STRATFORD’S biggest and oldest charity was this week accused of possible property speculation and of not being open and consultative.
The allegation was made against Stratford Town Trust by a residents’ action group that was formed recently to fight plans to develop part of Rowley Fields, a plot of land on the edge of Welcombe Hills.
The group, who call themselves “Rowley Fields Forever”, are incensed that the trust bought a house in Benson Road, Stratford, for £615,000 so it could be demolished to create an access to an envisaged hous-ing scheme on 1.48 acres of land behind it.
But there is no planning permission on the land. It has not been identified by Stratford District Council as suitable for future development. And there is not even a planning application at this stage.
However, a sign has now gone up outside the house saying the house and the land has been sold “subject to contract”. The residents are interpreting this to mean that a developer has taken out an option on the property and the land with a view to purchasing it and building houses if planning permission is obtained.
One major bone of contention is that the land—which at one end abuts a conservation area and at the other the Welcombe Hills Nature Reserve—was given to one of the trust’s predecessor charities for the benefit of the people of Stratford. It has therefore been regarded as common land which people freely used as such.
The action group also accuse the trust of being in breach not only of its own corporate business principles but of Charity Commission guidelines.
The residents draw attention to a trust statement which says: “The trust will conduct its business in a way which is open and transparent, providing such information as is necessary to explain its decisions and actions, subject to the needs of commercial or personal confidentiality.”
For its part, the Charity Commission advises it is good practice to consult where a land sale is proposed, and that the charity should consider who would be affected by the sale. For example, would it affect the beneficiaries or public support for the charity?
The commission also states: “Some charity projects involving the acquisition of land arouse opposition locally, even to the extent of active hostility. Where this is likely, trustees are advised to plan carefully in advance, to consult widely and to provide full information about their proposals and the reasons for them.”
A spokesperson for the “Rowley Fields Forever” protest group told the Herald this week: “We would expect a responsible body like Stratford Town Trust to be open and consultative about what they’re doing. The Charity Commission clearly advises that they should, but they have not followed either that guidance or their own principles.”
The spokesperson added: “In spending £615,000 on this house which remains empty we think the trust are possibly speculating on property development. Is this a proper role for the trust? And given that the beneficiaries of the trust are the residents of Stratford town, we think they could be putting beneficiaries’ money at risk given that planning permission may not even be granted on the land and that in the meantime the house is likely to fall into disrepair.”
At the same time the residents are also concerned that if planning permission is granted for a development on the 1.48 acres of land immediately behind 7 Benson Road – the house in question – it could lead to the development of the rest of Rowley Fields round to Maidenhead Road.
The “Rowley Fields Forever” spokesperson said: “This is potentially a ‘thin-end-of-the-wedge’ situation. If they get planning permission here, which isn’t in accordance with district council planning proposals, there’s nothing to stop them progressing an application for the rest of Rowley Fields.”
The spokesperson added: “If they are open and transparent, why not consult with us all? Why not follow the Charity Commission guidance, which is clear?”
And in a final statement the spokesperson said: “In our mind they’re taking advantage of the district council’s planning policy delays to seek planning permission on a piece of land not included in current proposals for future development.”
When the Herald put all these accusations to the trust, a trust spokeswoman responded: “The town trust is bound by Charity Commission regulations to act in the interests of the charity for the people of Stratford.
“Every action it takes is agreed and overseen by trustees made up of people from the town. In the past, the trust has released land for housing in the town and many of those living in the Benson Road area were beneficiaries.
“The trust will scrupulously continue to support the citizens of the entire town in all it does.”
Meanwhile, the “Rowley Fields Forever” group has set up its own website, rowleyfieldsforever.word press.com, and is hoping as many people as possible will visit it and support its campaign.
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