Graham Ellis - Regular updates - my diary
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• Assembly Hall Working Group
• Should your Town Council be involved?
• Is everyone welcome?
• Working for the community
• Collecting a national award for MTUG
• Peter Blackburn, R.I.P.
• Please don't overhang
• Labour Club - demolition - and how planning has worked
• Behind closed doors?
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A dozen updates from full council
The following are my personal recollections (26.7.2022 meeting)- "Errors and Omission Excepted" and written up next morning. Please ask if you have any questions. In no particular order ... and brought to you in line with my promise to keep people informed.
1. When it receives a planning application, Wiltshire Council still writes to close neighbours, but it no longer puts up signs in the neighbourhood to let passers by know. This means that if you may wish to make inputs to applications effecting routes you travel along you will now need to check the weekly lists; within Melksham Town, councillors also discuss applications at their Economic Development and Planning meetings (every three weeks) and make their views known to Wiltshire Council who make decisions.
2. I have been appointed to the Steering Group for the Neighbourhood Plan to represent Melksham Town alongside councillor Pat Aves. I replace the previous rep who resigned last night
3. A first meeting of the Assembly Hall Working Group has been called for Monday 1st August. It will set up its terms of reference and will be supported by officers. Several members of the Working Group spoke in favour of a wide membership for the group and sample terms of reference from the Events Working Group and the Environment and Climate Working Group will be used to inform that meeting.
4. The Town Council unanimously passed a motion "This council supports the concept of an environment friendly town bus service to update and enhance the current service to meet new and future needs. It supports the work being undertaken to consult further on, provide a business case analysis for, and if favourable work towards the implementation of an appropriate service.
5. Councillor Alford revealed in open session that tomorrow's (now today's) full council meeting, which it is proposed will be held confidentially, will be following up on the work of the public assets working group - a joint group with Wiltshire Council mandated to look at the future provision and use of buildings and sites in the town.
6. My proposal that an advertising enhancement for the Assembly Hall - be it a TV/sign on the roof, a display in the window of the hall, a dynamic stand-alone sign in the Market Place or something else be delegated to the Assembly Hall Working Group (meeting 1st August) to make recommendations including a review of how effective each option would be was rejected (only 2 votes in favour) with the council choosing to ask the officer concerned for a further report for a later meeting. A suggestion that a display be placed on the bus stop to attract the attention of passing cars was clarified to suggest that the intent is to attract the attention of passengers in passing cars.
7. Sgt Twyford of Wiltshire Constabulary presented PCSO Janet Gould with a bouquet and thanked her for 18 years of wonderful work in Melksham and nearby parishes - and there were unanimous thanks. Janet told us how much she still enjoyed the job, but was now of an age she should retire and make way for younger feet
8. Sgt Twyford reviewed the recent HMICFRS (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services) PEEL (Police Efficiency, Effectiveness and Legitimacy) inspection which found 3 areas that were "inadequate" and a further areas that "require improvement". In questioning, he revealed that extra police on the beat in Melksham - stated as an aim - will take some time because new officers all spend a time on the response teams before they specialise and it'll be several years before they specialise as beat bobbies. In answer to my question, he told me that there ARE only the 8 factors measured by PEEL, so the inspection revealed no area that were outstanding, good or adequate.
9. The Council was unable to agree a policy on the use of electronic devices such as mobile phones in meetings. Although there is a consensus of agreement that such devices are necessary in modern meetings for some purposes, that they can also be disruptive, and that we should all be responsible about their use, no form of wording that we could adopt was found. A mature sample supplied by councillor Price from Holme Valley Parish will be reviewed by council staff in association with councillor Price and will come back to a later meeting.
10. There is a view held amongst councillors that major projects over the past couple of years have not gone as well as they might, and we held a long discussion as to how we might update our procedures to make things better in the future. This discussion was held in confidence, as outlined from the previous full council meeting where it was element no. 2 in a proposal from councillor Goodhind, postponed from open session.
11. We were asked to appoint a permanent substitute for the staffing committee for when a regular member is unable to attend a meeting, and that was agreed with Councillor Lewis taking the role.
12. For this Thursday's staffing meeting, I had already been asked to stand in for a councillor who is unable to attend, but in light of (11) I suggested I withdraw in favour of councillor Lewis. Councillor Lewis, however, confirmed that she is already standing in for another councillor that evening so is unable to take on the sub role I have been asked to cover. I am withdrawing my offer to sub as both the mayor and councillor Hubbard felt it would be inappopriate for me to attend staffing as a sub. Apparently, they want councillors not involved in staffing matters to stay clear and uninformed so that can form an clean appeals panel if necessary, as we did in the run up to last Christmas.
Published Tuesday, 26th July 2022
Assembly Hall Working GroupOn May 12th, your Town Council set new hire charges for the Assembly Hall. This was done based on a dynamic spread sheet during the meeting, based on an example published 3 days earlier.
An "Assembly Hall Working Group" (AHWG) to monitor the new charges over a six month period and to look wider and further ahead was created as part of the motion which I supported - as I stated at the time, that group was a key element in my accepting - even proposing - the autumn hire charges.
Full Council on 16th May appointed Councillors Aves, Ellis, Houghton, Hubbard and Oatley to the AHWG. Four good people and myself, with Councillors Houghton, Oatley and Hubbard all having experience of working (or with or at) the Canberra Centre on Spa Road, and Councillor Aves with considerable Melksham community and council experience.
I am frustrated at the lack of any further follow up. It looks to me that without further intervention, work to support the future of the Assembly Hall will be left in the long grass, with so much of community value potentially being lost. Not only are we on a short timescale to review prices for 2023, but also to consider the wider future. The Blue Pool - part of the same building and intimately linked - closes today. Work is ongoing on Wiltshire Council's Melksham House which has become something of a solution looking for a problem. Likewise, the future use of the old library is uncertain. The Assembly Hall has maintenance and promotion needs, and the needs and desires of the community that use and support it need to be considered.
I have submitted a councillor's motion for tomorrow night's Town Council meeting (25.7.2022) asking for the AHWG to include a wider range of interested parties (such as people who use the hall and run or help with the running of events) in the same way that the Environment and Climate Working Group does already, and for it to meet with all interested parties present on 15th August.
The motion IS in the agenda, in spite of my being challenged as to whether it was appropriate. Apparently, meetings are set up by officers as required, and so I am at a loss as to why the May requirement to set the working group up did not trigger a meeting last month. I have rejected a couple of suggestions such as having a meeting of the five councillor in September to look at how we set up the working group's membership. Darn it, to have even five months of data for a sensible rates suggestion for December council we should have been gathering data from the beginning of this month. I agreed a compromise of an organisational setup meeting on 1st August with a view to getting down to the actual business with a fully representational meeting on 15th August, but I was advised at the tail end of last week that's now not considered practical because of the absence of the key council officer prior to 15th August, or for an estimated six weeks thereafter. I have every sympathy with the reasons for absence, but really we should be in a position where the show can go on!
Do I illustrate this article with a picture of long grass, of a stable door being shut with a horse bolting, or "the show must go on". I don't know - but I do think of the current and future users of the hall, of the taxpayer support funding that could be reduced if we have the hall in better use, and of whether we are sleepwalking into a poor outcome.
Published Sunday, 24th July 2022
Should your Town Council be involved?In recent years, Melksham Town Council and the Town Hall have been a drop off location for Shoebox gifts for Operation Christmas Gift - run by Samaritain's Purse. They say:
"The mission of Operation Christmas Child is to show God's love in a tangible way to children in need around the world, and together with the local church worldwide, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.
"Since 1990, more than 186 million children in over 160 countries have experienced God's love through the power of simple shoebox gifts from Operation Christmas Child."
Over the last day or so, there has been a major discussion between your councillors as to whether we should continue with this - a healthy discussion. On one hand I'm in very much in favour, but on the other hand some elements that really concern me. I ask myself
* Why (and as a council) are we doing this?
* Is this what our electorate want us to do?
* Are we happy with the messaging results?
* Are we happy with the results for the recipients?
* Could we be doing it signficantly better?
* How does it impact on officers time which is in short supply?
* How "big" is this - does it merit the resources of a review?
What do YOU think?
Published Saturday, 23rd July 2022
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