THE BLOG

There Is Much Ado About Shakespeare's Shottery

01/07/2013 02:05 BST | Updated 30/08/2013 10:12 BST

Following James Ruddick's blog about the unbelievable, but true, plans to destroy the cultural heritage of Shakespeare's Shottery in Stratford upon Avon, let me tell you about our protest and invite you to join us in making a fuss.

In a couple of days' time, Stratford-upon-Avon District Council goes to court in its latest attempt to stop 800 houses and a fast link road being built on historic greenfield in the hamlet of Shottery, right behind the family cottage of Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway.

It's Stratford DC vs. Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who saw fit to ignore his key stakeholders - Stratford's local community and democratically elected government - who've been fighting this development for decades.

It's a long, complicated and convoluted tragedy-cum-farce that would have made great subject matter for the Bard himself. But like all good Shakespearean dramas, there's an intriguing sub-plot with characters who could easily steal the show. Enter the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT).

Now, if an Act of Parliament had entrusted you with protecting the properties, life and times of the world's greatest playwright, what would you do faced with the prospect that your 'most romantic' and 'tranquil' property was under threat? Absolutely everything possible to stop it?

You'd think so but, this being Stratford, the SBT has done nothing, save for issuing and reissuing a lame statement that they oppose the development. And while the Council and local group, Residents Against Shottery Expansion (RASE), put up their own lawyers and speaker after speaker at the planning inquiry, the SBT never even bothered to put in an appearance. Instead they left it to English Heritage (a government quango at the time) to put forward a feeble argument about the importance of Shakespeare.

But there's a twist, you see. The Trust owns the land behind Anne Hathaway's Cottage and the development cannot go ahead without it. To sell or not to sell? That is the question.

It's certainly been the question that Save Shottery has repeatedly been asking since the Pickles' announcement last autumn. I co-founded Save Shottery as an online campaign back in November 2012. Our aim: to drag the SBT out of the wings and into the spotlight during the interlude between legal proceedings.

For too long the local protests against this unsustainable development had been too English, too polite, with talks over tea rather than anger and demands for action. Social media is a game changer like no other and so we turned to Twitter, Facebook and Change.org, targeting Shakespeare societies, celebrities and media around the world.

Within weeks, people from 25 countries - all passionate about the environment, heritage and local democracy - had signed the Save Shottery petition, pleading with the SBT to take a stand and publicly refuse to sell its land. The local print and broadcast media got behind us and got vocal too, but only the Independent picked up the story nationally.

The SBT's answer? To engage in a one-off day of proactive media, positioning the Trust as the unwitting victim in this sorry saga - saying the "trustees have a legal responsibility to act in the best interests of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust" and can't do anything but wait and see if they have to sell their land. And who to deliver this message? None other than its deputy chair of trustees, Richard Hyde, who also happens to be a non-exec director on Eric Pickles' Homes and Communities Agency.

All UK charities are facing a funding crisis, but you don't see the National Trust resigned to selling off its assets. Instead, they take up the fight, daring to be criticised for political lobbying over their excellent Planning for People campaign. Or the Woodland Trust, who are fighting to stop the government ripping up irreplaceable ancient woodland for the sake of HS2. These campaigns may not boost anyone's coffers, but they sure as hell boost the charities' reputation among the public.

But the SBT is sticking to outdated Charity Commissions legalities, which Third Sector cites as 'unfit for purpose'. Trustees acting in the best interests of their charity shouldn't think that following the letter of the law and obtaining the best price for land they own is a fulfillment of their duties. They need to take the environmental and social aspects of the issue into equal consideration - not just in the short term, but for future generations.

So, if Stratford District Council wins on Wednesday, we can all catch up on our sleep and let Shottery return to being the embodiment of a quaint English hamlet. Should the Council lose, Save Shottery will swing back into action. Follow or like us if you'd like to know how to make a fuss.