THE HEART OF OUR TOWN
A meeting organised jointly by the Stratford Society and the Town Management Partnership was held on Thursday 16th July at the Falcon Hotel from 6 until 7.30 p.m. About 130 people were present.
The purpose of the meeting, chaired by the Society’s president, Brian Follett, was to start a process for implementing the delivery of the Historic Spine and to press for the development of those aspects of the Walkable Core which could be done with relatively little expense in times of economic downturn.
David Pywell, director of the World Class Stratfordproject, made the first presentation. Shakespeare’s Stratford he said, was one of very few world brands in the UK but we were in a very competitive international environment and the town could be much more attractive to the visitor and to residents. The present appearance of the traffic-ridden centre did not help visitors to take in the story of Stratford and was not conducive to encouraging the private sector to invest.
Better consultation was essential and the Walkable Core should not be regarded just as a highways scheme, but was also to do with shop fronts, the gateways to the town and the interpretation of the message the town needs to get across. We needed to make a strong case for the Walkable Core because there were agencies which might be able to give us money at some time in the future. It had taken six years to get to where we are today and it may take 5 to 10 years to deliver the current scheme. He also called for a better name than Walkable Core.
Martyn Luscombe, chairman of Stratford Voice, said that his organisation also considered the town centre to be a top priority. In order to achieve funding he emphasised that a piecemeal approach should be resisted. Although he supported the Historic Spine he was also concerned to look more widely at Wood Street, Greenhill Street etc. It was too pressing a matter to wait for ten years and a masterplan was needed. He called for a “Stratford Charter Group” to be established with the objective of encouraging all local organisations to work together and to make consultation more effective.
Jenny Fradgley, Mayor of Stratford, said that in times of visitor decline it was essential that the town made provision to improve its economic base not only by highlighting its heritage buildings but also by respecting its life as a busy market town. We needed to create welcoming and pleasant environments for both visitors and residents. Difficult decisions would have to be made and not everyone would agree, but there was a strong desire to find a project on agreement could be reached and at last it seemed that the town had an emerging plan, the Historic Spine, which was gathering support from individuals and local organisations.
Gary Barnes, Town Management Partnership, said thatwe must make sure that the alterations we made would live up to the expectations of an international town. 600,000 people had been counted walking in Bridge Street during the past three weeks and we should recognise that part of customer service is how we move through the town. Each of the streets in Stratford had important buildings and businesses but the whole picture was not at the moment joined up to tell one story. In many cases important buildings were obscured by delivery vans to the extent that visitors were not even able to take photographs. That was not a good experience. It was essential to consult with the business community who talk to the public day after day and hear their comments. The ability to cross roads safely and enjoy the environment and the growing café culture would make the public linger longer. Good consultation and reasonable compromise were the key.
Diana Owen, director Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, said that the Trust was a business like any other and was entirely reliant on visitors whose expectations have increased immeasurably in the past ten years. They provide 80% of the Trust’s income. It would not be possible to look after the Birthplace, Nash’s House, New Place, the Great Gardens and Hall’s Croft - all on the Historic Spine - without visitors and their numbers were declining. It was no longer enough to open the doors and expect people to come. Pedestrianised towns such as Guildford, Winchester and Chichester provided examples of more attractive environments, free from virtually all cars in their inner cores and therefore of noise, smell, bollards and advertising signs. All of which, sadly, did not make the experience of Stratford pleasant. People struggled to get round the town. There would always be objections to change but there was ample research to show that a high quality environment would bring in investment. The future was not just about pickling Stratford in aspic so contemporary ideas of public spaces had to be considered, too, which would take courage, determination and leadership. The Trust was considering opening times and would work with businesses in Henley Street.
Tony Bird, chairman of The Bird Group, said that Stratford was not using the assets it already had. We had talked about pedestrianisation scores of times over many years and it was important to form a Steering Group to develop the Historic Spine project and open it to consultation. Ten years for completion was far too long. Money could be raised if we approached our Local Authorities and central Government in the right way. Stratford was an important part of tourism for the whole country and we were not using that position of strength to influence inward investment (save in the case of the new theatre) to develop our town properly. We must not allow this initiative to suffer the fate of many other initiatives by being talked to death. We should do something and do it now. Commenting on a call for a by-pass, he asked whether it was sensible to earmark millions for a future Warwick Parkway type station for Stratford when it was not needed? That money could be put into a by-pass.
Joanne Sainsbury, Presents in Mind, said thatfrom the point of view of a retailer, pedestrianisation in Henley Street had worked. Control on delivery hours had also worked. If people could walk around comfortably they lingered and spent more - and came back.
This sort of environment would encourage small independent retailers to open stores in Stratford. We needed to work with tour operators so that they could tell people that they could be dropped off near to the Historic Spine. Retailers needed to get together to look at later opening hours. This was later supported from the floor by the owner of the Chaucer Head bookshop which had benefited considerably from opening until 6pm.
Comments from the floor:
- The emphasis was the wrong way round. The Historic Spine was the attraction and leading with this was essential. It was the area that appealed most to visitors and funding for the wider Walkable Core might flow from its development.
- The essential developments do not require much funding at all and might be funded locally. It was essential to begin the process modestly but with verve.
- Wide and genuine consultation was essential if public support was to be secured.
- Consider the possibility of developing the day visitors into evening visitors to avoid the feeling of the town closing down at 5.30. Perhaps open shops later as on the Continent?
- We can’t afford to wait. Hold another similar meeting later this year to discuss other issues relating to the Town Centre and what can be done now to halt the decline.
- Can the town be encouraged to accept the idea of the more widespread use of mixed-use space for pedestrians and cars? It already exists in the town and a prime example of its use is at the new Maybird centre where traffic and pedestrians mingle successfully
- Encourage retailers with unused space above their shops to allow development for residential use. The town could be revitalised.
Sir Brian Follett summarised the meeting by saying that the Historic Spine could be the basis for building a consensus and it was vital to agree on what was wanted before making any requests. Also, it would be of immense value if locally we have agreed funds available to make a significant but modest beginning. Stratford, he said, does give the impression that it cannot easily agree and as a result its negotiating positions are greatly weakened. The Historic Spine presented an opportunity for pulling together. We needed to arrive at one clear message which we could then take to every tier of government to convince all groups of politicians that we are determined to get what we want. The aim should be to achieve reasonable change within one year, substantial change within two years and completion by the end of three years. Ten years is not acceptable. As for a replacement name for the Walkable Core, Sir Brian endorsed the phrase ‘The Heart of Our Town,’ following a comment by Dr Mike Coigley that ‘cor’ in Latin meant ‘heart’ and in Shakespeare’s Stratford the two should be combined.
Ian Prosser, chairman of the Stratford Society reminded the meeting that the concept of the Historic Spine had first been suggested by Dr Robert Bearman in an address to the Society in September 2007 when he promoted the idea of protecting the many major Grad I and Grade II listed buildings along the route from Shakespeare’s
birthplace to his grave. The idea had been enthusiastically endorsed by the TV historian Michael Wood in April. Some of the more modest ideas that could be implemented quickly were a ban on loading and unloading during certain hours, speed restrictions, widening of pavements whenever possible, reduction in the numbers of cars in High Street, removal of signage clutter and restriction on coaches. These were all ideas the Society had been promoting since Dr Bearman’s talk and it might now be possible to achieve some of them relatively quickly with the support of residents and the business community.
Ian Heggie, vice-president of the Stratford Society, summed up the major conclusions of the meeting:
- That although Shakespeare’s Stratford is a world brand, it cannot afford to be complacent. There was a great deal of competition from other towns and to maintain our global position we had to invest in the brand.
- The Historic Spine is the key to the town’s regeneration. It is the logical route from Shakespeare’s birthplace to his grave, it contains most of the town’s Grade I and Grade II heritage buildings and it has already captured the public imagination.
- We cannot afford to wait.
- A small project management team should be set up as soon as possible to build on the Society’s suggestion in May to form a consortium of major organisations in the town to agree a way forward.
- The Society should consider holding another meeting later in the year to hear how actual plans and the ordering of change was being organised.