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Stratford’s former Conservative council leader Tony Jefferson says MP Nadhim Zahawi to blame for election defeat

HERE is one man that Tony Jefferson, former leader of Stratford District Council, blames for the Conservative’s local election defeat: Nadhim Zahawi.

Tony, who joined the council in 2014 and had been leader since 2018, believes the big mistake was to reselect Nadhim to fight the next general election.

He should have been side-lined, moved out to make way for new blood – someone not associated with unpaid tax running into millions of pounds.

It may have all been different at last week’s elections if the Stratford Conservative Association had decided enough was enough, and ditched the former chancellor after he was sacked by the prime minister for breaching the ministerial code.

Former Conservative leader of Stratford District Council, Tony Jefferson.
Former Conservative leader of Stratford District Council, Tony Jefferson.

Ironically, the chair of the association Lynda Organ, will be part of the Conservative opposition group at SDC after securing the Tanworth-in-Arden seat. Tony will not. Well-liked among councillors and officers, his former Stratford Welcombe ward was won by Liberal Democrat Roger Harding. He secured 726 votes to Tony’s 437.

Similar results were repeated across the district with Conservative councillors losing out to Liberal Democrats.

Tony said the local elections were made “far more difficult because of the reselection of Nadhim”.

“On the doorstep people were not happy at all,” he told the Herald. “Even staunch Conservative supporters were not happy. The strong feedback from an awful lot of Conservatives from the doorstep was that Nadhim should have gone.

“It would have been far better for all concerned if he had said he wasn’t standing for reselection.”

He added: “There are two constituencies in Stratford district and it has adversely impacted both. It’s also, talking to (former Warwick District Council leader) Andrew Day, adversely impacted Warwick and Leamington. This is not supposition, this is what I’ve been told by people who have been standing in those constituencies at these elections.”

Stratford district’s former Conservative councillors have in part paid the price for mistakes – and scandals – of the national party, but the local voters were turned off mainly by Nadhim. It’s one of the reasons candidates attempted to distance themselves from Westminster, using ‘Local Conservatives’ on their election material where any reference to Nadhim was conspicuously absent.

Instead, they promoted their work at SDC, highlighting successful projects and their financial management that has seen the authority through Covid and the start of the cost-of-living crisis without large-scale cuts to services.

“I think we’ve done a very good job and, despite the results, a great many people recognise what a good job we’ve done,” Tony said. “A lot of people said to me ‘we know you’ve done a good job, but we can’t vote for you because of Nadhim and the Conservative association reselecting him’.”

So who, among Stratford’s Conservatives, did back Nadhim for reselection? Tony admits he has no idea – it’s kept a secret with just a handful of people in the know.

There are some positives for the Stratford Conservatives – they fielded a good range of younger candidates at the elections, even if results didn’t go their way, but ultimately, Tony said, the local party needs to reinvent itself. He also believes that there’s plenty of talent among the Conservatives remaining 12 councillors, including some strong contenders to take over from him.

While Tony’s leadership has come to an end, he said he can walk away with some significant successes from his stewardship.

He describes himself not as a politician, but a person who gets things done. This includes helping to steer the council through the Covid pandemic.

“There is absolutely no doubt Covid was a major incident that went on for a long time, especially when we were thought to be the fourth hardest hit council. Given our focus on the motor industry and tourism, that’s not the slightest bit surprising.

“At one stage we were looking at a £8.5m deficit, which would have basically brought the council down. We recovered that position, admittedly with a fair amount of government support, but when you’re facing something like that it’s all about keeping your head, being calm and getting things done.”

Tony said the pandemic brought about a much closer working relationship between officers and cabinet, allowing the council to act faster, speak with one voice and achieve more.

Another area of which Tony is proud is the introduction of the green waste charge, in the face of opposition. It helped bring extra revenue to SDC and without it, he said, the council would have been taking “a very serious” axe to services.

A similar area is the introduction of the 123+ waste system through a joint contract with Warwick District Council.

“It means we are ahead of the game because there is no doubt about it, the government is going to mandate food collection. I gather now that other councils are coming to us to learn from our experiences of introducing it. That was a really big thing and quite a courageous decision.”

The materials recycling facility also gets a mention. It’s a significant investment for Warwickshire councils – Stratford’s share is about £8m – but was necessary as recycling capacity in the UK is low and is getting expensive, he said.

Economic growth and support for businesses also make his list, particularly working with the Growth Hub to help save jobs during Covid, preserving land for what is the Porterbrook rail innovation centre at Long Marston, working with the University of Warwick, and making sure Wellesbourne Airfield has a future as an airfield and a place for jobs, rather than homes.

“We stood our ground against 1,200 houses. The airstrip will be moved, as things stand, and there will be 1.5m sq ft of employment land developed. It will be a really great jobs boost and it was a long hard struggle to get the promoters to accept what we wanted as an outcome. The decision to potentially compulsory purchase was essential in delivering the result we’ve got today. The £1m we put into that was a good investment.”

He added: “I think on the foundations we’ve laid, this district could look massively different in 10 years’ time. We’ve repositioned people from outside the district’s understanding of the significance and importance of the district, which was definitely not there before… we were seen as a rural backwater with William Shakespeare and a few sheep.”

Tony believes SDC has been left in good shape, on a sound financial footing and with projects in place for economic growth as well as the start of a local plan, the document that sets out levels and locations for future development.

The shaping of the local plan is something of an area of concern for the former leader. Stratford has been working with Warwick and both have new councils – the Lib Dems at Elizabeth House and the Green Party with the largest number of seats in Warwick.

“We were in a position seven or eight years ago when we had no approved local plan and developers ran riot,” said Tony. “We cannot afford to be in that position again and that is something the new council will have to work very hard on – and they’re coming from a standing start.

“I don’t think people understand the significance of the local plan and the scale of the impact. If you look at the investment needed through to 2050, it is not going to be far short of £10bn – those are the stakes and that’s just in Stratford on Avon.”

He concluded: “Life is not going to get easier – the issues have not gone away. There is not going to be a lot of money – get the decisions wrong and the council and the residents could be in deep trouble.”

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