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Determination to create world-class Shakespeare attraction on Stratford Gateway site

A map of the Gateway area (48545638)
A map of the Gateway area (48545638)

A £20MILLION bid has been submitted to the government’s levelling-up fund to regenerate a central part of Stratford to create “one of the world’s major cultural centres”.

While currently at a concept stage, the ambitious vision includes a World Shakespeare Centre with museum and education facilities, offices, retail and leisure space, and housing.

The 120-page bid has been submitted by Stratford District Council and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT) and would revive the longstanding ambition to develop the town’s northern Gateway.

The area between Windsor Street and Arden Street includes the derelict buildings on Birmingham Road, the empty offices on the corner of Arden Street and some of the buildings behind those, as well as the Windsor Street Car Park area.

While much of the property is in private ownership, the Gateway concept is seen as unique opportunity to improve the approach into Stratford, help revive the town’s – and the region’s – economy, improve the tourism offer and attract international visitors back post-pandemic.

Cllr Tony Jefferson, leader of the district council, told the Herald: “This is a fantastic opportunity to bring investment into Stratford, it will regenerate the economy and it will support the government’s levelling-up agenda for the West Midlands area.

“The benefits of the scheme are huge. It will regenerate and improve that part of the town, it will bring in an awful lot of facilities to benefit residents, communities and businesses and it has the potential to create local jobs.

Cllr Tony Jefferson. (48729203)
Cllr Tony Jefferson. (48729203)

“This project will underpin the revival of tourism in Stratford, particularly international tourism. It’s really important to realise that unless we invest further in our tourist offer, we are going to slip behind and tourism is a very competitive game.

“This will help us reposition Stratford-upon-Avon as a major tourist centre both nationally and internationally.”

However, the council and the SBT have stressed the Gateway ideas are at an exploratory stage – if money is forthcoming then work would start on negotiations, detailed designs, layouts and consultations.

“Despite the fact we have put a bid in of that size, there is still a hell of a lot of work to do,” said Cllr Jefferson.

“The real importance of the bid is making sure we have our hat in the ring so that people will see it as a first step on the ladder.

“I don’t think this bid will go away. It’s very early days in the process; one of the issues is that much of the site is still in private hands.”

Stratford is currently in tier two on the levelling-up fund list, meaning there’s a whole tier of councils from across the country in front of the town that are bidding for a share of the

£4bn pot. And that’s despite the pandemic’s impact on the district: it was the fourth hardest hit economy in the UK.

But Cllr Jefferson added: “I think it’s the kind of bid that even if it does not go through this round, it will be a serious contender in other rounds.

“The bid we put in demonstrates a very, very serious level of ambition. If you look at it in the round, it is a unique and a once-in-several-centuries opportunity, given the landholdings available and how we could assemble them. That opportunity isn’t likely to come again.”

One of the key parts of the bid is the World Shakespeare Centre, an opportunity to provide much greater access to Shakespeare’s legacy along with a world-class visitor experience, and better spaces for education and research facilities. It could also provide better access to SBT’s archive than is currently achievable at the Henley Street site.

Tim Cooke, chief executive of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (48729211)
Tim Cooke, chief executive of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (48729211)

Tim Cooke, SBT’s chief executive, said while there is “no project at the moment” there is an historic opportunity to change the unprepossessing approach on the Birmingham Road into Arden Street and Windsor Street.

“This, really at its heart, is public realm in its feel,” he said. “It is about all of those things that are designed to benefit the community, to benefit Stratford and really put it on the map as well as enhance our Shakespeare story quite significantly with genuine world-class facilities.

“We talk about Stratford as a world-class destination and it is in many ways, but a lot of the visitor facilities [are dated] and it’s a chance to address all of that.”

He added: “The space that we have on Henley Street is quite limited. We have been talking about other possibilities for a couple of years and, I suppose, this is where the impetus of thinking about our Shakespeare offering in a different way has come from.

“There had been talk of a new Shakespeare centre before, but it hadn’t been well developed and no one could see how the jigsaw could fit together. What’s changed in the last year – and in the last six months in particular – is the levelling-up fund and the fact that there is money available.

“There is a sense amongst us that there is a compelling project here that’s exciting and genuinely transformational, not just to the town but to the UK and Shakespeare as a whole.

“Part of our ambition, as an organisation, is to celebrate Stratford-upon-Avon as the world’s greatest Shakespeare destination – to have the words the ‘world’s best Shakespeare museum’ both physically and online as part of our ambition.

“It’s also about [Shakespeare] as a portal to the rest of the offer in Stratford, including the RSC, the schoolroom, the church and all of those things that are part and parcel of the whole experience.”

As to where a coach park or a new car park would be located, there is not yet any detail – Arden Street could be an option for a new multi-storey, but is not part of this bid.

The outcome of the bid, which has the support of Stratford MP Nadhim Zahawi, is expect in the autumn.

The council and SBT are keen not to raise expectations, but there is determination.

“Eventually we’ll get there,” added Cllr Jefferson.

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