THE Shakespeare Birthplace Trust would be perfectly entitled to sell a piece of land needed for the controversial scheme to build 800 homes next to Shottery whatever anyone else thinks.
That was the brutal message delivered to members of Stratford Town Council at their meeting on Tuesday evening by Richard Eggington, former chief executive of Stratford Town Trust.
And Mr Eggington warned that any attempt to challenge such a sale through the courts would be extremely expensive—amounting to a six-figure sum.
Mr Eggington, who had been hired by the council to investigate whether the SBT would be in breach of the law if it sold the land, said there was no evidence that a field behind Anne Hathaway’s Cottage had been bought by the trust for the specific purpose of protecting the cottage from housing development.
The field—known as Briar Furlong—was purchased by the trust in 1953 and Rase (Residents Against Shottery Expansion) have argued that a decision by the birthplace trust to sell the land would be open to legal challenge.
On the subject of whether the field was bought in order to protect the cottage, Mr Eggington told councillors. “My information is that a thorough search of the records and documents has failed to show that the decision to purchase was taken for that reason.”
However, Mr Eggington said that in his history of the SBT its former director, Dr Levi Fox, had commented that he was particularly pleased the land had been bought because it would mean an improvement in the amenities in that area. “Whether that is synonymous with ‘protecting’ is another matter,” said Mr Eggington.
He added: “The fundamental point that follows is that whatever Levi Fox thought in 1953 does not compel the present trustees to come to the same view. If the trust decides it is in the trust’s best interests to sell the land it is irrelevant what was thought in 1953.”
Rase had also questioned whether the birthplace trust was in breach of a 1961 Act of Parliament which stipulated that the trust’s board should include a list of ex-officio members, among them the mayor and three aldermen of the borough. Currently only the mayor was on the board—and aldermen had ceased to exist since the early 1970s.
Another point questioned by Rase was whether four specific members of the board were in a potential conflict of interest because of their business connections with Stratford. There was also a query about whether particular “local” trustees were indeed local.
But Mr Eggington said that when elected representatives sat on a charity they were there as members of the charity and not as members of the body to which they had originally been elected. And he stressed that, since the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust saw itself as an international charity, there would be no legal definition of what “local” meant.
He added: “In my opinion there are no grounds on which to challenge the constitution of the trust.” And he said it was “premature” to argue that individual members of the board had a conflict of interest before a specific matter had come before them. It was up to the individuals to decide whether they had an interest and whether they wished to declare it.
Of the impending decision on whether the trust should sell Briar’s Furlong Mr Eggington said: “I don’t personally think there are any grounds upon which you can challenge the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust or expect them to change anything before this case comes up.”
Asked about the implications of challenging such a decision in law, Mr Eggington told councillors: “To pursue a court case you would need to set aside six figures,” he said.
Eventually councillors decided that the SBT should be approached and asked to allow more Stratford Town Council representation on its board.
Interestingly, Mr Eggington disclosed that the SBThad received no offer from the developers to buy Briar’s Furlong in order to facilitate the building of the so-called western relief road.
The meeting elected Cllr Ian Fradgley as mayor-elect. He will serve in 2014-15. Cllr Tessa Bates was elected deputy mayor-elect.
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