Graham Ellis - Regular updates - my diary
Your representative within your community
Your parish councillor is uniquely informed to represent you. Higher level authority representatives (your Unitary Councillor, your MP, and in the past your MEP) are elected by the geographic area, then spend a lot of their time, rightly, away from your area to work for you, for which they are paid an allowance. But your parish councillor lives in (or in some cases near to) your community and meets and represents you there. And your parish councillor differs too in that he/she is an unpaid volunteer - giving his or her time freely to represent you.
Melksham Town is a parish council. As a larger (population) parish, it's divided into wards (areas), and I have been elected to represent the South Ward - one of four councillors with an electorate of 3,841 - that's 960 potential voters per councillor. That's a lot of voters compared to many other parishes - Pewsey has 21 councillors for 3,062 electors, for example - that's just 146 voters per councillor. There are other urban wards in Wiltshire with around 1,000 voters, but "my" South Ward is pretty close to the upper limit.
I am delighted that Melksham Town Council organised a new councillor induction day on 10th July, and a session with Prof Colin Copus on 16th July to help us appreciate the various roles. I attended both and found them very useful; if I have any criticism, it's that both sessions should have been run soon after we were elected on 6th May, and not after half a dozen meetings at which there was an awful lot of business transacted which will echo through the next four years and beyond. Part of me worries about whether this was indecent haste, but then the leaders of "Together for Melksham" and the Conservative group on the council hold 13 of the 15 seats between them, and are both experienced representatives, and they were aligned for their groups on the decisions. So these changes are, in essence, made by the people you (the voter) have chosen to represent you. Every ward in Melksham had an election in May - in each case, more candidates than seats - and as such that shows a strength of interest, and also gives those elected a greater authority than they would have if they were "only ones who stood".
"You'll no longer be able to quickly nip down to the local shop for a pint of milk - people will stop you and want to talk. You will become public property and people will contact you, knock on your door, phone you at all times of day and night. People will know you, even if you don't know them. Things will feel very different." warns Colin Copus.
Yes - on much of that he is right. And more so, I think, in my particular circumstance. I am one of only two councillors on the Town Council (Colin Goodhind is the other), who live and attend town council meetings all in the ward we represent. I walk to town council meetings through my ward. Not that residents limit their interaction to contact within the ward - walking along the Kennet and Avon canal last week, a cyclist stopped to ask me questions, and I was chatting with folks in KGV park - in the Forest Ward - last Sunday.
No - things do not feel different! I can appreciate that they would for many people, but I am used to it already from ... being President of the Chamber of Commerce for a number of years ... running a customer facing business in the town and appearing on "Four in a Bed" on national TV ... campaigning for and supporting improved public transport in the area for many years. So I have come in with my eyes open and I love it.
If you see me around, please feel free to come over and make contact. And please feel free to initiate contact in other ways too. Please do note, though, that I have a lot going on and I may have to have just a quick chat as I head for a meeting - but I can and will get back to you, either with a pointer to the appropriate person, or with a substantive answer or discussion. I really want to hear your views.
Published Wednesday, 21st July 2021
Melksham - Within and WithoutFrom the May 1927 directory (complete document (here) on The Well House Collection site) (census data updated over the last few days). The Well House Collection is Lisa's work; huge amounts on the site for you to explore.
Did you even wonder about the origins of Melksham Town and Melksham Without parishes?
Who was on the Town Council in 1927?
What were the sizes and populations of Town and Without?
What schools were there, and was there a bus from the station?
Published Tuesday, 20th July 2021
Burning our waste in WiltshireMelksham Town Council has asked our mayor to add his signature to a letter that's going from many Parish and Town Councils to the Secretary of State asking him to call in to review the decision by Wiltshire Council to grant planning permission for a waste incinerator to be build within the urban area of Westbury, and alongside a food production and processing factory.
The planning application itself was decided by the top level planning committee at Wiltshire Council, and so cannot be appealed on local grounds. However, there is concern that it breaks council and wider policies, and should not have been passed - which was on a "party" vote with all Conservative councillors present voting in favour, and all others against. The request to the SoS - from ourselves and from many other councils and organisations - is to have their experts take a look at the decision and technical data, and ask if it was the right decision for a waste incinerator (with all the effects it brings) to be built in that place and to those plans.
Only seven of the 15 town councillors elected in May made the meeting earlier this evening - Pat, Sue, Colin and myself seem consistent in attending formal council meetings, committees and briefings / training sessions at which we are invited participants. And we voted six to zero, with one abstention, to have the mayor sign the letter.
The solitary Conservative councillor who made the meeting (brave person!) spoke of the need for us not to export our difficult (not recyclable) waste to third world countries - though when I asked what proportion of Wiltshire's waste goes overseas, he was only able to muster up a UK tonnage figure, which without the context of a total waste figure did not answer my question. 0.1%? 1%? 10%? - I still haven't a clue. He has a good point that we should not be exporting a large proportion of waste "to be picked over by children in dumps in third world countries as you see overseas", but there is good reason for shipping specialist waste between countries where a recycling plant per country would be inefficient; we was talking export, but may I mention import - with the UK bringing waste to Windscale, for example.
But that issue looked like a valiant defence of the party line. The question being asked is "is Westbury, in the built up area, alongside the dairy, and with lots of road traffic coming in the right place to recycle" and not "should we ship our problem far away". I am not being a NIMBY (Not in my back yard); there could be a much more suitable local site. I look at our neighbouring authority and the Severnside Energy Recovery Centre (Seabank Power Station). "Delivery of waste is primarily by rail" and set amongst brownfield sites which will take decades to redevelop, near a barren and damaged seashore. Sounds a much more suitable type of site that Westbury (though, good heavens, Westbury is close to the railway) and I could make other suggestions. And, yes, I'm aware that Wiltshire Council initially bought Woolmore Farm on the outskirts of Melksham with a view to using it as a waste processing plant ...
The maps that support this post show a one mile radius from the proposed Westbury site, and the Seabank site. Note that Seabank has the railway, major trunk road, motorway right there ... in a pretty desolate area. The Westbury map shows where the railway is close by but not planned to be used, and an absence of trunk and motorway service. Lots more housing too - and the map is old; more has been built between the two railway lines since it was produced.
Watch the Town Council meeting - and see the discussion for yourself - at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUsP4eTnDOU .
Published Monday, 19th July 2021
Please continue to wear your facemaskAs from 19th July 2021, the wearing of face masks on public transport (including on GWR trains) in most of England becomes the choice of individual rather than a legal requirement. In Wales, in Scotland, on Transport for London services and on Transport for Wales services that cross the border into England, the use of face masks remains mandated by law.
Most public transport operators are requesting that you continue to wear face masks on their services and at their major enclosed stops and stations.
Frome Bus, who run the Melksham Town service, have the simplest (and simple is good) message: We are asking all passengers to continue the wearing of face coverings unless they are medically exempt. Other bus operators (including Faresaver, who run our inter-town routes) are quoted (here) and rail operators (here) includes a poll of members.
I add my voice to those requests. Please continue to use your masks (and wear it properly!) on public transport and in other enclosed places, especially if they are busy. It may no longer be a legal requirement, but it still makes huge sense - you may be double-jabbed, not in one of the most vulnerable groups, and willing to take the risk of being unmasked, but others around you are not so fortunate. Even if you are taking the risk for yourself, please take the social responsibility that the Government has chosen to delegate to you and wear the mask where appropriate for the protection of others around you.
* Public Transport in the form of buses and trains is a "common carrier" with operators required to provide travel to all comers (a few exceptions). In England they would be on difficult legal ground if they tried to make facemasks mandatory on their services without a Government requirement, and they are also concerned for the safety of their staff in the face of strongly objecting customers. Airlines, shops, sport, medical and entertainment venues are not constrained by common carrier laws and may (and many will) refuse entry and service to anyone now wearing a mask without medical exemption. Turning potential customers away is a huge decision for businesses, but many will be doing so - which is an indication of just how seriously they take this matter. There is also a perverse business interest in them doing so - by choosing to turning away those who have chosen not to wear masks, they are making their business safer and more accessible to the very large number of people who are vulnerable, and who are much safer in a maximally masked environment.
* This message covers Great Britain only. Please check elsewhere if you are travelling internationally, to Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, Isle of Man, etc
* My advice above is written on 18th July. How long the rules stay as they are and the advice remains relevant, I simple can't predict. It is also written to the best of my personal knowledge, and you should check locally / with official sources if in any doubt as to what the rules are.
Illustrative picture - myself at Swindon Station last September, as part of a Department for Transport team helping to remind people who were coming back to public transport after the first wave that they should be wearing masks, and to help guide them though the modified ticketing, information and access arrangements at the station as a result of Covid. Most people who arrived at the station were more than happy to be reminded (and we had a stock of facemasks to hand out), with failure to follow the rules as they arrived largely due to this being new to them, rather than being a deliberate flouting of the rules.
Published Saturday, 17th July 2021
Online from next Monday Prior to 6th May, the old Town Council had been holding its meetings virtually, and with public able to view and input during participation sections from their homes. But that arrangement was under temporary Coronavirus rules/laws and in common with councils across England the 1972 local government act's provision of the requirment of the physical presence of councillors to vote and to form a quorum came back into play.
Town Council public meetings
Since I joined all of our public meetings (and things like visioning and councillor training too) have taken place in the Assembly Hall which offers sufficient space for social distancing, including space necessary to allow for members of the press and public to be able to fit in too. I have been delighted to see members of the press and public present, and would welcome more. A couple of meetings were also broadcast on YouTube and Zoom, but for a per-meeting setup this has been expensive and I would not like to try and justify the extra costs incurredn to ratepayers had we incurred those costs for every meeting.
From next Monday (19th July), rules change again and council meetings will be back in the Council Chamber in the Town Hall. The newly installed, permanent AV system there will be used to provide virtual access for the public and press, in addition to the physical access available for councillors (of course), press and public at the Town Hall.
The system is new, and I would caution against expecting it to run perfectly and fully from the first meeting - even if the setup itself is perfect, the folks running it are going to be learning (using it in the white heat of excitement for the first time). It may be that only parts are turned on rather than the great leap of multiple broadcast channels all at once - walk before you can run!
I am also going to caution those who questioned the decision of the previous council to choose this particular system. I personally read discussions / arguments as to whether the best choice was made, but fact is that the choice was made, and I believe to be a good system by all accounts. We should all move on and constructively help with having the new system fulfill its role, putting the arguments of the system choice behind us.
For Monday, the Zoom code to access the Full Council Meeting (with one substantive item on the agenda, relating to the Westbury Incinerator planning decision and whether your council should support a request to call that decision in) is at https://us02web.zoom.us/j/87302698294?pwd=c25UU2hoaDZiNXByVHptZTZERmRhdz09 and the meeting agenda at https://moderngov.microshadeapplications.co.uk/MelkshamTC/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=136&MId=637&Ver=4 . The council's previous response to the planning application, with concerns / objections registered, is mirrored on my site at http://grahamellis.uk/mtc_incin_20201007.pdf (to save you having to go through 2000 inputs to find it.
The Finance, Admin and Performance Committee also meets on Monday and will be online via Zoom too. See https://moderngov.microshadeapplications.co.uk/MelkshamTC/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=145&MId=580&Ver=4 for the agenda pack and codes. Please note that I am not a member of this committee - as yet I am undecide as to whether to stay and listen in the public gallery, try to rush home to see most of it on Zoom, or to give it a miss as I have, perhaps, already too much on my plate.
Image - public domain from WikiPedia - I doubt you will know the people
There is much to be done to publicise links so that people know what's available for them to watch once the system is bedded it. It will also be sensible for someone to set up short links such as http://melksh.am/town for example ;-) ...
Published Friday, 16th July 2021
Consultation or consultation?There are consultations ... and then there are consultationsi. In the first case, they are designed to learn about what the public want and feel with a view to acting on it. In the second case they are designed to tick a box that a consultation has been done, and perhaps make the public feel they have had an input.
Survey or survey?
There are surveys ... and then there are surveys. In the first case, they are designed to learn about what the responders do (and cannot do and why) so that future plans can take account of their needs. In the second case, they are designed to help the public feel that their needs are being taken into account, and to add authority to a report / decisions / plan that's already in place.
Problem is, it's hard to tell the difference between a consultation and a consultation, and between a survey and a survey - but there are some clues.
Wiltshire Council's Tranche 2 cycle lanes consultation survey closes on Sunday, and I completed it today. It is at https://www.wiltshire.gov.uk/news/council-seeks-views-on-two-new-cycling-and-walking-schemes . I noted
* No potential big write in boxes
Just two one-liners on the whole survey. But then "write in"s are inconvenient to the person who tabulates replies.
* Hobson's Choice
"Which of the route option in the Hilperton to Melksham via Semington scheme do you prefer?
Route 1 - along the A361
Route 2 - via byways"
- Both these options have the same changes in Hilperton, so whichever you vote for you are supporting those changes.
- What about improving the National Cycleway 4 ...
- No "don't know" option even though there is for the Chippenham to Corsham question
* Missing options
- What about improving the National Cycleway 4 ...
"How often do you travel by car or van as a passenger?
2-6 days a week
Once a week
At least once a month
... probably between six and ten times a year for me - no suitable answer available. Likewise, same options for "how often do you travel by underground, metro, light rail, tram?"
* Questions not asked
"Would you use the new facility". "Is there any other facility we should be providing to link in with this". "Has Coronavirus changed your travel habits as surveyed here?". "Do you expect to change your travel habits in coming years due to the climate emergency, environmental concerns and changes, or for other reasons? If so, how?"
* Nearly the same question twice
"Q17.0 How often do you travel somewhere on foot at least 15 minutes' walk away"
"Q26.0 How often do you usually go somewhere on foot at least 15 minutes' walk away?"
* Unable to follow up
No "can we get back to you if we wish to follow up on your suggestions"
What is the relevance of questions like "Is your gender identity the same as the gender you were assigned with at birth?". How about "How often do you travel by underground, metro, light rail, tram?"
* No "would you like to hear?"
I would have hoped for a "please enter your email address if you would like a copy of the outcome / report resulting from this consultation".
* Nothing that I noted in the survey instructed me whether to answer
- for my current habits
- for my pre-Covid habits
- for what I expect post-Covid
In spite of my cynicism, I am going to suggest you complete the survey ... at least it gets you and me thinking, whether or not the data gathered is useful or used.
Published Thursday, 15th July 2021
First two months - a bit about council meetingsIt's been a busy two months as I have learned my way into being a Town Councillor - somewhere between six and ten meetings, many of them with prior reading material of up to 100 pages of data.
Topics have been taken during the meeting at such speed that I have not felt able to think things though, and some topics came up early and their significance only became apparent after decisions were made. With 13 out of the 15 councillors new to the Town Council, others may feel the same - though 13 out of 15 councillors are members of groups / teams / parties that have clearly met ahead of time and are prepared with their views, even before they hear other councillors. "To speed this through on a busy agenda ..." said the mayor / chair.
I am very grateful to the Town Clerk and her team for setting up a day of training for new councillors last Saturday. Two months after the election results and ten meeting in is late, but far better late than never. A useful day, and something which is not mandatory - so it didn't actually have to be done. Good to see six of my fellow councillors at the training (yes, just seven of us out of thirteen newcomers made it!) and I have a number of excellent colleagues on the Town Council.
To the voters of Melksham: You elected your new council emphatically, giving an absolute majority of 8 seats to the "Together for Melksham" group. Your votes gave five of the remaining seats to Conservative party candidates. Just two previous councillors were re-elected, with more than that standing again but loosing their seats. So there's a strong new mandate (13 out of 15) for the policies of those parties, and it's overwhelming where the two groups are in agreement. You need to expect change and much was voted through in those frenetic first few meetings with what (personal view) may have been indecent haste. But you also voted me in as an independent voice, and I will continue - as promised - to look out for the interests and views of the whole electorate (and other residents) along the lines and with the direction that you gave me at the ballot box.
The majority of full council and committee meetings are held in public and it's good to see the press at some of them. I would love to see more members of the public there too, but I appreciate that sitting as observer through hours of meetings is not a big turn-on. More work is done in working groups, which are not public; I don't know much about them (yet?) as I'm only on one, and it has yet to meet. Where a meeting is public, I am happy to comment / interpret in public too if asked. Where a meeting or part of a meeting is not public, I will only follow up with those at (or could have been) at that meeting. Any follow ups from me will be in my name - sorry, no unattributable tittle-tattle to the press or in social media.
I have been involved, prior to being elected to the Town Council, in working with and informing the community - such as at the Chamber of Commerce, and with Community Rail. And I have always found it useful to explain to the community what's going on and why it's being done - with a management overview for most, and detail available for the few who want the detail. That detail is likely to include alternative views and how and why decisions were taken in the way they were. My view on this clearly differs from the view of some of your new councillors, who have expressed the opinion that once a decision is made, even in public, all personal views expressed by councillors should be suppressed, as having them still available would bring the council into disrepute. Sorry - my view as the independently elected member of the council, is that attributed public comment should continue to be available as a matter of transparency, and that any attempt to alter history by deleting / suppressing other views would to a far better job of bringing disrepute onto the council!
It is a matter of public record that the full Town Council meeting of 28th June went into a confidential session from which the public and press were excluded. And because of that, I am NOT telling you here, nor publishing elsewhere or giving outside briefings, on the business transacted during that session. Excluding the press and public is, of course, like waving a red rag to a bull ... and it would be astonishing if the press folks weren't left wondering what the story is ...
Published Tuesday, 13th July 2021
Melksham Tidy - at Station VolunteeringThe Melksham Transport User Group is the officially registered station friends group for Melksham and our (I am vice chair) members volunteer there to help keep it clean and tidy. There's a different set of rues compared to a town tidy group. I am delighted to report we're working with the Town Council to keep it tidy towards "in Bloom" judging - but it's not a one-off - it's a continuing thing.
Here is some text I wrote the other day (and some pictures from the tidy yesterday) to help fill you, the reader, in.
The platform at Melksham Station is operated by Great Western Railway who lease it from Network Rail, and all tidy work there has to be done with Great Western approval who I turn are following Network Rail Rules. The Melksham Transport Use Group (MTUG) is the “Station friends group” - a member of the national "Community Rail Network” - a DfT sponsored quango who support around 1,000 such station groups - is our local vehicle and as vice chair of MTUG it’s in my area to do the various co-ordinations. All good fun and lots of supplementary comments that may not apply in the same way in other tidy areas. Offhand, I can thinks of:
1. Rail Safety - we cannot access areas that the public cannot go, in particular leading on occasions to unsightly rubbish on the track or opposite in / bordering the undergrowth where there used to e a second line and platform. We have to be exceptionally cautions even near the “working” edge of the platform - standing / being behind the yellow line that’s a metre in, as trains ca appear quickly and quietly even when one is not shown on the departure board. Diverted expresses and / or freight runs through Melksham every day.
2. Security - we are requested / required as we work at the station to keep an eye open for others who are putting themselves or others at risk, and also for devices (bomb threats, etc). To this end, the only litter bins allowed are the clear ones (clear sacks) so that nothing can be hidden in there. I do have a supply. But it does mean that the whole can’t look as tidy as we might wish.
3. Covid - volunteer work / tidying at the station to be limited to “light gardening” and litter picking, very limited number of people at present (keeps changing, has been just one at a time) and must be done when the station is quiet - in the case of Melksham, that’s in the gap between trains.
4. Doing the job - Station cleaning and tidying is the overall responsibility of GWR who employ an environmental team who go round to do such work. Care needs to be taken that local volunteers work with this team, and do not take on the work of paid GWR staff, in the interests of harmonious industrial relations. There is a fine balance here with staff sickness, and it’s also rather difficult to take on new / extra / replacement staff to cover.
5. Additional build up of rubbish at Melksham Station. A decade ago, two trains a day each way, a quiet corner. Now much busier with 9 one way and 8 the other. Furthermore, post-Covid there is a shift from commuter to leisure traffic which seems to generate more rubbish, and the opening of the cafe on station approach is definitely noticeable too. Systems and GWR staff rotas for visiting Melksham Station need to be updated to keep up - and an extra hoop bin would be welcome; people are typically good at putting rubbish in bins, but will leave it beside if full.
6. Identity. Volunteers need to identify with hiVis vests in the appropriate colour (pink; I have loan supply). Also to follow the instructions of rail staff. Five members were briefed about a year ago by GWR - back to the safety aspect where this list started.
Can get a bit complicated. Under current rulings, etc, I am checking twice a week and can and will change clear bags if necessary, but not routinely on every visit. That will include the lead up to and around bloom judging time, but is not limited just to that period - it’s ongoing
Published Sunday, 4th July 2021
Under 5 mile journey. Why not cycle?If your journey is under five miles, cycle it - from the Oxford Mail.
An excellent idea - so (here in Melksham) why do people not cycle more? I was at a Town Centre meeting on Saturday - I could have cycled, but I did not. Speaking with a fellow councillor, she had thought about cycling but hadn't done so either.
1. The security of our cycles, even when locked to a hoop provided beside the Town Hall for the purpose, concerned us both
2. Other facilities - such as keeping the cycle dry, and where to keep the extra clothes and helmet during the day
3. There are sections of the road into Town for both of us which are not cycle friendly; the pavement is pedestrian (and mobility scooter!) only and really not wide enough for cycles too, and the main carriageway takes one lane of traffic each way that backs up behid cyclists; some motorist overtake in what cyclists feel are dangerous ways (fast, close, at the blind hill brow)
We know the town ... others (and that includes many none-cycling residents) do not and in places even where there are good or reasonable cycle ways, they are not properly signposted.
Realistically, even with all these things sorted, cycling is not always the solution. Many people are not able to cycle - it could be age, it could be young children, it could be medical. At times, there may be more to carry than you can manage on your cycle. And it might be unattractive in the cold (or heatwave) and wet, or be a journey that you need to make by car more quickly. You might be tired, or under the influence of alcohol.
But, I think we could do better in Melksham.
Published Monday, 28th June 2021
Town Visioning Day - initial reportA big "Thank You" to the town staff team who all gave up their Saturday to help organise and attend yesterday's town visioning day - an informal get together / discussion at which we (staff and councillors) were all able to think - throw out ideas and look to thinking about what we might do, and how we might do it. We were guided by a professional facilitator from outside (thank you, Bob) and by the text of the previous (2017) document; also in my personal case (at least) by my thoughts and "manifesto" of my election campaign.
I wrote yesterday morning of elements I had picked up from the 2017 document where update or additions might be worthwle or needed - the world has changed in 4 years, and with 13 out of 15 new councillors views will be somewhat different too. I was heartened to see very positive, highly supported hopes for KGV and the like - re-assuring to me, though I appreciate that the closed session nature of the day (to allow us all to put out whacky ideas as well as sane ones, without them being held against us) means that I can only pass that on in generallity.
Personally - and I can talk here about what I said and has been taken forward - we are setting overriding values. They're a strategy against which we will evaluate all of our decisions as a council to ensure we're moving in the right overall direction. On each of the committees, each value will have a champion. The definite amended values are:
* The Environment and Climate - previously missing completely
* Diversity - previously given very limited consideration indeed
* Communications - understandle openness in what we do - previously patchy to say the least
Other values may be "codified" such as respect.
Values are too important to be assigned to any one committee - Objectives and aims are reasonably assigned. There have been five committees in the recent past, and it looks like the outcome of the day as it's written up will remain at five. The staff committee, and the finance and oversight remain to the side of objectives and aims. Three more commitees, worked from a clear sheet but remarkably similar to the old ones in many ways, remain/takeover/created:
* Community [Development] Committee - "Looks after what we do for people"
* Asset Management Committee - "Looks after what we own and run"
* Economic Planning and Development Committee - "Looks after where we are headed in the future"
A slight element of concern - in some ways it's sensible to reduce the size of the committees - talk was that a committee should have a maximum of 7 people on it so that it doesn't command a majority of the full council - i.e. to allow full council to overrule. Good in theory, and helpful to avoid councillors being too stretched by being on "too much" - but I would be unhappy to loose even the one committee place I have, which is on the committee looking to the future. I think I can bring something to the party there ... having said which, I appreciate I may not have helped myself yesterday by raising all sorts of issues - very conscious that after the Mayor, I spoke more than any other councillor. Tried to do so in a positive way, but conscious that at times it's much easier for the political groups to plough on with their agendae.
A huge amount of data gathered - including the other points I raised in yesterday's blog; we'll see how we go on those. Measureble objectives to be set (so that you, our electorate) can evalaute how we get on - a mixture of easy-to-deliver and ambitious items. And we concluded the day by asking ourselves "what would I like to have achieved in a year" and "what would I like to have achieved in 4 years".
Published Sunday, 27th June 2021