COUNCIL LEADER WARNING: Stormy times are ahead

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Cllr Tony Jefferson. Photo: Mark Williamson

PREPARE for 18 months of a coming storm – that’s the message from Stratford District Council leader Tony Jefferson.

But he accompanied it with a pledge that the district would survive and thrive.

In an exclusive interview with the Herald he said: “The next 18 months will be especially tough but we will weather the storm. We will recover and we will thrive.”

Cllr Jefferson was responding to the annual “state of the district” report, which reviews the economic, social and environmental profile of the district and forms part of the budget-setting process for next year.

He highlighted a number of factors which make the report grim reading, including:

  • Dramatically increasing population;
  • Rising unemployment; and
  • The ongoing coronavirus crisis.

“Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that the population around Stratford will increase by 14 per cent by 2028 – that’s an awful lot,” he said.

“Obviously this will really stretch our infrastructure, including highways, schools, medical facilities. We already know that 85 per cent of housing in Stratford is built to accommodate people moving into the district.”

Another major alarm bell was the devastating impact on the economy of the Covid crisis.

He added: “We haven’t even seen the worst of it yet. The Growth Hub and LEP are expecting to see big surges in unemployment in the next few months. At one point we had 20,000 people on furlough in the district. As that support is withdrawn, unemployment will inevitably rise.”

One crucial indicator of financial health in the report is Gross Value Added, a measure of the value of the economy due to the production of goods and services. Stratford district’s GVA has collapsed by an estimated 46 per cent – more than £2bn.

Cllr Jefferson said: “Financially we are the hardest hit district in the West Midlands. It’s a major reality check.

“It was estimated that next year we would recover two-thirds of our lost GVA but now, with Covid going on longer, I suspect it’s actually going to be a lot worse than that.

“As a council we’ve taken a big financial hit. The reality is we are going to have very limited cash and resources to provide a great deal of support. We have some reserves but they will only last so long.”

He added: “It looks like the bounce back is going to be a lot slower and that’s obviously got a lot of implications, particularly if you look at our businesses which are the hardest hit – automotive, leisure, tourism, hotel and retail.”

Cllr Jefferson also refused to rule out the possibility of a hike in council tax to pay for any shortfall.

“At the moment we are restricted on the amount we can raise council tax – 2.5 per cent. I’ve absolutely no idea whether the government will allow us to increase council tax. There will need to be some clear decisions. If services are to be preserved then we will need to put council tax up.

“We are facing a very different landscape. It’s totally different to what it was in March, before Covid.”

However, Cllr Jefferson added that the future wasn’t all doom and gloom.

“Fundamentally we’ve got an awful lot of strength as a district, we really we do. We’ve got a lot of good businesses, we are an internationally recognised brand – Shakespeare and Stratford-upon-Avon. Next year is going to be a rough year, I absolutely have no doubts about that. But I think as and when tourism recovers, the district will recover with it.

“If you look ahead three or four years we’ll have a balanced economy, high-quality jobs and we’ll be riding the recovery.

“We’ll go down hard, and it’s important people aren’t in denial about that – we need to reset expectations. The next 18 months will be especially tough. But we will weather the storm, we will recover and we will thrive.”

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