Graham Ellis - Regular updates - my diary
Town Centre Masterplan - draft
For the next neighbourhood plan, through which Melksham Town and Melksham Without can help guide the town's spatial developement, we require a vision for the Town Centre - and that's where the Town Centre Master Plan comes in. A draft of ths is coming before the Economic Development and Planning Committee on Monday evening ... members of the public welcome to come along and comment in the public participation at the start of the meeting (7 p.m., Town Hall, also on Zoom and broadcast on Facebook). I have mirrored the draft (here)
Our agenda item reads as follows: "To receive the draft Town Centre Masterplan produced by AECOM (see attached). Members are requested to decide how the Masterplan should move forward in the Neighbourhood Plan review."
1. The funding for this report comes from neighbourhood planning grants available from Central Government, and not the local taxpayer
2. The Town Council is very very much aware of the end of production at Copper Tires and the 'brown-field' site left very close to the Town Centre, and is mindful that future strategic planning should include that site. At the same time, the Town Council is mindful of the sensitivity in considering this at the very time that the shock of job losses and the effect of the people concerned is of top concern.
Published Friday, 11th November 2022
About me as a councillorIn answer to a public comment that said:
"All the Councillors living in their large detached houses with absolutely no respect for the general community that struggle day after day. !!!!!!"
Ah - I noted your comment, Liz, but felt it pragmatic to simply let it stand. I changed my stance and added an answer when Lisa, my wife, felt drawn in. But nothing in my answer should come as any surprise - nothing new here.
I have been asked (as, I think a one-off) to "check my moral compass" in the past, have done so, and found it to be pointing in the right direction. Sure, we live in a detached house and it IS large. It's home to Lisa and myself, who share a bedroom, and the other three bedrooms are currently the homes of guests from Ukraine. I am fortunate to have worked without significant break from 1971 until the 2020 lockdown provided a natural final retirement, and has allowed me to take up activities which I find fulfilling and enjoyable.
There is a big danger in me saying I do the councillor thing for "enjoyment" when the effect of the work we do as councillors is far, far beyond "enjoyment" for everyone else involved. Of course, if the system was different and I was paid (town councillors are not) you might be happier with my position, but then if I and the other 14 volunteer councillors were paid, it would add somewhere around £100 per annum to each Council Tax bill. Anyway - my choice to be a "muggins" and do it for free, when I could be spending my retirement playing golf, fishing, gardening, cruising around the world, or being a professional complainer!
I have faced (and been made) redundant twice. I have had to tell my wife and kids, packed to go off on holiday in the car for a week in Devon, that we are not going because of changes at work and that I'll loose my job if we go. If you ask if I have ever had to choose between keeping warm and eating, then, no, I haven't. To some extent, that's luck - but then I hope I have helped make my luck by being prudent and making appropriate choices. Just this morning, no trains in Melksham and a rail strike, I opted for a series of buses to my destination and not a taxi.
Every Councillor is different. These are just my personal comments, and I whilst I look at what others to and sometimes emulate them, that is far from universal. I spend, probably, much more time than most in communicating, but I try to make that communication be realistic and consistent, and not just what you want to hear. My story will be the same for everyone, though it will be presented as appropriate for the audience. And I learn; I'm not afraid to say "I don't know", nor am I afraid to change my stance as I learn more, or circumstance change, and to admit to those changes.
Every Councillor is different. So you cannot read the approach I describe in the previous paragraph to everyone. But I can tell you that in the 18 months I have been a councillor, my respect and admiration for the vast majority of them has grown hugely and as a town you are so fortunate to have this majority working for free on your behalf. I do have concerns where individuals have other interests such as being a Unitary councillor, for which they receive money. That makes it very difficult for them to take a view in the Town Council's interest where it may differ from the Unitary Authority's interest. For the most part, the interests are parallel, mind you.
A further though - I have massive time and respect for those who have themselves stood for Town Council (whether last time or before, elected or not) as they have being willing to put their time to the town and not just throw out word. Next elections are in 2025, and I would love to be there as part of a strong field, even if that lessens my chance of continuing. I also have huge time and respect for those who help the community in other ways without our groups around the time, and also a big understanding for those who don't find themselves in a position where they can help.
Sure, I live in a big house. In the middle of the ward I help represent too. You have 4 town councillors in south ward, 2 of us living here in the ward as well. My door is "always open" - but, please, that's in a virtual / electronic way. I can be reached by email or on Facebook any day, I can be phoned on my mobile, I can set up Zoom session and, please with an appointment, you are welcome to call round. That "with appointment" helps us plan to meet rather than suffering the frustration of guessing when I'll be home. Some of you may have noticed I have a public transport campaigning "hat" and I'm sometimes away - Indeed I'm not in Melksham as I write this - I'm awaiting transport that I'm learning about, but still "here" for Melksham.
- Illustration - helping at the Ukrainian and others clothes give away in the Assembly Hall this summer
Published Saturday, 5th November 2022
Planning for next year - Ecomomic Development and Assembly HallSome of the most important meetings of the Town Council are taking place this month - the budget working group which is looking forward to next year's anticipated spend and going through each committee's spending projections for the year 2023/24, informed by the expenditure we saw in the six or seven months from April, and what we know is coming up in the next few months. We should also be informed by a vision or a strategic plan, but we don't have one; early work was done on this when the council was new in the summer of 2021, but sadly the resource that should have been used for this important and long term stuff has been focused on immediate and more urgent issues.
Last night, we took a look at the budget for the Economic Development and Planning committee segment - of any of the segments, that's the one that needs a strategy, and expert inputs which we've sadly lacked. The "Econ Dev" committee comprises seven members only one of whom was on the previous council, and there's no longer a business development post at the council which informs us. With those concerns in mind, I do believe that the budget committee, with three Econ Dev members on it, has come up with budget proposals which are prudent, but at the same time allow us to access experts to help us get it right for the future, and allow us to take in the very uncertainty of forecasting. Details will be written up over the next few days and should be in the public agenda pack for the committee meeting itself on 14th October, at which point I can explain further, and also fill you in on developments which are funded from other sources so appear elsewhere in the accounts, such as our earmarked reserves.
The Assembly Hall budget for 2023/4 was also looked at last night. That's with the Assets and Amenities Committee remit, but had been left off the working group meeting that met for that committee. There were changes to the charging regime structure, and thus the operating model, in May. And that's resulted in some massive movements of elements around for next year. Considerable discussions last night on those movements, and on the wider aspects of the overall balance sheet for the hall, bearing in mind that there are general budget things which benefit the hall, and there are hall resources used by the council which do not appear as income. It was suggested that these elements may balance out, but unless we accept that speculation as being correct, the Assembly Hall budget cannot be taken as being a correct operational balance sheet for the hall. What was positive from the discussions was a desire to make the hall work, and with more and better planning and community help coming into play in areas like marketing, promotion and assistance.
Published Wednesday, 2nd November 2022
Learning for MelkshamThis month (October 2022) I have spent much of my time away from Melksham, taking a "this year only" opportunity to travel around by public transport - 50% off Interail passes to celebrate their 50 years, and now that I am longer working (for payment, anyway) some time available to do so. As a 2 month pass was only a few pounds more than a one month jobbie, I carry on for much of November, leaving Melksham again on 5th. I am online daily, and indeed I have done media inteviews by phone from Regua and Westport! And I am around for most key council meetings, though with late changes and addtions, I have to send my apologies to a couple of them.
A change is as good as a rest - and these journeys are not rests. They are showing me not only public transport but other town and cities and letting me get at least a surface view of how things are done there - some things better and some things worse than in Melksham. Seeding ideas - little things like "why don't we do this" and "thank goodness we don't do that".
The picture illustrating this could almost be Melksham - a 2 carriage local train drops a mixed bunch of passengers on quite a bleak platform. I happens to be Cork, with the arrival of the train from Midleton which, like the station in Melksham, lost its rail service for a number of years. There are differences - this service runs 4 times as frequently as our in Melksham and is very well used, and there's a late train that we lack. Midleton has a population of around 13,000 so its significanty smaller than Melksham.
Published Monday, 31st October 2022
Away and homeI am reporting on 10 days, 40 trains plus a ferry, a coach, and 3 bus journeys.
Also commenting on events in Melksham while I have been away - jump (here)
In a fit of some madness, I purchased an Interail ticket earlier in the year at 50% off to celebrate 50 years of Interail. As I grow older and the body and mind start to give way, it's an opportunity to travel in a window of opportunity between retirement and senility; the window is open and I don't know when it will close, so I am taking full advantage.
11th October 2022, from home in Melksham by public rail transport down through France, Spain and Portugal, taking in a selection of railway lines than had caught my fancy or intrigued me on a map all the day to Faro on the Algarve. Then back in "Race Across the World" mode to arrive home on the evening of 20th October.
Booking hotels a day or two ahead and planning the trip at short notice at each stage - grabbing train reservations where necessary. A trip to experience the travel rather than the destination, and to be nourished rather than have a gourmet experience.
The furthest north I got was Swindon, the furthest south was Faro (pictured further down). The furthest west was Lisbon, end the furthest east was Lille or Lyon - I'm unclear from the map projection which of those two it was. But this was primarily a public transport (rail) experience and of those places named, I only left the station in one of them, and changed trains in only one other.
I have slept in 9 different beds in 3 different countries - France, Spain and Portugal, in 7 different towns or cities. 2 nights, bracketing my visit to western Spain and Portugal, were spent in Barcelona but in very different hotels. And one night was travelling in a couchette.
* The longest train journey on a single train was from Paris (Montparnasse) to Latour-du-Carol high in the Pyrenees. The Shortest was from Farringdon to St Pancras International.
* The smallest station I used was San Xoan and for the largest, well it could have been Paris St Lazare or Kings Cross St Pancras International, in both cases the measurement of "size" is complicated by which of the associated suburban and underground / metro lines you include in the count, and whether you count passengers getting off or or, or include those going through, or number of train movements, or platforms. Do you even count Paris Metro line 14 which runs on rubber tyres - a sort of cross between a guided busway and a train - in the figures for St Lazare. Come to think of it, Paris (Gare du Lyon) may also be a contender for "largest" - crowded, picture later in the article.
* My longest walk to a hotel was in Barcelona early in my trip (that's why I went somewhere else in the city as I passed back through) and my shortest walk was in Caen, where I crossed the road by the Zebra just out of the station doors, and instead of turning left or right onto the pavement carried on straight ahead into reception.
* The high point of my trip was Nuria, some 2000 metres above sea level (pictured to the right), and the low point was perhaps 50 metres (a guess - I don't know how far down) below the English Channel in the Channel Tunnel. It may be a guess, but in any case is "Sea Level" measured at high, median, or low tide?
* The trip had high and low experience points - more on those later - but again I'll name Nuria as a contender for the high point, and the Eurostar trip under the channel as the low point.
* The most helpful railway person was the young lady at Aviles, and the least helpful was the reservation clerk at Barcelona Sants who turned me away at 20:30 because he was closed for reservations for the following day. Mind you, he was polite. And mind you again, neither the lady at Aviles nor the gent in the ticket office where she took me was able to issue what I was asking for.
* The best food - Leon, Regua and Barcelona. The worst - Caen and also Barcelona.
* The fastest train - Lyon to Paris, at up to 300km per hour. The slowest - Ribes to Nuria, which has the excuse of being a rack railway.
Some superlatives and extremes, and their stories
* The most beautiful Station - Porto San Bento. What can I say - I'll not write 1000 words - I'll give you it as lead picture.
* The quietest station for its size - Ferrol. Just 3 departures on Saturday on the board gauge. Big terminus substantial town. But so many lines in Spain (especially) seem to have very, very thin services. Probably because distances are so great that there isn't the intersection of local and long distance traffic on the same trains, and Ferrol has little local.
* The most disappointing train - Vigo to Porto. International train, right? Well - it's a 3 car suburban-ish diesel multiple unit that runs services in the outer 'burbs of Porto mostly and extends International just twice a day. And as far as I can tell, these are 2 of just 3 international trains running between Spain and Portugal each day. The third crossed the border inland then runs out with a change of trains required and timetable helpfully say "connection not guaranteed" - never mind, there will be another train tomorrow.
* The least good company. The bloke who I sat beside on Eurostar. I sat in one of a pair of seats - wasn't sure of the numbering and chose the window. He turned up and insisted on the window, precoded to put the (single) intermediate arm rest down and fully occupy it, indeed spilling into my inner seat as he was clearly oversized for the seat he had demanded. Totally impervious to his occupying a portion of my seat as well as his own, and wriggly!
* The latest trains ... 40 minutes delay on arrival in each case (each set off on time)
- London to Paris
- Latour-du-Carol to Risel
- Barcelona to Leon
- Porto to Faro
None caused a problem, although I was concerned for my connection in Paris - I made the night train by 15 minutes!
* The best company. (1) Special mention for two people in the Douro Valley. Across from our train to another, chatting with the steward on the 100 year old presidential train, on its last run before going back into the museum. Learned a lot of Portuguese history that we were never taught in school, and sampled (passed across between the trains in a plastic cup) some local 10 year matured port. (2) A tourist doing similar in that he was exploring on his own. Not sure that we chatted much, but company was nice; sad to say he also reminded me in some aspects as to why the locals may not be all that keen on tourists. Texans!
* Best hotel - Leon. Near the station, neat, modern, convenient - and with enough soft furnishing to avoid it feeling like a prison cell as so many hotel rooms did. Not that I have any personal experience of a prison cell, I hasten to add.
* Best hotel breakfast - Regua. Excellent continental buffet, overlooking the scenic river. Pictured just above. The rooms, though, were dated.
* The biggest surprise - Leon. A wonderful old city which I had selected as my overnight stop purely because of the railway geography.
* The best scenery - Nuria, Leon to Oviedo, North Spain Coast (Picture just below of one of the many towns along there)
* Where I want more time. Gijon, Guimares, Porto, Faro, Caen ...
My laptop (I was writing this up on my laptop on Brittany Ferry's Salamanca, and am now posting while I wait just short of an hour on Westbury station!) and iPhone. Continental power adaptor (yes, I have UK one too) and cable to connect the two has proven perfectly adequate. Most trains have charging points, and a Go-Roam and Daily Data Passport have kept me pretty much in touch.
I did download a backup of the Coffee Shop forum databases when in McDonalds in Seville; other data areas on our server change little day by day.
The Maps app was a godsend in finding my hotels each night.
The Interail journey planner includes an excellent international timetable that I have been using to track / test journey options; it has a reservation facility which is less useful - often telling you to reserve locally (and sometimes as in Normandy where it turned out there was no need to reserve)
I need to research transferring a .pdf onto my iPhone. To do at home, not on the road
I would dearly love to find an earpiece that works for me; being totally deaf in one ear, such things tend to be a problem but I could really do with being able to listen in when on a train without sharing with the whole compartment!
Damage ... or is that wear and tear?
* My pass, which includes a logging sheet, has run out of space and I'm onto a continuation sheet. It's also torn apart and looking well used, probably because it IS well used
* I'm wearing boots that are supposed to be tough - but actually they'r not that tough - laces have failed and the soles are disintegrating. Will need a new pair for next time
* My USB-c to USB-c (power for Mac) cable is frayed, insulation gone at one end and I need to get a fresh one.
* I left a shirt in a hotel somewhere ... pity, I liked that shirt.
* There's a hole in one of my socks
Take - next time
Cutting my weight down - map and timetables vital, other reading material, newspapers, clipboard utterly not needed. Too many layers of clothes to lug around. One face mask plus one spare should be enough.
I was persuaded to take some medical 'necessities' which were proven unnecessary; thinking about those for next time.
I carried few clothes and was alternating day by day and washing overnight (so 2 nights to dry where rooms were not naturally good for drying). 3rd set unused, but good as a safety next.
Change boots to strong trainers.
Instant coffee sachets. 2 x ring bound notepads
News from home
* Cooper Tires - have announced they are to cease production in Melksham next year. Sad news but not really a shock. Huge sympathy with those who work there and some who have done so for many years. However (current government chaos allowing) we are in a time and area of job opportunities and we need bus and lorry drivers, care workers, shift production works at at least 3 other places I know in the area - so there's opportunities there and the 3% of people made redundant should be absorbed by the local community.
By my measurement, the Cooper Tires site is 11 hectares, and that's potentially prime river frontage in the town. I do not wish to appear to be a vulture waiting for Copper Tires to die before picking over the dead land carcass, BUT consideration needs to be given. Cooper Tires as a business will have considered this, I'm sure. As chair of Economic Development and Planning committee on the Town Council, I need to help guide what we look forward to for the future and how we steer it. I am hampered by the council deciding a year ago to declare the business development manager / expert redundant, by it overloading our clerk (who has some expertise in this area), and by certain individuals seemingly throwing rocks in the way of the "Priority for People" work which generated much useful thought and data for the previous council.
My trip was scheduled to miss minimal meetings. Monday's "Assets and Amenities" was the only one I missed (OK - I watched online as best I could, but councillors are not allowed to contribute remotely!) and I felt - as did others who missed it - that it was a disappointment in that the small group that actually attended (5 councillors, with 4 apologies sent) seemed to move very little forward - general concern amongst councillors shared on our WhatsApp group. Astonished than no-one - officers, councillors or public, chose to mention the Copper Tires news if only to indicate that the council was aware of it!
Wednesday - "Environment and Climate working group". Was to be a wash-up meeting to review Climatefest, and I sent in a travel and transport update in good time. Disappointed this didn't make the agenda pack to inform members, and no doubt I will see meeting notes from ECWG in due course.
Disappointing news that the "temporary" reduction of Melksham's town bus, due to driver shortage, is to become "permanent". With just one vehicle instead of two, it will struggle to provide anything except a "distress" service of use only by those who have no alternative, with some parts of the town having only 2 or 3 services per day - want to go shopping, and you have just the one round trip option left. Scarcely an encouragement to be climate friendly and use the bus! There is, though, a potential window of opportunity here, to be addressed over the first days I am back.
Also to note - potential storm cloud on the horizon for the direct bus link to the Royal United Hospital (service x76) which is not seen as "core network" and has been noted by thems who plan services as a potential cut when they look to save money next year. Which is far from what the people of Calne and Marlborough in particular want which is a much better service than the one per day.
And finally for those of you who have asked about live departure information at bus stops - we have an estimated price for installation per bus stop of just over £6000 if the bus stop already has electricity, estimated twice that if the bus shelter does not have electricity, and goodness knows how much if there isn't even a shelter. Price includes data and maintenance for a four year period, and I don't know about VAT. Wiltshire Council is putting in a new system across the county where the old systems are being replaces, and this price if for "piggybacking" extras onto the new system.
* Assembly Hall
Almost all of the October to December leaflets produced and distributed by the Assembly Hall friends with the help of the Town Council team have now gone - we just have a few left.
I await to hear from the Town Clerk about the survey of users that was due to go out - I have been promised an opportunity to review the questions.
Assembly Hall working group was told to reconsider its terms of reference by full council; the discussion was filibustered at the start of the month, and I can't help thinking it looks as if certain councillors and perhaps staff don't want to hall to succeed. Purley a personal feeling, of course ;-)
Lisa and I will be at "Majesty" tomorrow night. Looking forward to it!
* Home life
I understand there's been a lot going on - but you wouldn't expect me to break confidences here would you?
Would I do it again?
Yes, but that's a qualified yes. It's lonely on your own (eating alone, and seeing happy groups such as the final picture in Barcelona bring it home) and I would loved to have had Lisa with me, but rather than impose that would have meant a dramatically reduced itinerary (not that I had one!) or elongated schedule. I would love to have shared the experiences with someone - someone special and not just a friend I had linked up with for the trip. I'm minded of our cruises - with Lisa and me it's just a natural and enjoyed time, but with others (and in groups pre-cruising) having others along has limited rather than enhanced the pleasure. But I'm aware I tend to push - very hard - to maximise activities on trips (you will have noted this from my 10 day report) and that's far from easy on Lisa. I would consider qualified other company from someone who had the same interest and "zip" as me, but that's a rare beast, and I suspect I would still look for the odd independent day from anyone except Lisa (and certainly my own hotel room!)
WILL I do it again?
Yes, and that's pretty definite! My pass carries on through November and be prepared to be bored, if you might, by further logging of exploits. The window of opportunity remains open for the next month.
There's no place like home. It will be really good to rest a few days, catch up with partner and friends, see the streets of Melksham and hear and smell the town.
Published Thursday, 20th October 2022
ClimateFest public transport reportResources:
Data sheet for 17th September: (here)
Random picture from library: (here)
Handout for 2nd October: (here)
Presentation slides for 2nd October: (here)
Option 247 pull up banner: (here)
ClimateFest / Melksham - Public Transport Element
Planned for Saturday 17th September, main event postponed on 9th September due to the passing of HMQR2 until 2nd October.
From the mayor that day: ""With regard to Climatefest, this has been a more difficult decision. Our feeling is that a toned-down event would not be disrespectful. Indeed, it is noted that such an event is in keeping with our new King's priorities. However, with much contemplation, we believe that a toned-down (information fair) event during the period of mourning will risk not being a success. Since this is our inaugural event, the importance of its success can not be understated. By toning it down and holding it during the period of mourning, the event will not achieve the objectives it set out to achieve at its inception. For this reason, we are postponing the event until Sunday 2nd October.""
With the Big Lemon bus booked and paid for that day and people coming from multiple places so support it, we ran a separate demonstration that day - and indeed had a rather better opportunity to evaluate routes and show people the bus and talk prospects without becoming just one element in a bigger show, all pulling for people's attention.
On 2nd October, we took a stall in the Assembly Hall to help promote public transport.
** 17th September
Superb day - we replaced the "Park and Ride" short demonstration run with a series of runs along a realistic route "16" (next number up in the town service series, if you wonder) from the Railway Station through the Town Centre and newer residential areas to the Bowerhill Business area, to an interchange with route x34 to Trowbridge.
All runs had a good number of passengers on board - somewhere around 125 journeys made in total. Most were round trips (we only offered those formally) others were ad-hoc connections from the station to the Town Centre. That latter was people turning up and being happy to have a ride.
Timings taken - and we know of where a few minutes adjustment may be needed. Clearances along the route checked. Alternative route variations also tried out (we could do that because it was round trips only). Publicity pictures taken. Personal needs / lunch break spot tested. Battery power of bus less than 25% used from Beckington to Melksham (Milk Churn), Friday evening route learning, and 5 round trips on Saturday.
Public response very positive - not only from the people who took rides, but also from residents waiting for other buses and train, and also who saw the bus passing along the way. Good lines of questioning from many riders on topics such as battery life, is hydrogen better, what if the train is late. None of the questions came "left field".
** 2nd October
10 a.m. to mid afternoon in the Assembly Hall. Stall to talk about public transport, including distribution of main Melksham bus route data (271/2/3 and x34) - thanks to Faresaver for the timetables.
Significant staffing issue to record as several of our team arrived and left by bus. One person had to get lifts (as no x34 on Sunday, and does not live near train station) and first 273 from Bath direction does not arrive until LONG after we were open. But our team is bus and train users and we coped.
Much of the discussion / feedback was on the yellow bus - still the talking point even two weeks after. The idea of a bus that connects with the trains is highly attractive. We had a few train timetables for the "taking" but no big supplies; official rail timetables no longer printed in any quantity.
Very much a passing-stall marketing operation, but lots of people reminded of their public transport or told about it for the first time. Typical reasons not to use it ("not as convenient", "costs too much, especially for a group", "not easy to find out", "doesn't go when/where I want") all rather familiar. We should not be put off by these elements / questions. Mention made of senior bus passes all day until March.
Talk to about a dozen people - slide set (as they're mostly pictures, pretty useless without hearing the talk) at
General show attendance was modest; review on 19th October by organising committee. My understanding is that it was good as a first and perhaps can grow, but there are concerns that it took too much staff resource and prevented other environment things being done. For example, the Town Council has a big greening budget for tree planting that may go unspent.
** Next Steps
A number of significant movers and shakers came along on 17th, and we are now into a planning phase. People are aware (see leaflet) than an electric bus does not just spring up from no-where and indeed that a step-wards approach makes sense; the setting up and fitting out of a depot with solar panels is significant and step 1 might be diesel - still MUCH better than lots of cars running around, then electric, then electric charged from depot. There would be much danger in requiring all three steps to be completed at once, with the early steps of an all day, every day service promoting and encouraging the next step. Capital investment for stage one does not need to be massive, and revenue support for the 2023/24 year would be an excellent start.
Big Lemon have just registered in the South West and started four community routes in Bristol in this way, and there are other ongoing discussions. Connecting train timetables will change little in December 2022 and whilst more significant changes in the region are expected in May 2023, they will only slide Melksham train times by a very little as the trains are re-slotted around an enhanced Bristol to Westbury service.
Proposals / suggestions onward to technical teams - for general readers it may be a little quiet for the next couple of months.
Published Friday, 14th October 2022
Away, recharging batteriesLadies and Gentlemen,
I will be away to recharge my batteries with immediate effect, returning late(r) in the month. I am taking a last minute this-year-only opportunity after a busy year. Please accept / register my apologies for all meetings / appointments this week and next.
I expect to have very limited and intermittent Internet access while away which. The main purpose is having a change which they tell me is as good as a rest, but I WILL try to avoid dropping any balls. Thank you for your understanding.
Published Monday, 10th October 2022
Homes for Ukraine / Melksham updateStatistics from HMG and how they're reflected in Melksham - an update prepared for circulation to Councillors. Starting off with the wider UK picture, then looking at Wiltshire and at Melksham and how the community group fits in.
Total Ukraine Scheme visa applications received: 219,500
Data is as of 27 September 2022 and comprised of:
Ukraine Family Scheme: 62,900
Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme: 156,600
Total Ukraine Scheme visas issued to people: 188,700
Data is as of 27 September 2022 and comprised of:
Ukraine Family Scheme visas: 52,800
Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme visas: 135,900
Total arrivals of Ukraine Scheme visa-holders in the UK: 131,700
Data is as of 26 September 2022 and comprised of:
arrivals via Ukraine Family Scheme: 36,800
arrivals via Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme: 94,900
So there are around 80 applications "in process" for the area and 150 issued but not (yet) arrived. Some of those will go ahead - but we are reduced now to a trickle of occasional arrivals. Others will not arrive - personal circumstances and plans change, and especially in (Ukrainian) war time ... with a UK application system that at times can be complex, slow, and frustrating.
One of the highest rates for the UK - about one application for every 300 residents, contrast at the other extreme Newcastle on Tyne - 304 applications, population 800,000, so one application for every 2700 residents.
Melksham - background to where are we now
Local data - Wiltshire Council have, but little shared. Indications are that there are (or have been) between 80 and 100 guests in the Melksham area, of whom about a half are children, and almost all of the rest are adults of working age. Very few (if any) older people. So Melksham numbers are proportionality in excess of numbers across the county, which in turn has a higher proportion of guests that most local government areas.
Almost all (if not all) are under the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme (Homes for Ukraine (H4U) ) as there were at the outset very few if any people from Ukraine in this area who could bring there relatives in. There are, however, a lot of caring and generous hosts in this area.
The people coming to Melksham under H4U are described as "guests". They don't have prior links with our area, and the first of each group had probably never heard of Wiltshire, let alone Melksham, prior to the war. Groups are not clean clusters - there's friends and family left behind in almost every case - senior parent urging children and grandchildren "go save yourself" and sisters getting out where brother cannot (or do not want) to leave Ukraine.
So - these people may be guests but are they are very different from guests who would come and stay with you for a holiday. Most are stressed - from a bombed out town or a family that has lost members in a few cases through those who are emotionally damaged or just frightened of life in Ukraine, through to some who look forward to a new life away from the war zone. There is no clearcut line between "refugee" and "economic migrant" - initial primary intent to return or to make a new life is about the best boundary line I can come up with. But it's not even always the same in a family group or cluster, with the next destination within a group being different, and Melksham being the last place they live together - natural perhaps as younger ones leave home and set up their own.
A few have already left - I have examples of some back to Ukraine (and even then asking to return), others to elsewhere in the UK where independent housing is much more available than in Wiltshire, and on to another country too.
Very few new applications are being made - and that's because the pool of sponsors initiating applications is pretty well dried up. A lot of our people in Wiltshire signed up in March, but didn't take it further, some because they didn't then go out and seek guests and others because they had second thoughts, or were very specific in the guests they sought, and they found no-one who came up to their expectations.
Guests arrive scared and into the unknown. That can make them vulnerable to exploitation, and also make them act secretive or private from those who are trying to help them. They initially speak little English and have no income and no ID or knowledge of systems. And this untrusting and new setup for them can make them shut down, complaining that things are not what they are used to, and emotionally aggressive in how they look out for themselves and their offspring and younger siblings and friends.
Because the UK visa system is / was much more complex that the way into other countries from Ukraine, and our sponsor pool filled up early, we have received into the area some of the brightest, most educated, and most determined families. This is both a blessing and a curse.
People are wonderful - most of our hosts and mosts of our guests, and most of our wider community. Hosts have opened their home, not quite sight unseen, to people in real need, but also with no training or experience and minimal briefing. "Learning on the job" but knuckling down and doing so. Guests are appreciative too and bright enough to know how they cab help. Community has been fantastic too - from organisations that are normally slow moving through to charitable bodies who want to help and companies, and individuals who may not have the space or the stomach for hosting themselves but really want to help.
Wiltshire Council have (and continue) to try to be helpful, but have been landed with around (my estimate) ten times the number of guests they can deal with properly, and a mandate that prioritises supporting guests over hosts. There have been some rough (very rough) and ready decisions and actions, some appalling lacks in how they look after "their own" - hosts. And some things done or not done based on how much time they need to invest, rather than what is right for the people - guests and hosts - involved. That is not totally intended as a criticism - they have been dealt a difficult hand, but perhaps they could have done better in how they then played it - and they still could be learning. Too late for some, but in time for some others.
Melksham - now and looking forward
Our UMeet group of voluntary co-ordinators and communicators - the eyes and ears of the community - met on Tuesday. UMeet has grown within Melksham https://www.facebook.com/groups/ukraine2uk and the website at http://www.ukraine2uk.info where I am an admin, and from where in the early days we have been instrumental in providing support.
Phase 1 - helping with matching and paperwork
Phase 2 - helping with travel to the UK and then with getting local ID and support
Phase 3 - help assimilating into life - English, schools, living arrangements.
These things differ from family to family, but have the same systems underlying them and similar experiences, and we have been helping both hosts and guests in their networking. Thats the "Meet" of meeting.
We are now into what might be considered a fourth phase. Hosts were asked to sign up to host for up to six months, up to a year, or indefinitely. Guests arrived with the idea of finding their own places very quickly, of settling with the help of their hosts and then moving on when well established, or of finding somewhere safe until they could return to their Ukraine homes.
For many, that's great and working well, but consider:
* For some hosts, with the new experience of traumatised and culturally different guests even six months is trying and some relationships break down early
* Changes in personal circumstances of hosts lead to them needing the space back, either for their own family or because they are moving
* Hosts are finding that the increased cost of living is making it very hard for them
* For guests who came on the expectation of "get a job", finding a job that can suit their [new] lifestyle may not be easy - for example childcare issues.
* For guests who came on the expectation of "get our own place", finding a place independently is near impossible around here - an utter lack of rental accommodation, and the very few places that are available require things like a significant deposit, an established credit history, and an expectation that the rental will last into the longer term.
* Some guests find themselves very isolate with a lack of transport and/or even the basics of a shop within walking distance, friends, work, etc.
Living accommodation for guests
There is - in most cases - nowhere for guests to move on to.
* Wiltshire Council Policy is to extend as far as possible in sponsor homes, though (unlike Gloucestershire, for example) they have not increased the "thank you" payment that helps hosts. And they say they can't because it's a national issue. A bit mean, when you consider that (our household as an example) they receive £42,000 from central government and are giving us £350 per month (£87.50 per guest - £3 per guest per day)
* Wiltshire Council have - as understand it - declined to set up a housing rental guarantee system for guests. Such a scheme is in operation in Bristol, and is helping overcome all the major obstacles to renting there. They are offering help (even encouraging) guests to move away from the area - "up north" for example, which for some may make sense.
* When a guest complains to Wiltshire Council and manages to get through / noticed, they tend to push themselves onto the radar and support ladder. Rather than look to see if they can be helped "in situ" if that is appropriate, the guests are
a) Removed with immediate of near-immediate effect to a hotel room or unfurnished halfway accommodation such as Kingsbury Square (with the community left to provide the basics where we can and followed up a while later by
b) Move to council / housing association property and there, we have found, the council probably turns up with a load of furniture to help.
* For many guest / host pairings that want to move on to the next stage, it seems that the only way to get assistance is for the hosts to throw out the guests and the guests to complain. This is not a clever way of handling and supporting people who are in distressing circumstances, nor a clever way of looking after hosts!
* Peter Dunford, our Melksham Area community rep was as helpful as he could be within the WC system, but he took redundancy last month when his role (and the role of 17 colleagues) was organised away. What remains being done of this work has passed to a colleague who now looks after 3 community areas not one and works right across to the Berkshire border! It was very clear from this gentleman's presentation at the Area Board that his new role is longer term (Strategic) and that he is primarily talking at us rather than with us.
Support of Hosts
Our Facebook group, phone calls, meets in person and chats have and continue to network hosts. A few of us seem to have become the de-facto sounding board and direction for trusted discussions and thoughts. A safeguarding online briefing was extremely useful personally; I do know how to call in the experts if need be, but the over-reactions in some cases mean this route is used with caution. We feel a duty of care to our hosts as well as to our guests, and the tilted bias of Wiltshire Council towards guest tends to mean we tilt a little to hosts. I am fortunate that I spend a number of years working with counselling and safeguarding data and am somewhat aware of issues.
Finance to UMeet
A big "thank you" to four organisations who have offered us funding or raised money to help the Ukrainian Community in Melksham. To ensure a proper audit trail, John Firth with the Good News Church is accounting this ring-fenced in their accounts, or the money remains with the donor until we call it up.
Requirements to draw funds do not neatly align with them being raised so at present there is a banked "pool". We have, however, bought appropriate textbooks for those who are attending our English for Speakers of Other Languages course in Melksham.
With some of the funding, it's tricky to know where best to help. It may be sudden in helping furnish or guaranteeing, but that then uses it for a very small part of the Ukrainian community. Best leave that to the offices (internet check) of John, Graham, Martin, Adrienne, Sharon and Lisa to look at the cases individually and with a view of what the donor said as the funds were given.
UMeet itself is intensely grateful for the donations of rooms to meet, beverages, and volunteer time so that finance (and accounting for that finance) as not been an issue. On one or two occasions where something has needed paying for, it has been paid for and donated by a volunteer.
Local provision of classes by Wiltshire Council and Wiltshire College has been hard to access and sporadic. But then they were initially trying to address an unquantified issue, even if they should know the quality that's required. It's been a bit of a lottery, with the training organisations looking to move people on online as soon as they can. In Real Life college course seem to be stopping and starting based on numbers of attendees, and the attendees who started but had to drop out (perhaps to take a job) are unable to join a new course.
Guests ARE coming along, but it is not easy to learn a new language that has a different set of letters - it's double hard.
To help fill the gaps, we are running an adult course in Melksham on Saturdays - it's full; at a time that people who are working can get there, and when they can find childcare. We are also running a smaller groups for children after school; need to be smaller to keep the concentration there, and whilst one or two more could join, that would be plenty. These course are run by a volunteering retired teacher.
What U-Meet is doing
Supporting Guests and hosts / arranging meets / helping with issues and advice on the various things listed above. Referring people on as appropriate. Running Adult and Children's English classes ourselves. That's a management summary - you'll see all the details and context above.
And in summary
An unusual scheme that's attracted far more guests and sponsors than I suspect was ever imagined. Various issues along the way which are only to have been expected based on the depth and gravity of the issues being addressed.
In the current phase, the really big problem is housing as guests move on beyond their initail landin and settling, perhaps with a limited time sponsor. All in all it's remarkable what has been and is being done, but we should not shy away from current issues or consider ourselves "job done". Some phases have, indeed, wound down. Others remain being address and in need of furthering.
Published Thursday, 6th October 2022
New Town Hall hours from 1.11.2022Overview
Historically, the Town Hall has been open as an enquiry desk for people to walk in from 9 to 5 on Mondays to Fridays - we're a public service and the local body you pay your taxes to and enquiry point.
As from 1st November, the Town Hall will be open for walk-ins on Monday to Thursdays only, and for reduced hours during the day. One evening, it will later. Provisionally:
* Monday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
* Tuesday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
To be detailed and confirmed by the Town Clerk - council set guidelines on Monday.
Background and reasoning
This summer we have had to close ad-hoc for an afternoon or whole day here and there as we've not had two members of staff on hand (one to answer queries and a second for safety). It's perhaps not been the big problem it might have been in the past, as face to face contact didn't happen during Covid lockdown and in any case has reduced as so much has gone online.
I had already suggested in the early summer when staffing problems loomed that we run shorter but robust hours for a few weeks (while the holiday, sickness, outdoor working season lasted) but that suggestion appeared lost into the ether. Good to see it being picked up by the staffing committee as a permanent thing ;-).
As it came from staffing to full council on Monday, the proposal was 10 to 4 on 4 days a week. And with one or two councillors from that secretive committee rather miffed at the challenges from us outsiders - however, the late hours one evening was endorsed in order to give Town Hall access to those who can't make it during the normal working day - following a similar scheme to used in the library.
I hope this works - I would rather have reliable, published, shorter hours than a system under which there's a chance that people coming to visit the Town Hall will get there in published hours to find it shut. I would have liked data to tell us whether closing on a Friday or a Wednesday, and/or which are the quieter hours during the days. However, such evidence was only available in the form of "I feel it's quieter on a Friday" as it seems there's no tick-chart at the reception counter to keep note of when people visit and for what purpose, as I would expect - at least for evaluation periods - at a business which is reviewing opening hours and services.
Published Wednesday, 5th October 2022
Blue Badge - taxpayer to buy spaces?The only public car parking that Melksham Town Council looks after - as I understand it - is the one behind The Cricketers at the top of KGV park that's used by people going to Rivermead School. It's somewhat ironic that car parking in Melksham's other public car parks - Union Street, Lowbourne, Central, Bath Road and King Street, which are under the sole ownership and operation, occupies a lot of time at Town Council meetings.
Wiltshire Council have decided to charge for parking in disabled spaces. They have offered (asked for a price by the Town Council) to rent these spaces to the Town Council for £669 each space per annum so they can stay free of charge to the disabled user. And this came up at Town Council on Monday evening.
1. There is a very dangerous precedent in Wiltshire Council ceasing to provide a service (free parking with blue badges) and the Town Council looking to pick up the pieces at cost to the local voters. If we pick up this one now, what next?
2. Much of the concern is not actually about "pay or not" for disabled - it's about the practicality of paying for those less able at meters that may not be close to the disabled spaces and pedestrian access to the car park, may be at a higher level, may not be easy for the colourblind to use ... and who cannot easily use online payment.
3. The big question is should everyone be paying or not ... should we be making a special case of blue badge holders?
Quite remarkable for this to be a Town Council discussion looking at the (perhaps) shortcomings or unpopular decision of Wiltshire Council with a view to us and our local taxpayers who are within walking distance of to town asked to pay to bail them out.
There is logic in having people pay for their parking somehow - indeed, someone needs to pay the cost of parking. At the supermarkets, you pay without being conscious in the cost of your goods (and if you park and walk in to town, others are paying in their goods). At the airport or railway station, you pay.
For the Town Center, it has come from business rates, and retail and service businesses should discuss the level with their Unitary Councillor. However, the Town council has an interest in keeping the town vibrant and part of that is having people park here so it is something we should look at, balancing providing financial support with significant extra taxation on local residents.
The Town Council's Car Park Redemption Scheme allows motorists to reclaim the cost of parking from participating retailers - and that's for all motorists and not just the blue badge holders. In many ways it's far better tuned than a scheme for just the disabled, as it's used by those who really need the help through what is (we admit) a clunky system for all involved. We do need to publicise it better. And the proposal for us to pay up to £15,000 a year to buy free parking for blue badge holders in Wiltshire Council Car Parks in Melksham (or to buy some spaces only at a lower cost) was withdrawn without the support of 2 councillors required to take it to a vote.
From feedback on the Facebook feed, town council, on Monday:
Yes definitely shops need to be involved in the parking. I have not come across any and never seen any information that they partake. But perhaps I have just missed it. By the way I walk to town so do not need parking.
On Facebook, maybe...a month ago?...there was a post listing the shops that participate. It *may* be on the town council site as well. But, you are right, they are hard to discover.
And comment that it's not so much the principle of having blue badge holders pay, but rather the awkwardness of the systems for doing so.
Great idea re art house computer skills and helping to download parking app
Exactly the inaccessibility of parking meters ! The height is also an issue for wheelchair users ... not everyone has a mobile phone to use an app.
And think about parking meters at wheelchair height please
Wiltshire Council IS in process of updating (some or all?) parking machines; modern technology with number plate recognition could transform car park payment, but it's expensive technology and I would be surprised if Melksham Town Council implemented it. Barrier / ANPR systems at the exits of the Central and King Street Car Parks would have a complication because there are properties and private parking reach through both car parks.
Published Tuesday, 4th October 2022