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New council leader defends challenge

Cllr Tony Jefferson.
Cllr Tony Jefferson.

THE shockwaves from the dramatic change of leadership at Stratford District Council continue to be felt as the authority’s new leader selected his cabinet team.

Cllr Tony Jefferson was officially appointed as the new leader at the annual council meeting on Wednesday last week, after successfully challenging Cllr Chris Saint for the leadership of the ruling Conservative group.

Speaking exclusively to the Herald, Cllr Jefferson revealed his reasons for leadership challenge, his priorities as council leader, and his views on some of the hottest issues affecting Stratford.

“We have all been very concerned about Chris Saint’s state of health, which has deteriorated in recent months, and members felt that it was right to make a change. Being leader is a very demanding job and health is important, it affects how much energy you can put into the role.

“I understand the criticisms about the timing, it is very unfortunate. However, Chris agreed to this leadership vote a month before the Conservative AGM, so it is just unfortunate that he got ill just before and after this vote. “The group has tried to do what was best for Chris Saint.”

When asked whether he believed he had the backing of all of his council colleagues, Cllr Jefferson said: “This process was conducted fairly and democratically. I think the vast majority of members have accepted the result, I would say more than 90 per cent, but I know it takes time for people to come to terms with changes of this nature.”

Last year Cllr Saint publically criticised the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (CWLEP) after Stratford once again missed out on funding from the organisation, while the former leader was also critical of Warwickshire County Council over its plans to close a number of children’s centres in the district.

Cllr Jefferson would not be drawn on the criticism of the CWLEP but said he was “more than prepared to fight Stratford’s corner with the LEP”. On children’s centres, he added: “I agreed with the representations made by Chris Saint about the changes to children’s centre services that were originally proposed by WCC.

I was unhappy that they originally wanted to cut the number from eight to one in Stratford District. However I was pleased that they reconsidered the changes and that there will now be four.

“With the cuts that have to be made I think you have to accept that not everything can remain the same.” In the days since becoming head of the Conservative group, Cllr Jefferson has spoken about the importance of taking a more collaborative approach.

“The way I will be approaching things is to build much closer relationships with our partners. I want more open dialogue within the council and more working together, I believe we are beginning to create a new culture.

“I want a closer relationship with the CWLEP, WCC and the WMCA and more working together within the council, more freedom to discuss things. One of my favourite phrases is ‘take the brakes off’.”

The leader also gave his views on two huge issues currently affecting Stratford — the proposed construction of the South Western Relief Road (SWRR) and the problems affecting the high street.

“The SWRR is integral to delivering the housing at Long Marston Airfield, it’s integral to the Core Strategy. If Long Marston Airfield does not go ahead then we don’t have a five-year land supply, which would give free reign to developers. The exact route the SWRR takes, I don’t know, but it is going to be a difficult balance.

“There are changes occurring on the high street which go well beyond the district council, they are national trends. Online shopping, rents and business rates have all combined to create a bit of a perfect storm for high street retailers.

"I have to be realistic and say what this council can do to help is limited, and short-term, national trends have much more of an impact. However, we will be undertaking a review of our economic development strategy and we hope to encourage more entrepreneurialism.

“It’s an enormous privilege to be elected leader of Stratford District Council. I am particularly passionate about the future of our district, focusing on delivering better services and value for money for everyone who lives, works and visits the district.

“I am looking forward to working together with our new cabinet, building on the council’s previous successes. Every member of the team brings wide ranging expertise and enthusiasm to their roles, and I am looking forward to working hard to improve the services accessed by our residents, and to making a difference where it really matters.”

During the annual meeting, Cllr Chris Kettle was appointed as the council’s new chairman, and urged members to get behind the new leader.

Cllr Kettle said: “With Chris’s resignation the council has lost a leader that has contributed a huge amount to this district, he is synonymous with Stratford district. I would like to pass on our best wishes and wish him a speedy recovery. Change is not comfortable, but it is inevitable and I think it is important that all councillors give their support to the new leader and his team.”

Cllr Kettle revealed that his chosen charities as chairman would be Young Minds and the Brain Tumour Trust. Previous chirman, Cllr George Atkinson raised £3,500 for the NSPCC, Tanworth-in-Arden St Mary Magdalene Malawi Linked Parish Scheme, Stratford Girls’ Football Club and the Junior Boxing Academy.

Cllr Mark Cargill is the new deputy leader, with a largely unchanged cabinet of Mike Brain, Maurice Howse, Lynda Organ, Peter Richards, Stephen Thirlwell, and Daren Pemberton, who was sacked only a few weeks ago by Cllr Saint. Cllr Saint had two spells as council leader since first being elected in 1998. He said last week that he intends to remain as a councillor and seek re-election next May.

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