Graham Ellis - Regular updates - my diary
Is everyone welcome?
Should Extinction Rebellion be invited to talk at Melksham's ClimateFest in September? A question that's exercising the organising committee. Should such event be a promotion of the views of that subcommittee lead by the Town Council, or a forum in which all views can be promoted?
My personal view is that ClimateFest is taking place to help publicises the various environment and climate challenges we face, and will be strengthened in that intent by having a wide range of presenters, stalls and exhibits there, subject only to a test of relevance and adhering to law at the event. It will make us richer for the variety of views expressed, even though it may be more challenging for some in sharing an event with others they may not be aligned with.
When elected last year, I stressed three major pillars that mould my views and would be considered with pragmatism in decisions made and votes taken. Those were an openness to everyone, equality and the environment. You elected me with those pillar policies.
Illustration - from my election literature - supporting an event where everyone came together to help wake up the world to the need to change our ways for the sake of the environment. Disparate groups, different views, common cause. This was the visit of Greta Thunberg to Bristol two years ago; not expecting anything like that in Melksham in September, just as our Black Lives Matter support differed so much from the activities in Bristol.
Published Tuesday, 19th July 2022
Working for the communityI've submitted two councillor motions for consideration next Monday. More details to follow in the next few days once they're published; both could be key steps in something much bigger.
There's much more to being a councillor, community representative of campaigner than just attending meetings. Let's say that something substantive comes to light ... there's a series of steps to taking it forward.
Here's a set of guidelines I've been in the habit of applying over the years:
1. Make people aware there is something to look at
2. Work out what needs to be done (if anything)
3. Work to actually get it done
4. Work to ensure it works, sustains and improves
and notice that it's work, work, work, work with much of that work behind the scenes.
Major things take time.
I first got involved with Melksham's Train service in 2005, making people aware that 2 trains each way per day was "neither use nor ornament" to most people and it took until 2014 for us to get a usable (though still poor) service. Later work has filled a couple of key gaps and got passenger numbers of 25 times, but much remains to be done.
Over a decade ago, Wiltshire Council proposed merging 8 separate facilities in Melksham into a single facility - a Campus - on the Devizes road beyond the new school. Good principle to put them all together, but moving a number of things out of town was perverse, and we helped the council work out what was really needed and - in just two weeks time - the Campus will open in the town.
Bus services to Bath, Chippenham and Trowbridge all used to be operated by two companies competing on the same route. Combined services of two-per-hour but with the buses running directly behind each other and overtaking to get to the next stop ahead of each other were daft. Sanity has returned and on the Bath service (at least), community input has helped shape what was actualy done.
None of these is a completed project - still working of step 4, and in all three cases the community / campaigner element has been overtaken by a Tsunami of professional officialdom. Much of the knack of getting things done is to have them become the obvious policy of those who know what they're doing and letting them take on the project, and the ownership, and the credit when it works.
Image source and copyright - see (here)
Published Monday, 18th July 2022
Collecting a national award for MTUGThe Melksham Transport User Group was awarded the bronze award for its web site at the Railfuture national Rail User Group awards yesterday. As a member of Railfuture, I was there at the organsation's AGM anyway and picked up the ward on behalf of the group.
The presenter of the awards commented that the judges applauded the groups move from purely a railway group to a public transport group - considering both trains and buses as part of the network. As if illustraing the point, I left Melkshan on the train in the morning, and arrived back late afternoon on the bus. And that was done because it was best on the day, and not actually on principle.
Travel and transport has a "Melksham Element" but is something that needs looking at far wider - whether you're talking about cars on a bypass, trains on the railway, or bus services between town Melksham is just one end, or one intermediate point in the story, and being informed on a regional and national angle is vital. Appearing on that stage as an example of good practise is not only a help to others in seeing what we have done, but also a help to us as it builds our visibility and "street cred".
The Melksham Transport User Group website is (here)
Published Sunday, 17th July 2022
Peter Blackburn, R.I.P. Yesterday (13th July 2022), we said "Goodbye" to our friend Peter Blackburn who passed away with his family around him.
I first met Peter in around 2005, when, as chair of the Melksham Rail User Group, he welcomed the upstart online "Save the Train" campaign - the start of a long, and happy friendship. As well as public transport campaign work, Peter was an experienced politician and political agent. Listening to (and taking much of) his advice has been so helpful not only on rail, but also more recently on bus and local political issues and he will be sorely missed. I have further at http://www.passenger.chat/26552
Peter lived outside Purlpit (Atworth) for many years on a dirt track in the heart of the countryside, but a couple of years back he moved into a much more practical bungalow in Melksham - walking distance from where we live, and what earlier this year became a favoured destination for our dog Lulu. Peter's lifelong partner and wife Margaret still lives there, though no longer in the best of health herself. Peter leaves three sons who have been a huge comfort and support to him.
Pictured - even in old age and as we re-opened from Covid, Peter was out supporting us in fair weather and foul as we promoted public transport in Melksham.
Social Media discussion - ((here)) ... Published Thursday, 14th July 2022
Please don't overhangPlease help us help our residents - please keep your overgrowth under control. Our warming climate means that many trees and bushes grow faster than they did when we were younger, and they need more attention these days than they used to.
Your overgrowth may (for example)
* limit the footpath so pedestrians have to walk in to the road
* create a trip hazard for those with sight of other limitations
* prevent pushchairs, mobility scooters or wheelchairs from getting past
* obstruct sight lines for vehicle users
* obstruct street lights
At the time of writing (early summer) please moderate your trimming to take care of nesting birds, and at any time don't overdo it as we want to lose as little "green" as possible.
Every month or two, the parish steward and sparkle team visits Melksham to tidy up roadways and paths in the care of Wiltshire Council, and your Town Council's Economic Development and Planning Committee aids their work by directing them towards areas that need particular attention. But these teams cannot deal with overhang from private properties without a rigmarole ahead of time - it's the responsibility of the property owner to do these things, and the best bet in the first place is for you the owner to keep boundaries tidy unprompted. Second possibility is for someone (councillor or council) to nudge you to take a look at things they're concerned about. Only if issues remain after these two steps have been taken (or there is immediate danger) will there, reluctantly, be any sort of enforcement. See ((here)) for a much fuller explanation - a different council's guidance, but much the same applies through England.
As per usual, this is a personal post on my blog from one councillor - but very much in line with sentiment at last night's meeting and you know it makes sense!
Social Media discussion - ((here)) ... Published Monday, 11th July 2022
Labour Club - demolition - and how planning has workedI'm following up on a group post on Facebook's Historic Melksham page. As the group is a private group, I am adding this public explanation addressing public concern at the current demolition of the old Labour Club which prior to that served as the Cottage Hospital.
I quote from a reply I'm about to make to that group ...
Please may I add comment here as a Town Councillor, and newly chair of the Economic Planning and Development Committee and also now on the Heritage Assets steering group with the neighbourhood plan. I have also purchased a listed building in Melksham as a wreck and restored it. But in writing I must stress these are personal thoughts and I am not speaking for the committee, nor for The Plan.
We have some 152 listed buildings in Melksham Town ((here)) a further 73 in Melksham Without ((here)) and those listings provide significant protection to buildings and other structures. Listing can also provide a very real disincentive to the purchase of such building - increasing maintenance costs with limits on how things can be done to structures which are going to be expensive to look after anyway, and restricting changes / modernisation which reduces their practical utility for many purposes. For these reasons, it's my personal view that there needs to be a balanced number of listed buildings in the area, and unless we want to set up our town as a historic place such as Lacock we should not be adding lots more buildings to the lists.
The new neighbourhood plan calls for an additional list of buildings and infrastructure features of local historic interest which, however, are not listed; the intent as I understand it is that such features may not be up to the level required for full listing, or perhaps have been overlooked in the past. A consultation run by the neighbourhood plan team last month was notable in how few of these extras it turned up, and that's in contrast to hundreds of inputs on the parallel green spaces consultation, which suggests to me that either the listing are about right, or there's little interest in the historic "third division" after so much is grade 1 (few) or grade 2 (almost all of the 225) listings.
Buildings that are public assets (owned by Wiltshire Council, Melksham Town Council, the NHS, MOD, etc) also have a degree of protection from pure commercial development in that they are owned by you, the community, and through your councillors or others you have an input into their future, which may be much more governed by quality of life considerations rather than by the commercial bottom line. Buildings such as the Assembly Hall fall into this category. Other buildings owned by charitable trusts may also fall into this area.
The former Labour Club / Second Cottage Hospital was not listed nor was it owned by the community, so it did not fall into any of the baskets listed above.
For such buildings and sites, planning applications must be submitted to Wiltshire Council before substantive changes are made - anything from replacement of old buildings by new ones down to a new porch. Such applications have been made - several of them including what the owners wanted to do, then modifications to their plans, to Wiltshire Council. Nearby neighbours and informed and can express their views, and there's also a public register so you (dear reader) can go through the planning applications if you wish, and make your input. They are also notified to the Town (or Parish) council and we meet every 3 weeks to discuss the and make our own inputs - and the public are welcome to inform us too as to what they think, though we encourage direct inputs to Wiltshire Council too as we have only the power of recommendation and persuasion on the decision maker, who by default is an officer of Wiltshire Council.
Wiltshire Council officers are governed by a set of rules in making planning decisions. They must be sure of all the technical stuff like drainage. They must be sure the development does not encroach beyond bounds on the neighbours. They must be sure that the traffic flows and parking will all works. They must be guided by the local plan and the neighbourhood plan. They must be happy that the building and its effect will be up to scratch and safe. And a whole lot more. However much "sentiment" there is there, though, if all the rules and regs are met they have a role to accept the owner's plans whether they're from a developer, a commercial business / building owner, a private individual or landlord or even from a third party because there's nothing to stop you putting in a planning application on something you don't own (I have done that!!)
Is the officer's analysis "final"? Not quite. A unitary (Wiltshire) councillor can "call in" an application for it to go to the planning committee at the county for a public hearing of the case. Councillor Mike Sankey did that recently for the extension of Sandridge School, because of public concerns at the parking / drop off problems that many expect; sadly (IMHO) that has still passed planning. In the case of the old Labour Club in Forest Ward, the person to call in the application would be Councillor Jack Oatley, though I suspect that the substantive plans were passed prior to his election. Some minor changes did go through recently but (again IMHO) no call in would have resulted in a major change.
If a planning officer or committee rejects an application, reasons are given. The applicant can then see what the objections are and try again with plans modified to meet them. A recent example being access to parking spaces not directly off the public highway where the applicant currently has a modified proposal that's removed those spaces going through the system. The applicant could give up his plans. Or he could take in to appeal; developers with major projects and expertise to hand will tend to do this, but for the private home owner it would be expensive and impractical unless it was really important to them and they were pretty sure of winning.
Back to the Labour Club. Not listed. No reason in law to refuse permission and for your current (town) council far too late in the day to use the power of persuation to try for a different outcome with the cooperation of the owners. However much historic infrastructure is a great thing to retain, there does need to be a balance between preserving for posterity and retaining things which hamper our town moving forward. The system is set up to look after that balance and has been worked though in this case; far too late for the current elected team to make any difference - water under the previous bridge, if you like, and probably a difficult borderline case anyway.
What this DOES suggest is that listings - both listed buildings and heritage assets - need to be carefully reviewed as they provide clear guidelines to development to help appropriate plans come through in the first place and some teeth (though blunt ones) to the community's handling of controversial ones.
Social Media discussion - ((here)) ... Published Saturday, 9th July 2022
Behind closed doors?"Why do we not hear from our council(lors)?" ... "Why are so many things done behind closed doors?" - repeating questions in social media, in the local paper, and from meeting residents on the street. There are a plethora of reasons.
1. It takes time to write up issues, and that's time that only some of your councillors have. I am personally lucky that I'm retired and have more of my own time than many, and I'm only on one level of council - Town - rather than both town and unitary, for example. Not only the time to write up, but also the time to learn into the issue being written up, formulate views, and respond to follow ups. Should limited time be spent informing, or be spent getting on with the work of the council?
2. There's no one way of communicating. I recall being on the SCOB (Shadow Campus Operations Board) and looking at our communications - we spoke in ten ways and still got complaints we had not reached people. So even those who DO speak are not always heard. You'll find my blog, you'll find my Facebook feed, you'll find me quoted in the MIN from time to time (their editorial choice). You'll find me in public council meetings and on Zoom and YouTube nearly every Monday. You can phone me or catch up with me at events or in the street. But I don't have the time / resource to routinely visit other social media, I don't run a mailing list, and you won't found me sat routinely in any of the pubs in the ward (West End, Kings Arms, Hiding Place, Parsons Nose, The Grapes and The Bear), nor do I volunteer at the TIC.
3. The public don't seem interested in many of the things the council does. There's just a small proportion of items from the flood of data with IS published that catches the public interest - I would estimate over 100 pages per week in agendas and supporting documents are available for public council meetings. Some of that data is filtered out and used by the Melksham News and in part by a few others but largely it's unread the the public. To some extent that's a lack of interest, but in another way it's down to the council in that the information is not particularly easy to access, nor are alerts generated to tell people it's available, nor to provide running updates on things that are not happening or delayed.
4. There are some early discussions to explore possibilities which are ideas to be explored before they make any formality of publication. "Have we thought about ..." and a quick chat around councillors can help us rue out ideas that would have little or no support. Remember that none of your councillors can be an expert in everything, and it makes sense for us to triage options before we go public.
5. You have 15 councillors and we are all different to a greater or lesser extent - different motivation for being on the Town Council, and differing philosophies leading to differing opinions. Talking through and publicising issues early can lead to better informed and stronger decisions, but sadly it can also lead to those with differing views being able to prepare stronger cases to the ones aired in public and then "spring" them away from the glare of publicity. Although agendas need to be published three clear working days ahead of meetings, there is no such limit on supplementary data / papers, which can be prepared (should alternatives be in the public domain) in the context of those alternatives, with unfair advantage. There are also occasions where councillors come to meetings with views and proposals not made public at all prior to the meeting, even though invited ahead of time.
6. Residents and businesses and guests have views and ideas I love to hear them. However, a proportion of those ideas are impractical, mutually incompatible, or outside our mandate. Some of them are expressed in less than complementary terms, and polite explanations to the correspondents can result in no acknowledgement at all, cherry picking part of the answer out of context, or a torrent of not not logical criticism (which I can take), but abuse (which is tough and puts many of my colleagues off commenting too much in public). To complete this point, the next elections are in May 2025 if you are one of the people who write in this way and want to vote me out (as 'you' say you do), may I suggest you stand for council too and let the electorate choose. In the interim, many meetings do welcome public attendance and we would love to see you there, in person or on Zoom.
7. Some matters (such as staffing, and "commercial in confidence") are discussed in private - on staffing especially even the councillors who aren't on the staffing committee don't know - so we cannot share. Other things told in confidence such as personal issues cannot and should not be made in public either.
8. I am not a fan of "Grandstanding" and neither are some of my fellow councillors - you will not find me shouting about my personal part in achievements, nor taking the opportunity to take a public stand against fellow councillors in order to boost my popularity. That may make me quieter than others. And remember I'm the one out of 15 councillors elected on my own independent ticket - so you might only expect a fifteenth of your councillor feedback (just under 7%) from me.
9. I am a councillor - I am not allowed to speak on behalf of the council as a whole, and there other all sorts of other rules and regs. I have already been hauled into the headmistress's office (it felt like that to me, anyway) and put straight a few times too. I have relinquished my £1 share in TransWilts so a no longer have a financial interest there, and I'm 'clean' on other things that would require me to declare an interest or not speak, except for owning my home at 48, Spa Road. Other councillors do have interests they need to declare or elements where they are best to abstain, even if there's not a declarable interest.
10. Sadly, so many things come up and then seem to fade away or go on the back burner, and there's a limit as to how much I should say just to disappoint - a meeting in January promised a report by March that eventually arrived in June and is being significant updated for August. A visioning day that should have happened a couple of weekends ago but did not. A public consultation on the Cricketers that I had in my diary for late June. Little point in filling the airwaves with things that don't happen.
In spite of the above issues, I remain committed to being as informative as is practical and allowed to the voters of Melksham South Ward and to the wider area around of the town and beyond. That is a longstanding personal commitment and not a commitment you'll automatically find from all other councillors, for good reasons including those listed above.
Image - see Wikipedia Copyright attribution at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Closed_door_02.jpg
Social Media discussion - ((here)) ... Published Thursday, 7th July 2022
Assembly Hall - looking forwardThere's a lot happening (or not, some have suggested) going on in Melksham, including with the Assembly Hall. An update "committee" level meeting for the Friends of Melksham Assembly Hall tonight at 19:00 - on Zoom at
Topic: FOMAH (Friends of Melksham Assembly Hall) catchup
Time: Jul 4, 2022 07:00 PM London
Join Zoom Meeting https://us02web.zoom.us/j/85395569988?pwd=5MG6WlJbO6tERL6fqmP6DmMwvIVnjP.1
Meeting ID: 853 9556 9988
Find your local number: https://us02web.zoom.us/u/kbFmJKQ28j
and "in real life" at 48, Spa Road, SN12 7NY - please let me know ahead of time if you're coming as our cottage studio room needs to be arranged to suit numbers.
* Where are we now?
* What of the future - options and desires?
* How can we help towards an appropriate future?
This meeting has been touted on the FOMAH Facebook group for a few days - publicity here as a last-minute trawl to make sure it has that final wider reach
Social Media discussion - ((here)) ... Published Monday, 4th July 2022
Public owned estate in MelkshamIt's common knowledge that the Town Council and Wiltshire Council own and operate the following buildings in Melksham Town:
* The Blue Pool (WC)
* The Assembly Hall (MTC)
* The Old Library Building (WC)
* The Town Hall (MTC)
* The Cricketers (MTC)
* The Maintenance Shed (MTC)
* The Roundhouse (MTC)
They also own and will soon be opening:
* Melksham Community Campus / Health and Wellbeing Centre (WC)
And are working on:
* Melksham House (WC)
And also there's the following well know land for other use:
* Various Car Parks (WC)
* The rest of the Melksham House site (WC)
* Parks and Play Areas (MTC)
* Highways and verges (WC)
You can add to the list of public property in the area the various bits of land and buildings in the Melksham Without area (such as the Christie Miller site), other holdings in the public domain such as schools and NHS owned facilities, and some other pockets of land and properties that remain with the councils for other reasons, and you realise the "the public" in various guises own a lot of Melksham.
The (Old) Library closes in a couple of weeks, and the Blue Pool around the end of the month to transfer operations to the new Campus - and I look forward to that. But a question for this morning - what's to become of the old buildings no longer required to loan you books, or places where you swam?
The question is not un-asked but it is un-answered as yet, at least in any coherent and full way, and in public. There is a significant resource that is changing and a window of opportunity provided by those changes to set the picture up for decades ahead. The opportunities include repurposing land and buildings within the public domain (but cost and need must be high up the consideration list) and disposing of the land and buildings for others to take forward in new uses, to the benefit of the public purse in terms of income and reduced operational liabilities, and in such a way that the changes maximise benefit to the town's residents and businesses.
You can read in the draft minutes of the Town Council Meeting of 16th May (1) that the "Publicly Owned Assets in Melksham Working Group" continue for a few weeks with Councillors Aves, S Crundell and Ellis representing The Town on this group, which is organised and run by Wiltshire Council. If you attended that meeting on 16th May (or watch it back on YouTube) you'll note that there was considerable interest from other(s) in joining the group, but as it's a Wiltshire Council group the best we could do was go away and ask if others can join - and indeed we are still waiting on that.
Standard procedure when a property becomes surplus to requirement for its current purpose to any public body is for it to be offered around within that body to see if it is of use to another part of that body, then to ask other public bodies too if they would like to take it on, before looking wider at its future.
I have no answers here - this piece is written to correlate publicly available information and procedures. Much of the discussion needs to be along the "how about x" and "what about y" lines between a small team - sanity checking the possible and weeding out the plain impossible, before the outline of the do-able options are considered wider, each with much wider implications for the town and indeed for adjoining businesses and commercial operations similar to those that are are will be happening, or perhaps release by or ceasing, from the councils.
I have no answers here - but your thoughts and comments would be welcome even at this "early" - and it should not be early - stage. If past form and requirements are anything to go by, I would suggest that as things move forward there will almost certainly be public consultations on various issues, but the opportunity exists at the moment to ask "what about" and that might - just might - result in such consultations being moulded by options suggested by public input. As I recall, original ideas for the swimming pool and library (and other things in the new Campus) were for them to move out to a site outside the town on the Devizes road, but public input helped retain the facilities within the town.
(1) The draft minutes are ((here))
Pictured - The Blue Pool from 13th June 1959, opening day gala
Social Media discussion - ((here)) ... Published Sunday, 3rd July 2022
Reasons why progress is slowDear Electorate
A year ago, you elected a new Town Council sweeping away all but two of your previous councillors, with thirteen new councillors selected. Within a few weeks, twelve out of the fifteen councillors voted to make two members of council staff redundant.
Frustration has been expressed by members of the public, and indeed even by a number of councillors, at the very slow progress if any on a number of projects in the last year. I think that was only to be expected:
1. Reducing the staff headcount, in particular taking away roles held by established professionals, means that either their work is no longer being done or it falls onto the shoulders of others who may already be busy with their own workload and will almost certainly take longer to do things that are new to them
2. New council members (13 out of 15, remember) will typically need additional help, training and support from the now-reduced council office-based staff
3. New council members will (there are one or two exceptions) look to learn into their roles and the current work and issues with the council before plunging in - learning the job before making decisions. And that's especially the case - rightly so - with potentially big changes to implement new policies.
There are other issues which follow on as corollaries
4. Redundancies and re-arrangement of roles can lead to more stressed work environment for those remaining, lowering effective staff availability further.
5. A need to tidy up / complete / close out projects and issues which were ongoing from the old council but perhaps no longer enjoy support
6. A need at council meetings for us all to learn about other people's positions - so some of your councillors may have been talking for far longer than they naturally would or will in coming years - long meetings, things postponed to a later meeting, and a domino effect.
And then there are world issues from which Melksham is not immune
7. Inflation, leading to some budget issues
8. Staff who have been very busy indeed through two years of extreme pressure from Covid now catching up on vacations held over from previous years
9. Shortage of some supplies and resources leading to longer lead times, and in some cases busyness of staff members delaying quoting and ordering processes
10. Things done in haste / rushed have perhaps not been as clean and error free as they should have been, and that too has generated time-consuming activity needed to sort out the issue.
All those things said, as I understand it the council has not failed in any legal duties it may have, and the remaining staff team has been remarkably effective and professional in their work - we have some real gems, including some who perhaps are not visible to the public.
Where do we go from here? It has been suggested we need another couple of admin staff. As one of the three councillor who did NOT support redundancies a year ago, I would have to agree with that suggestion, and that we need carefully selected staff bringing with them the ability to fill gaps we can identify.
As an electorate, you voted for the tickets which have changed the council and reduced the headcount last year - so is the current apparent lack of much happening going to carry on, and who should take responsibility for that, if you feel anyone should?
I'm not as depressed about the situation described above as you might expect. Firstly, us 13 new councillors are very much learning in and now forming very much more informed views than we had at the start. Secondly, a significant change involving long term projects is inevitably going to lead to something of a gap in projects being delivered, but that is a transient gap. Thirdly, as we head for the next set of elections in 2025, time is already ticking away for councillors who want to make a positive impression on you and present real achievements.
P.S. A council or public body will always be slower than a company which will always be slower than an individual ...
48 Spa Road, Melksham, SN12 7NY
01225 708225 or 07974 9250928
* Melksham South Ward Town Councillor
* Webmaster, Coffee Shop Rail Passenger Forum
* Acting Chair, Melksham Transport User Group
* Ukraine2Uk Webmaster and Facebook Group Admin
Social Media discussion - ((here)) ... Published Friday, 1st July 2022