STRATFORD-UPON-AVON has a key role to play in the on-going revival of the West Midlands economy.
That’s the message from the region’s first directly elected mayor, Andy Street.
The Herald spoke to the former John Lewis boss at the Coventry and Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce’s annual economic conference at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Stratford on Friday, 3rd November.
We quizzed him on the district’s role in the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), the huge funding that it has at its disposal as part of the government’s move towards devolution, and potential solutions to the town’s chronic congestion problems.
Stratford District Council initially voted against becoming a non-constituent member of the WMCA in 2015, citing risks outweighing the benefits, before a U-turn after a second vote
was forced. As a result council’s leader, Chris Saint, sits on the board, and although Mr Street has no direct influence over matters in Warwickshire, he did say funding that has been secured from central government would still be made available to strategic projects in the county.
“I said right from the beginning of setting up the combined authority that the logic for it was not an artificial political line, the logic was all about the economic geography, and Warwickshire is absolutely linked to the urban West Midlands, if you look at how people move for their jobs, how supply chains work together.
“A brilliant example of that is Jaguar Land Rover in Wolverhampton, in Birmingham, in Solihull, in Coventry, and in Warwickshire.
“They have all got to work together, so I was delighted by the decision by Stratford District Council to be part of the combined authority.
“Stratford does a lot more than tourism, that’s the thing about its economy, its economy is vast in the automotive supply chainand if you think of Gaydon as the main research base of JLR, it’s absolutely in the core of one of our key sectors, as well as the tourist sector and the creative industries, so I think we need to think about Stratford as much more that just a tourist destination.
“I was in Stratford only last week for the Stratford-on-Avon Business Club, and it’s brilliant that that’s been revived, and it was an important occasion because I got to hear sharply from business what the issues were that really concern them.
“I will come whenever and that’s why I’m here today because one of the critical things to me about the West Midlands is that I see business as playing a crucial role alongside politicians, that’s my whole background.”
Transport is one of the key areas of Mr Street’s remit, and while the conference heard about plans to improve the A46 which runs the length of the county, Mr Street said his office was also pressing for improved services on the Birmingham to Stratford line, and did not rule out putting his weight behind calls to reinstate the line between Stratford and Honeybourne.
“Nothing is happening at the moment on the Honeybourne piece from our office, it doesn’t mean it can’t in the future.
“But what is absolutely critical in our office is connectivity across the West Midlands, so yes we are pressuring the new operating company to improve the service between Birmingham
“People talk about the nighttime economy and people being able to move during that, so critically, yes we want to see on that Shakespeare Line much-improved services.
“We are already lobbying very hard to Network Rail to reopen railway lines: the Camp Hill line in Birmingham, the Walsall to Wolverhampton line, the Stourbridge to Brierley Hill
line, the Aldridge line, there’s four we’re working with Network Rail on and I would be more than happy to come and hear this [the Honeybourne] case out as well.”
Mr Street was chairman of the Great Birmingham Local Enterprise Partnership before his election as Mayor.
Stratford has felt a little short-changed from the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP, and we pressed him on how favourable bids from Stratford would be for money that he had at his disposal as part of the region’s devolution deal.
He told us: “I can point to lots of bids that have come in for non-constituent authorities such as Cannock and Telford, they have already had good money from the WMCA, so my message to Stratford is yes, we are open to receive the business cases from the non-constituent members as well.”
A study into the economic benefits of reinstating the Honeybourne line, led by Worcestershire County Council and funded by local authorities and train operating company, Great Western Railways, has yet to be carried out.
But Fraser Pithie, secretary of the Shakespeare Line Promotion Group, said: “We are really encouraged by what Andy Street has said, he’s showing the foresight that is lacking from
Warwickshire County Council [the county’s transport authority], and other local representatives.”