their lead. I’ve seen this over and over again in competitive sports, and the psychology of sports is very similar to that of debate. Yes, anything can happen. But the most likely thing is that Clegg will solidify his dominance in the debates. Based on this week’s polls — and, again, anything can happen — this will be reflected in polls leads, and on election day.

Stratford’s Concrete Collar?

Stratford’s Concrete Collar?

Heritage site not building site - councillors, candidates and campaigners protest

Heritage site not building site - councillors, candidates and campaigners protest

22 April is the extended deadline for responses to the District Core Strategy. I wonder how many people are aware of this, or its impact on their lives? Essentially, based on a regional core strategy, based in turn on directives from central government, Stratford District Council intends to put thousands of new homes into the constituency, some of them perhaps in villages such as Great Alne, where one developer wants to double the size of village in a feat of unsustainability, but mostly on the land around Stratford-upon-Avon.

Stratford is without doubt one of the most beautiful and desirable parts of England. I love this area, and love living and working locally. It’s also true that we need affordable housing for our young people. But South Warwickshire itself is growing unsustainably. Our elderly population is growing at 36% every decade — an astonishing figure.

The desirability of Stratford makes it attractive to wealthy buyers, but the need of people who live here now is affordable housing. The appetite of developers, though, is for luxury accommodation which maximises profits on the land available. But do we have the services which can support this? Even now, the County Council is still pushing to reduce our number of fire-stations, fire-fighters and appliances. The NHS here receives proportionately less money per person than most of the rest of the UK, because the York formula, on which allocation is calculated, takes deprivation into account, but not age. Currently NHS services in South Warwickshire are very good — but a massive influx of people will stretch them. Roads will become more congested, suburbs will grow up with no particular community focus and no community tradition.

Of course there is a balance and a trade-off. It’s easy to shout ‘not in my back yard’, and suggest that any change is bad change. But I’ve now listened to dozens of people who are well informed on planning, development and sustainability issues. All of them are saying the same thing: the proposed developments are just too much.

Election date confirmed

Brown to go to Queen on 6 April — BBC. Gordon Brown is set to go to the Queen tomorrow for an election date on 6 May, according to the BBC. This brings to an end the most remarkable sitting of parliament in recent years:

• Tony Blair was elected in 2005. Gordon Brown was never elected, neither by the UK population, nor even by his own party, as no-one stood against him and he won the contest by default when Blair stood down.
• The expenses scandal, though run as a major newspaper publishing venture by the Daily Telegraph, was actually the fruit of years of work by Heather Brooke.
• Michael Martin was the first speaker of the House of Commons to be forced to resign since Sir John Trevor in 1695
• More MPs will stand down at this election than any other since the end of the second world war. 200 are expected to stand down, including John Maples, MP for Stratford-on-Avon, who announced his intention on 10 January.
• Contrary to popular opinion, this is not the longest parliament in recent memory. Five years and one day will have elapsed between this election and the last one. John Major’s term was ended by the election on 1 May 1997, five years and 21 days after he won on 9 April 1992. Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 to 1992 was also longer than this sitting. Prior to that, the longest sitting since the war was 8 October 1959 to 15 October 1964. However, although there can be a gap of more than five years between the elections, the maximum length of a parliament itself is 5 years.

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?

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