Graham Ellis - Regular updates - my diary
Who do I contact about what - Christmas and the rest of the year too
One of the big things about being a town councillor is being available - and another is being able to help, suggest, talk through, and point people onwards in the right direction. I can't do all of this on my own - in fact I'm an insignificant cog in a wheel - but I can help you by sharing the work of Town Council staff and the Melksham Independent News in putting together excellent "who to contact" guidance.
Although there's a big panel of "Christmas Helplines", they are good all year and you might like to bookmark this page.
The Town Council (and Wiltshire Council) will be on "emergency service only" over the Christmas period, and many (or most) of the councillors and staff will be enjoying a very well earned break. Ahead of the game, Lisa and I took a break in November and we'll be spending the next two weeks quietly at home, and around an in contact if need be.
Published Thursday, 23rd December 2021
Work starting on Melksham HouseFrom Wiltshire Council to Melksham Town Council:
"I am pleased to let you know that we have carried out a successful procurement exercise for the enabling works for Melksham House. We have appointed a contractor and we are busy ensuring the pre start up planning conditions are in place and approved by Planning (Construction Management Plan) as well as arranging for the contract to be signed and sealed.
"The enabling works are due to commence early in the new year and it consists of the demolition of the newer parts of the building as well as soft strip of some internal elements (WCs, ceilings, flooring etc.). The works will last for approximately six weeks."
Background and comment - planning permission for the campus require that planning permission is obtained which maps out the future of Melksham House, and works are commenced, before the campus is opened to the public. Planning permission has been obtained for Melksham House and the works it allows will be started in the New Year as described above. It is my understanding that further works on Melksham House beyond initial clearance and stripping are not (yet) funded, so the six week strip out will not be followed directly by a restoration / rebuild. However, the work done will allow the campus to be opened. It does make sense to do the big / dusty clearance work when the building next door is not (yet) open to the public, but I can't help feeling there's an element of manipulation of the planning system here to get the campus open!
Published Wednesday, 15th December 2021
Melksham Town Council precept set for 2022/3Last night, your Town Council voted for a £5 per year (9p per week) rise in our council tax "precept" for a typical (Band D) property. That equivalent to each household buying a loaf of bread every 10 weeks. It's a 3% rise - in line with inflation - for the April 2022 to March 2023.
After a long meeting, we selected what we called "option 4" on our agenda. In the current 2021/22 year, we have spent less than we had anticipated from our "earmarked reserves" which is, basically, project money and in contrast we expect to spend more from this pot next year. No vote was taken on any of the alternative proposals, including "option 3" under which it was suggested we borrow up to 1 million pounds, spending in the next year or two to do much more, and more quickly, and to then claw back that money from your taxes for the next 2 decades. That proposal has been ruled out for the next year, for concerns and reasons I described in my blog at http://grahamellis.uk/blog344.html .
I was concerned - as many of your councillors were - at significant late changes made to costing projections for the Assembly Hall for next year. A strong case was made to delay a decision on the precept, pending the updating of budgets over the next month, but in the end the decision was made last night. There remain significant unknowns and differences in next year's incomes and expenditures relating to The Hall but they are within the limits that we can fund without eating in to our operational "general reserve" and little more would have been achieved in delaying our decision. We should (and I hope and expect will) refine the items within the budget long before it comes into effect but we live in such times of enormous uncertainty that the pragmatic approach was to set the bottom line in such a way that we can adjust and tune based on what happens with Coronavirus and its consequences over the next 18 months. I am comfortable with, and voted in favour of, the way forward that we took, but must record that the vote was far from unanimous.
A big "thank you" to all the team who worked on budget options 1 to 3, which provided such a strong base onto which Councillor Mortimer was able to build the selected option 4, and also to Councillor Mortimer for all her hard work over recent weeks. For the record (and it was a recorded for the minutes) she abstained at the final vote - I am adding that here too to make that totally clear; there were in total eight votes in favour of the precent passed and six against, with that one abstention. Added by Councillor Mortimer at my invitation: "Thanks Graham I abstained because I took on board that some people felt they needed more time to consider the options which I wanted them to be able to have. Please add something along those lines."
A big "thank you" too to The Mayor and Town Council team for switching the meeting from the Council Chamber to the Assembly Hall. The change makes huge sense for social distancing reasons, increasing physical separation and helping make us and the public present as safe as possible while we have to meet only in person.
Finally, a big "thank you" to my fellow councillors. You have a very thoughtful and great bunch there and there's such a strength in our differences. Last night, we were all between a rock and a hard place with the choice and timing of that choice and had to balance our misgivings. I look forward to working with everyone on the team - councillors, staff, and other volunteers and members of our community - through next year.
Illustration - from pages 173 and 174 of the public agenda pack for last night's meeting. Let me know if you need a link or copy!
Published Tuesday, 14th December 2021
SOB - State of Our BusesSOB - the State of Our Buses
* Buses not turning up?
* Bus services cancelled?
* Buses being withdrawn and reduced in January?
* and yet "Bus Back Better" and "Bus Service Improvement plans"
These things don't seem to add up!
What on earth is going on?
What does it mean for YOU, the bus user?
Bus industry background
1. There is a shortage of bus drivers. Quite a lot of bus drivers have left the UK bus driving industry for pastures new - other jobs such as HGV or delivery driving, away from the UK, or to some totally different job or retirement - and there's been no new inflow. You can also be short of drivers for a time is some test positive or are "pinged" and having to isolate.
2. Bus company income has been dramatically reduced by Coronavirus (or rather by the consequences of it) and although there is extra Government support it is reducing and as I write is due to end next March.
3. Local Transport Authorities (LTAs) (WECA and Wiltshire in our area) have put in bids under "Bus back better" for 2022/3 funding, but we know that the bids are five times the size of the pot of money the government has allocated, and we probably won't know until the New Year who is going to get how much - we don't even know the formula for decision making. Could be each gets a fifth of what they have asked for, could be on the merits of bids, could be based on populations served, could be targetted towards "levelling up" or marginal constituencies.
4. Bus Back Better funding is (in any case) supposed to seed-fund new and improved services, and it's still very unclear how prescriptive that will be, and how much it will be able - if at all - to fund services that were commercial (or needed much less support than they do at the moment) after next March.
5. Buses are always quieter early in the year - after the Christmas Party and shopping season and before the days-out and tourist trades return on longer and warmer days.
6. Roads are getting busier again and some may be busier that ever before, and with peaks at different times of day. This is due to changing work patterns, and it can throws established bus timetables into chaos when jams turn up in the wrong places.
What is the effect
1. With fewer drivers, current bus services cannot all run and there have to be cancellations and/or part-routes. There may be fewer bus mechanics too, and so fewer vehicles on the road.
2. Bus companies are not going to invest in new vehicles at a time when they don't know the future prognosis for funding and their business - that means older vehicles that are perhaps more prone to breakdown, and a cutting back on spare vehicles
3. With less and unknown income, bus companies are registering services for early next year assuming a poor coronavirus outcome for travel, and very limited financial support. They need to register now - otherwise they can be penalised for not running services they can no longer staff / provide vehicle for / afford.
Let's be a bit more specific about some of the things that might happen:
a) Where two vehicles are in use on a route / route-group, cut it to a single vehicle and halve the frequency
b) Where a route is constrained to single deckers because of low bridges, amend the route so you can run fewer but bigger buses
c) Where a route is on the margins of being commercially viable, register to reduce it right back to a minimum or even close it if you know that your LTA will be minded to help with funding
d) Where you have a town or city route running to the outskirts of a town, and another route running interurban from one town to the next, combine them so that one bus serves multiple purposes
e) In the short term, reduce services to minimum - helps the "only go to your office if you have to" message, and might mean that the "gap" created has a good chance of funding under the Bus Improvement plan.
f) Cut antisocial hours services - first and last journeys of the day - so that drivers have a better working day / environment, and are less likely to move to another operator who offers easier hours
g) Introduce and publicise emergency timetables to take account of reduced driver availability - that being much better than emergency ad-hoc cancellations on the day, even if the next result is running fewer buses than you could.
ALL of these background / effects are being witnessed in WECA and Wiltshire as I write (11.12.21). I saw someone writing about 33 different service changes. Looking to "fix" such a high volume, in a short space of time, with so many unknowns, is a monumental challenge for our local transport authority technical team.
I will leave others in WECA to comment on how it's been approached there. Here in Wiltshire, over years with "Option 24/7" ( http://option247.uk and https://www.facebook.com/groups/option247 ) and looking forward under Bus Back Better with the Bus Service Improvement Plan, we have a confidence that the significant influencers know the strategic outcome we would like to see. That worked when D3 and X72 transformed into 271/2/3 - I couldn't tell you if that was our influence or not - simply that everyone wanted similar goals and we all got more or less what wanted from that shakeup.
The D1, which is the trigger for this article, runs from Bath to Salisbury via Bradford-on-Avon, Trowbridge, Westbury and Warminster. It's at the "Oh Sh**" stage - with dozens of possible outcomes, rumours of which could frighten the bajeebas out of people, but are pretty improbable outcomes. Look wider, and we're also looking at other Wiltshire services. Look back over the years, and you'll find the Option 24/7 strategy laid out - and the Bus Service Improvement Plan is surprisingly close ( ;-) ) in echoing it. Look forward to early next year and there will be considerable evidence gathering to take us forward.
My view is that the very best we can do as a community while we are in the current turmoil is to strongly inform the LTA and indeed the operators of direction for the future and be there to back them up as they go for it, helping too inform the community and tune solutions.
Published Sunday, 12th December 2021
Should Melksham borrow a million?Would YOU borrow a million pounds, to be repayed over twenty years? That's what's being recommended by The Mayor to the Town Council, to be put to the vote next Monday (13th December 2021) at the 7 p.m. meeting at Town Hall. Sorry - still no remote access as the fiasco of the AV system continues.
Would you borrow a million pounds over 20 years? I would - IF I had something to show for it afterwards and for all the interest paid during that period. And I would IF I had the mandate of the people who would be paying that extra money back through that time.
Sadly, I don't think those conditions are met:
1. I'm not convinced that in 2042 play areas, toilets, and "a sophisticated CCTV system" bought in 2022 will retain much - if any - residual value.
2. I'm not convinced that you, the electorate of Melksham, have given your councillors a mandate to borrow money on their account. It was certainly not in my manifesto / something I suggested or talked about. It wasn't suggested as far as I can tell by any other winning candidate either, and I have spoken with several right across the spectrum and reviewed election videos in vain looking for any hint of the idea.
3. I'm not actually convinced that the loan board (the only place a town / parish is allowed to go) would approve our application for the same reasons I am concerned
To check my logic, I have been in touch with councillors elsewhere in the UK who I know through the public transport work I do, and have learned of experiences. However, they tell me without exception that it was easy(ier) for them because of a supporting local poll, and because they had bricks and mortar at the end of it. Loans referred to are much smaller than the Melksham proposal, and none has any experience of borrowing without a clear public mandate and for less long-lived investment.
Without any councillors having a mandate from the people who would have to pay, and without residual value, I cannot recommend that we borrow. It would be a very convenient way of doing a lot quickly - help us hold the rates, probably get re-elected next time around as we spent beyond our means and saddled the councils in the next decade with debt. Having said which, the interest rate as I have been told is a good one and fixed, and with a mandate (not personally but to the council as a whole) and with resource at the end, I would offer my support. There's even an argument to suggest that if we think the interest rate is going to be below the inflation rate, we could save money by borrowing. I would be happy to answer questions on numbers.
So - if we are not going to borrow to do impressive things, where does that leave us? Two other suggestions were put forward - a "do nothing, don't increase the precept" (1) option and a "do most of it anyway and get the money from the council tax payers" (2) one. Another option would be to put up the precent in line with inflation and to undertake a number of the projects, but spread out over a number of years (4). That would probably lessen our chances of getting re-elected next time, but feels right to me - it doesn't smell of mortgaging our votes with the next generation having to repay Option (3). And it leaves us with a clean slate if - in due course - we DO want to invest in bricks and mortar with the support of our electorate.
Whichever route we take on next year's budget, it will be the first year for this set of councillors to be in command of both the amount of money we have, and how we spend it.
Published Friday, 10th December 2021
Back in Melksham, but not at tonight's meeting24 hours late back from what I've described as our main 2020 holiday, having been stuck at sea on a ship unable to berth in Southampton until Storm Arwen subsided. And now back, but with a "lurgy" that I don't want to pass on - nothing serious, I don't think, but I am bowing out of meetings in person for the next couple of days. That includes the Economic Development and Planning meeting this evening.
Bearing in mind that one or two subjects I will be involved in will be raised, I have asked if an audio feed could be made available to me, but have been informed "Unfortunately, there is no alternative method to enable you to access the meeting from home". Very sad, as meetings were successfully held that way in May, but the new system launched in August is still not working even though it's nearly December, and I regularly take part in and even run "hybrid" meetings. However, the safety of my fellow councillors, council staff, and any members of the press and public who attend this evening trumps my desire to attend, and my 100% record falls. A proxy will attend on my behalf (thank you ;-) ) and I am confident of her common sense on the agenda items. What comes up in "public participation" is - in theory - anyone's guess. Usually nothing, but I suspect that subject of public footpath MELK29 and the section 56 order that the council maintain it to the extent that it can be accesses may be raised.
On this (or indeed any other town council matters) please do get in touch - online and on the phone, I cannot pass on the lurgy.
I should be well back in full circulation long before the next council meeting on 13th December, at which the 2022/3 budget will be set. This year, we have been working to the budget set by the previous council - for next year, your current council will be able to both set and then follow their own budget. I have taken a look through the Together for Melksham web site, claiming eight councillors, but not really found any definitive election promises made. Melksham's Conservative Town councillors - five of them - haven't published any policy or proposals I can see either. Many things in the budget are going to be pretty much agreed and there will be little dispute over expenditure; there will be a few items that may raise some interesting discussions and I'm somewhat disappointed that so little information is around from the councillor's teams as to their plans for raising money from you and how they will spend it.
Published Monday, 29th November 2021
I do not leakIt's been brought to my attention (I'm on holiday with limited access) that the Melksham Independent News is carrying a piece about the online council meetings, or to be more accurate the lack of them. Apparently they have been passed a copy of the papers from the secret session that the council held a couple of weeks back on this topic, and my correspondent has asked if it was me who leaked the papers. NO - IT WAS NOT.
I voted against that section of the meeting being held behind closed doors, and indeed requested a recorded vote on the secrecy. So I am a natural one to be looked at. Please may I re-assure you. It was not me. I do not betray confidences, which these papers were, even if I believe that things should be in public. Further, I do not make unattributable comment - I put my name to my actions, always have. Please look at my track record.
I am not going to speculate where the MIN got the papers from. Not me. Perhaps someone else wanted them out even though they have not gone public with that and felt safe doing so, knowing that eyes would turn to me. Yuk! Not my style.
I do look forward to a day that you'll be able to watch, and take part in public participation, in Melksham Town Council meetings, without having to turn out of an evening. And I remain gobsmacked that it has taken so long to get things working to allow it - I routinely run public meetings (from Melksham, and Didcot, and Trowbridge) and have had up to 100 attendees, equally split between those in the room and those at home. It is not rocket science!
Published Friday, 19th November 2021
Melk039 - letter to residentThis may appear out of context ... I have asked for and await permission to publish the letter I am replying to, at which point it will become cleared to the general reader.
I am talking about the public footpath parallel to (and to the rear) of homes in Kenilworth Road and West End, which has become impassable over the years but remains a public footpath. A legal notice has been served on the council to keep the path clear/open so that residents can access their rear fences, others do not want that access restored as the feel it creates a security risk and would harm wildlife that has taken residence.
Dear ["resident spokesperson"],
I am indeed aware of this footpath and somewhat informed of the situation. And, yes, I live on Spa Road which is closer than any other councillor to you.
I am presently away on vacation - (literally) at sea and in touch only by email and very limited web browsing - hence unable to speak in person though I would prefer to do so rather than writing long. It's a long-planned holiday during a gap in council meetings.
I need to clarify something. There are two local councils - there’s Melksham Town Council which covers the centre of the urban area out to the A350, and there’s Wiltshire (Unitary) Council which covers the whole county. In the matter of public highways and byways, the authority concerned is the Unitary Council and the Town Council has no authority - only an ability to suggest and persuade. In the South ward, your Town Councillors (with no more than an advisory role, and unpaid volunteers) are myself, Colin Goodhind (who also lives in the ward), Jon Hubbard and Jacqui Crundell. Your unitary councillor is Jon Hubbard (the same person as on the Town Council).
Jon Hubbard has been involved with this issue for much longer than I have been on the council, and has been planning to hold a resident’s meeting for quite some time - also long before I was elected to the town council. It hasn’t happened and a resident has indeed served notice on the unitary council that requires them to meet their legal obligation to keep the path open; it has not been legally abandoned and should they fail to clear it they could be taken to court. That is why they are acting now. You should note that Jon although your representative on the unitary council has no dictatorial power there even in his own ward, and cannot instruct a different course of action.
I would be very interested to learn who it was from the Town Council who promised no action until after a public meeting, as there just might be some sort of legal standing (s)he is aware of that I and others are not.
The matter was raised by a member of the public prior to last week's economic development and planning town council meeting in the public participation section where all are welcome to raise issues. Jon Hubbard explained why the public meeting has not taken place, and noted that a "Highways Act" order would take things forward. The next such meeting is on Monday 29th November, starting at 19:00 in the Town Hall. But please note that you cannot expect resolution there; the Town Council has no powers on this, and is not able to prepare ahead of time as its officers and councillors don't know what will be brought up unless talking to an agenda item, which most public participation does.
As a final outcome, I think there is broad agreement between all residents that they do not want the public using the path, even though it has been a public way from the opening of the Wilts and Berks Canal over 200 years ago. I can’t be sure of that, of course, as the public meeting hasn’t happened - not even online during the period up until the end of May when such things were temporarily legal for decision making council meetings. Assuming that I’m correct in that thought, the questions arise "should it be closed purely on residents wishes or does it have wider use and history and should be retained?", “what do we do if it’s not to be a public right of way”, “how do we satisfy everyone with the decision”, “how do we get there / what to do in the meantime” and “who’s going to pay for the changes and any future upkeep if not the Unitary Council”.
So - where do we go? The ultimate outcome should, my personal view, be that the path may no longer be a public right of way. Whilst it's of historic interest, it leads nowhere and serves no purpose any longer; the chance of it being re-opened through to Spa Road is minimal, I understand. I believe that other Town Councillors share that view, unusual though it is to support the elimination of a right of way.
So what should it be, then?
Should people's gardens be allowed to expand into the space? And if some do without control is that going to damage the wildlife you're looking to preserve anyway, and / or create inaccessible pockets of land which are inaccessible and so unmaintainable?
Should some sort of private garden / walkway / nature reserve be set up? Owned and maintained by whom? All the residents?
But those ultimate outcomes do not answer the short term. I find myself wondering just how much clearance work is needed to reach a legally "open" position. One of the obligations on all councils is a safety one, and that includes (as I understand it) checking that its actions don't create something which creates a risk, and you could argue that full clearance of the path without associated security elements would do so.
This path has been in the "too difficult" bucket for too long (see http://grahamellis.uk/blog314.html - written a week ago). I don't see any outcome that's going to satisfy everyone - I don't see a rabbit being pulled out of a hat if there is, at long last, a meeting. But I suspect it's something where limited cutting back in December might - just might - give the residents and Wiltshire Council the opportunity to plan and implement for the future, with a new sense of urgency based on the situation we are in at the moment and the concern it brings.
You are welcome to share this response - it's an open letter and I will be sharing it too. May I also share your letter to me, noting that it's written as a "representative of the community" rather than in a purely personal capacity?
Melksham Town Council, South Ward
Blog at http://grahamellis.uk/perm.html
Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Graham4Melksham/
I only visit other social media occasionally.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Phone: 01225 708225 / 0797 4 925 928
Home: 48 Spa Road, Melksham, SN12 7NY
Stop Press - permission received
But on re-reading it, I probably need to redact some elements ... in the interest of fairness to all sides and some unconfirmed statements.
Published Wednesday, 17th November 2021
Melksham Town Council budget 2022/23Melksham Town Council budget 2022/23
What should Melksham Town Council do next year? What should it cost? How do we raise the money? In the next few weeks, we have to decide on the outline, and the mayor has called an informal meeting of all councillors for this evening. It won't be minuted, it won't be open to the public - it's for ideas and kites to be flow and tried out. Such pre-meetings are common in Wiltshire Council, and I suspect in the two groups on the Town Council, but this is the first I have been invited too. I wonder if the mayor knew I would be away when, early last week, he set the date. Anyway - I can't be there tonight - first council meeting I will have missed since elected. I would like to thank the Town Clerk for giving me a briefing last Friday. It allows me to take something of look, make inputs further into the process, and explain just what goes on.
Your council tax - on a Band D property (mid-range and the one usually quoted for comparisons this year has been just under £2100 - that includes unitary (County), police and fire elements as well as about £150 for Melksham Town. Unitary, police and fire elements may change for next year - probably somewhat upward - and are subject to separate consultation. I am looking at that £150.00
Three options have been suggested and are to be discussed tonight:
1. "Stand Still" - no project - £156.22
2. Raising precent to cover 3 possible projects - £182.02
3. Borrowing money to cover 7 possible projects - £164.78
Early days in this - the secrecy of the meeting is to allow councillors to explore views and thoughts away from public glare so they can understand - many of use are new. By posting this, I am waiving my right to anonymity on my initial vies and would caution reader that as I learn more, these views may change - based too on what I hear back from readers and residents on.
The three possible projects listed in option 2 are:
** Refurbishment and overhaul of town's play areas
** Reopen and refurbish all of Melksham's public toilets
** Town-wide CCTV and control room including KGV Car park
The seven possible project in option 3 are the three above, plus:
* Amenities Depot at KGV
* 20 is plenty campaign for the whole town
* Extension to / provision of public toilets at the Cricketer's Cafe
* Climate change improvements to council owned facilities
It should be noted that option 3 - borrowing money from the public works load board - puts up the council tax from the £156 not only for this year, but for years into the future too. I'm new at this game and will leave it for others to tell me how many years, whether it's a loan that is repaid over time or comes up for repayment all in a go by the next (!) council, and whether the interest rate is fixed or variable.
I had some further thoughts.
1. We are looking to move towards Zero Carbon and cleaner air, sustainability, in coming years. And I look at three more potential projects
* Labelling all bus stops in the town with service details
* Turning Melksham into an Air Quality Management Town (see pic - Marlow)
A notional climate change levy of 1p per resident per week (2.3p / day on band D) would add £8.50 per annum per household - around £50,000 in the year) to pay for the setup and maintenance of this.
2. Does any of the existing expenditure encourage activities which are not carbon friendly - there's budget for the car park redemption scheme, and a hope expressed that much more will be spent on that next year. Really? There's a balance here, but would funding be better directed to more sustainable matter? Shops remain welcome to refund, but should that attract a council subsidy?
3. Much of the main budget is pretty clear and offer no controversy, but are there elements there which should be reviewed? Staffing costs are always the lion's share of something like this, and it would be good to see where the dividend from reducing our team size has folded in. For sure, there are optional tasks like professional / expertise support for councillor which are now in very short supply indeed, meaning discussions and outcomes are far less informed than they used to be, and perhaps the worse for it.
Published Monday, 15th November 2021
Campus Pictures - 12.11.21Thank You to the Campus team for showing five Town Councillors around the under-construction campus on 12th November 2021. You may spot Councillors Price, Rabey, Oatley and Aves in these pictures; I was there too - behind the camera though. A further group included members of the Melksham Town staff, and Melksham Without Parish Councillors visited too. I hope that one or two of your Consevative Councillors have found an opportunity at another time to see the progress at the Campus.
Published Saturday, 13th November 2021