The origins of the Stratford Town Trust stretch back as far as the 13th Century, but Sara Aspley, the charity’s recently appointed chief executive seems more interested in looking forward, then looking back.
Mrs Aspley takes over the role from Justin Williams, who relocated with his family to Australia last year.
It’s fair to say that the Town Trust has taken a number of difficult decisions in recent years, not all of which have been popular, but there have certainly been some success stories too.
The Trust’s biggest achievement in recent times has been Foundation House, formerly a neglected empty building on Masons Road, which is now home to a large number of community groups and charities, some of whom had struggled to find a permanent base for years.
“We’ve just celebrated the first birthday of Foundation House, we have 13 groups who have spaces in the building and another 35 which come in to use parts of it. We had all the spaces filled within about two months of opening.” She said.
“Having all these groups here sparks conversations, forces introductions, it brings people together.”
Sara has lived in Stratford for the past 16 years, previously working as director of commercial services at the RSC and before that as business development manager at Ikea, following almost ten years working for the department store Harrods.
The Trust recently called for more groups who have not previously engaged with the organisation to come forward and apply for grant funding.
Mrs Aspley said: “I’ve lived in Stratford for 16 years and I think there’s a low awareness of the Trust and what we do, so one of my main priorities is raising its profile. Perhaps the Town Trust has not done enough in the past to make itself available, but we want to build more partnerships with groups in the town.
“We have the ability to bring about long-lasting change and we particularly want to hear from more organisations that support and engage with young people, there’s the view that there is not enough in Stratford for young people and that is something the Town Trust recognises.”
One of the difficult issues the Town Trust has faced in recent times is what to do with the derelict 7 Benson Road, which it owns.
As well as being an eyesore, it had been speculated that the Town Trust eventually wanted to demolish the building, a move which would open up a parcel of land at its rear (also owned by the Town Trust) for development.
This week however Mrs Aspley confirmed that 7 Benson Road would be put on the market before the summer and confirmed there were no plans to build on the land to its rear.
Mrs Aspley said: “It would be good to find some kind of community use for that land, maybe a community garden or something like that and we would encourage any groups to come forward to us if they have something like that in mind.”
Back in 2014 the Town Trust came in for criticism over its plans to sell off part of Rowley Fields, a public green open space, for housing.
Amid much opposition the Trust eventually abandoned the idea.
Mrs Aspley said: “We have no plans to develop Rowley Fields or change the natural environment, we have been engaging with the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust about ways in which we could increase the biodiversity of the area and possibly establish a wildflower meadow. Naturally people feel ownership and responsibility over green spaces like that and we want to move forward now and not look backwards.”
Perhaps the biggest decision the Town Trust has made in the past year or so, was to remove the previous operator of Stratford ArtsHouse and appoint Proon Productions to run the venue.
Proon Productions have since re-named it as Play House, though questions have been raised about how this group, which has been given substantially less money than the previous operator by the Town Trust to run the venue, can make it a success.
Mrs Aspley said: “We are working with Proon and we don’t have any concerns about the Play House. They inherited a building they didn’t know and let’s not forget they only opened in October. They have planned a brilliant, diverse programme of events, they have really embraced the community element. It’s important to say that this venue needs the support of the community.”
Addressing the issue of reduced funding to run the Play House, she said: “It is a slimmed down operation now, there is a team of loyal volunteers and a smaller payroll. They are programming to a budget, bringing in shows they feel will sell. They have the variety bar open now, hosting a regular roster of events and they are using the spaces effectively, not just putting on events in the main hall.
“We want the Play House to remain a community venue for the long-term.”
The Town Trust derives its income from a large property portfolio in the town, including the Lamplighter pub on Rother Street.
Scaffolding is currently standing at one end and questions have been raised about why repairs to the building are taking so long.
Mrs Aspley said discussions between the Trust, the tenant and UK and European, which owns land to the rear of the pub, had taken some time, but confirmed that there should be news on the repair work imminently.
Going forward Mrs Aspley explained that the Trust’s Strategic Plan was coming to an end in 2020 and the organisation would be engaging with its members about what its priorities should be going beyond that.
She encouraged Stratford residents to join the Town Trust if they had yet to do so.