Graham Ellis - Regular updates - my diary
Lighting in KGV Park
£60,000 is to be spent by Melksham Town Council on 16 lights on 6 metre tall posts in King George V Park. The proposal has been rumbling on for years, and the final decision was made at the full council meeting on 19th December 2022. With 9 councillors out of 15 voting in favour, the purchase and installation WILL be going ahead.
It was explained / discussed at full council that the lights had been requested for the safety of people walking through the park in the early evenings and early mornings in winter. It was also explained that the lights won't be on all the time, rather they'll only come on as necessary. And light standards will be to the same / nice look and feel as in use elsewhere in Melksham. I understand that they should be in place before the long dark nights return next autumn.
I am in the minority on this one - I am one of the six councillor who did not vote in favour. Why?
* First, I question the extra safety it will bring to light the inner circle when people who walk through the park tend to pass around the outside.
* Second, I am not convince it will reduce (rather than increase) antisocial behaviour; evidence is inconclusive both ways.
* Third, I have concerns about potential disturbance to wild life; again evidence is inconclusive.
* Fourth, I wonder if this is a good use of £60,000 - that's a cost of about £12 on each council tax bill in the town and could instead pay (for example) to run a connecting town bus from station and centre to the east and south parts of the town for a "seeding" year, or simply be reduced from your bill which was £2128 this year and looks likely to be around £2245 next year.
* Fifth, I have not seen or heard (m)any calls from residents on this lighting - though as I don't represent the part of the town that includes the park as a thoroughfare / through path, why would I?
* Sixth my understanding from a very small sample is that views on lighting are varied, and the true "top priority" is a cafe / refreshments during the day, not lights at night.
--- Also noting comments / input from previous councillors on 20th October 2020 (Councillors Watts, Illman and Westbrook in the minutes) at the start of this project, which address lighting and the need for it, but concentrate on the area / path from the Pavillion to the Adventure Centre.
Having given you six reasons I am with the minority on your council on this, I accept the majority decision and understand it's their decision for you the voters. I will support that, doing my best to make sure the scheme is implemented optimally. Should others change their minds and a majority of councillors ask for this to be pulled back, I will then put my points again in a new discussion, hopefully better informed and that just could result in my voting different.
Update - 20:00 I have been to take a look this evening to be better informed should something more decisive be needed from me, and from a standing start I would say I can see merit in having a single extra light between the skate park (already well lit) and the adventure centre (also lit already), and several lights along the roadway from the Adventure Centre behind the playground and muga which was very dark tonight. Whether the lights on the circuit will spill some light onto the path and roadway, I don’t know! Neither do I know what the wildlife effect would be of my suggestion, which is academic anyway.
Now - on Wednesday this week, a month after the decision was made, the topic came up at the Environment and Climate Working Group of the council. That group includes a number of none-councillor experts and from within those experts, there was fury that this lighting matter had not been passed through the group. "What's this group for if our expertise is not called on by the council?" A good question, somewhat dumbed down by the fact that the matter has been on full council agendas multiple times over the past 3 years so everyone has (technically) had a chance to put their view. But there's so much on the council agenda, and there are elements amongst us who would much rather get on with things that have public input that makes "silly" comments or makes "impractical" suggestions ... too often, things come to public attention too late in the day to make effective points and suggestions.
By the close of business next TUESDAY (24th January 2023), the agenda for the full council budget meeting the following Monday will have been published. YOU have an opportunity on 30th (if you are a resident in Melksham Town) to express your views on income and spending plans. I know what's in the plans - I was one of eight councillors who attended last week's budget working group, but I am not at liberty to reveal outcomes or the views of others until next week. I will blog on Tuesday evening and welcome inputs over the following few days. Or make a diary note and come along to tell us all on 30th!
Published Friday, 20th January 2023
Wiltshire Town Populations - 2021 CensusFor my public transport in Wiltshire interests, the various residential populations are a key measure, and indeed for Town Council work comparisons are useful "what are THEY doing" and "how big are they". The 2021 census data at a Town / Parish level is now available, and this has allowed me to update my database. I am using https://www.ons.gov.uk. It's good to be updated - some communities have remained static, but most have grown by varying amounts.
I have almost consistently used the "Urban Area" population offered by the census web site; there's a handful of exceptions where several urban areas run into each area and they have a common name so for example Staverton in included with Trowbridge and Bowerhill with Melksham even though the relationships are different in the census.
Melksham remains the fourth largest urban are, after Salisbury, Trowbridge and Chippenham (the three towns which historically have had special / different treatment because of their size.
You will oft hear "Wiltshire is a rural county" used to explain why things are different here. But whilst it's true that we have lots of countryside, it's also worth noting that more than two third of our residents (350,000 of 510,000) live in urban areas with populations of over 2,000 - in other words, whilst we have lots of open spaces, most of us live in towns or large villages and not rurally.
|Royal Wootton Bassett
|Some smaller Settlements
|Not in Wiltshire - nearby
Published Wednesday, 18th January 2023
Melksham Town Council Tax 2023/24 planningHow much will your council tax bill be from March (2023)? All fifteen of your Town Councillors were invited to a working group meeting last night. Five made it for the whole meeting of over 4 hours. 3 more arrived late and/or left early; I personally was a few minutes late, having failed to note that the meeting started at 6pm rather than the 7pm that's pretty standard for council meetings.
At the Town Council we were discussing the £169 element of the £2127 bill (this year's figures) and what it should be for the April 2023 to March 2024 year. We have no control over the other elements. None of the three town councillors who is also a Wiltshire councillor was at the meeting to give us their thoughts on what the Unitary change (on the Lion's share - £1638 for this year's figure).
Average inflation would mean a 10% increase. However, that's just an average and some things (such as employment, building maintenance, utilities and insurance) which together make up most of our costs have risen "dramatically". And some of these expenses could only be reduced with serious consequences. On the other hand, many of us are finding it very difficult to make ends meet and that's unlikely to change this year, and the councillors (with one exception - and I will admit that was me) felt that the increase this year should not exceed that 10%, and we set about looking for efficiencies and cuts we can make. We also looked at deferring a number of projects. A tough call, and full credit to my 7 colleagues who were present last night for making brave proposals. With lots of changes suggested, sums need to be checked and the proposals should come up at the full (open to the public) council meeting on 30th January, published on the council's web site the previous week. I will at that point try to highlight key changes.
Earmarked reserves have been set aside for the Sensory Garden (estimated up to £80,000) and for lighting of the circuit in KGV Park (£50,000). "Saved up" money if you like - and so not part of the immediate budgetting for 2023/24, whichever year the money is actually spent. There is also around £800,000 of money from the developers of the residential areas to the East of Melksham which we are mandated to spend on a Village Hall for those new developements.
* Your Council Tax bill in Melksham Town this year has been between (1092 + 52 + 160 + 113) for a low value property up to (3276 + 158 + 482 + 438) if you live in a really, really nice place. The media-quoted "Band D" - middle of the road (above average in a town like Melksham) is (1638 + 79 + 241 + 169). How much will you pay next year?
First figure in each sum - Wiltshire Council
Second figure - Fire and Rescue service
Third figure - Police
Fourth figure - Town (your parish) Council
* The increase from 2021/2 to 2022/3 was from £165 to £169 - also at around the rate of inflation as it was at that time, though inflation has rocketed sice then and our costs have gone up way more than budgetted. We have general and earmarked reserves to "buffer" such circumstances and there is no short term foreseen risk of your council going bust.
* Melksham's Town Council precept is very much at the lower end for towns across Wiltshire - the graphic from last year gives you the picture. It could be that we do less or we're more efficient. For this year, news feed headlines already tell of a 44% increase in Salisbury (after 12% last year), and as an educated guess our 10% proposal will be low compared to many others. Note that Trowbridge went up 20% last year, and Westbury by 27% compared to our 3%
* In context, a 10% town increase is less than £1 per month for the smallest of homes on a bill that is currently £117 per month. It's an extra £3.50 per month for the very largest of homes in the town.
Published Saturday, 14th January 2023
Market Place - please drive safeI'm writing to ask you when driving to Melksham Campus to enter from the Market Place roundabout as show in blue on the attached map, and NOT to enter between the disabled parking spaces and taxi rank.
This is a safety concern, as traffic "popping out" between disabled cars and taxis to turn left has to swing wide into traffic coming out of The Campus. Cars making that left turn are also surprising pedestrians on the main pavement walking from the south of the town (Semington Road area) into the Town Centre.
There are already some road markings and signs to encourage drivers to use the planned (design) route via the roundabout rather than cutting through the back of the Market Place, but they are not as clear as they could be.
At last night's Economic Development and Planning Committee meeting of the Town Council, we spent half an hour discussing this topic, and the bottleneck at the entrance to The Campus, which can only get busier when Melksham House opens too. It's unfinished Wiltshire Council business but we need to flag it up with constructive suggestions. I (personally) had some immediate success with that last August just after The Campus opened, with waymarking added to show pedestrians that they should enter the site along the path by the old pool - which was not obvious - and not through the vehicle gates.
The first request to readers is - PLEASE - use the safer route via the roundabout.
The second suggestion, to Wiltshire Council, is to make it NO LEFT TURN from the disabled spaces and taxi rank into the parking for Crown House and The Campus. Also to investigate adjustments to the layout of the back road to provide more of a short stop facility (loading, disabled, taxi) and less of a rat-run, perhaps with a "sleeping policeman" to further inform drivers unfamiliar with the area that this is not a main road!
Diary Date - 9th, 10th and perhaps 11th February - consultation for stakeholder and public on the second neighbourhood plan, including the Town Centre Master Plan.
Published Tuesday, 10th January 2023
Melksham Civic Awards - please nominate
We have some wonderful people and community groups in Melksham. Who made Melksham special for you in 2022?
Nominations are invited (by 31st January 2023) for nominations for:
* Community Service Awards (improving the quality of life in Melksham)
* Enhancing Melksham (improved the physical environment of Melksham)
* Achievement Award (for a Melksham resident or team that has excelled)
This is not a competition - it's an opportunity to celebrate everything positive that so many of you have done for The Town and multiple and indeed many awards can be made.
Here are some organisation ideas ... Friend's Garden? Melksham Larder? Melksham Free Dining? Melksham Link? Campus and team? Town Bus Driver? UMeet? Ice Cream Lady in The Park? Tai Chi? Melksham in Bloom? That Meeting Space? Wilshire Climate Alliance? Wiltshire Air Ambulance? The Melksham News? The TIC? The Hub Cafe? The friendly team at your favourite takeaway or hairdresser, or the teacher at your child's school? Melksham Community Transport? Litter Pick Group? Pellikaan Construction? Your MP? Our local Bobby? The Christmas Lights team? Men's Shed? The WI? Film Club or Rock and Roll club at the Assembly Hall? The Adventure Centre? Carnival or Food and River festival ... and within those organisations you, dear reader, will know the individuals.
These are awards made by the Town Council, so awards cannot be made to Town Councillors or employees of the council, nor to companies or organisations in which a Town Councillor has a major financial interest. I have put a copy of the form for you to print out and complete at /civic_nomination_2022.pdf and then return to the Town Hall (or let me have a completed copy and I can get it there)
Published Monday, 9th January 2023
Vision - Melksham Train ServiceWe're coming up to celebrate the 10th anniversary of our improved train service in Melksham at the end of this year. So that's the first decade gone - how should we start the next decade?
A decade go we had 2 trains scheduled each way per day, and around 5 people a day arriving and 5 leaving by train. In the latest figures, around 150 journeys are made, with another 300 on trains that call at Melksham, carrying passengers from Chippenham and beyond to and from Trowbridge and beyond, on 8 trains per day. That's much better - but for the size of the town, passenger numbers remain low. That's largely because the service is infrequent and unreliable. On a reliable hourly service, we would have 500 journeys a day to and from Melksham, and an addition 500 through.
Illustration - The very first new service on 8th December 2013. In those first years it was a single carriage platform and a single carriage train ... very different now!
So - a huge success in the first decade - 30 times the passenger numbers on 4 times the trains - but a job that is not complete; it should be 100 times the passenger numbers on 8 times the trains.
In the current economic environment, the goverment is looking to save money, and is in a bitter dispute with the unions over pay and conditions. So it will be a campaigning success if we start 2024 with a reliable Melksham train service comprising about the number of trains we have at present.
What are the issues that can be addressed at current service volume?
* Our train service at Melksham is unreliable. Three timetables are published each year (December, May and September) and the idea is that the service in them runs for the duration of that timetable, subject to changes while there engineering works going on (notice well ahead) and occasional hiccoughs, all of which are to be covered by altenatives such as rail replacement buses. Industry targets are to run over 98% of trains, but they are being missed by a very long way indeed.
* Passenger numbers have recovered quite well from Covid, but there is a need to efficient with the number of trains and staff in use. The Swindon to Westbury line has a complex interworking with other lines, and four different trains operate on the line at different times of day. Goodness only knows how many different crews and staff are involved
* The current service suffers from some poor connections, and has significant gaps at times where there is demand. It also differs depending on the day of the week.
* An increase in the number of services on the single line with reliability and clock face operation will require either additional infrastructure (such as a passing loop) or the introduction of a second train to double the service and a third one on a less efficient timetable to ensure that the trains passed each other on double existing double track. Not something for 2024, but certainly beyond
* Melksham Station is just a 10 minute walk from the Town Bridge, but much further from the main residential and business areas. Bus services do not yet call at the station, but plans to introcuce them during 2024 are at feasibiity (business, operational, social, environmental and financial) stages. Such service would be required to make a reliable connection to and from trains.
We could soldier on as we are - but we can also suggest that savings could be made with some simplification that would actually give us a better tuned service. There is a massive complexity to this, looking from the railway operating viewpoint at paths on the tracks, platform availability, staff shift lengths and break needs, and so forth. On the community side, there is a balance between providing the trains at the very best times and providing trains as close to current times as practical, with a desire for a regular "clock face" service that people can easily remember.
Here is a suggestion:
|What could be done with a single train operating Westbury <-> Swindon
|- Two Staff shifts, self contained, both including a personal needs break
|- times are good connections onwards from and to Salisbury and Weymouth
|- * indictes that a much less good (wait just over 30 minutes) is available
|Connection times (dangerously) assume curent (1.23) timetables unchanged for other lines
Let's compare that to the present:
* Melksham to Swindon
- suggested: 05:33, 07:33, 09:33, 12:03, 14:33, 17:03, 19:38, 22:03
- current M-F: 05:33, 07:21, 07:53, 10:02, 12:33, 14:32, 16:41, 18:50, 20:22
- current Sat: 08:00, 08:40, 10:23, 12:21, 14:23, 15:22, 16:52, 18:51
- current Sun: 08:37, 11:00, 13:01, 14:56, 17:08, 18:51, 20:40
Westbury to Melksham - about 17 minutes before Melksham to Swindon times
* Melksham to Westbury
- suggested: 06:34, 08:43, 10:43, 13:13, 15:43, 18:13, 20:42, 23:02
- current M-F: 06:36, 09:10, 11:31, 13:40, 15:39, 18:03, 19:17, 21:10
- current Sat: 09:06, 10:00, 11:30, 13:39, 15:39, 16:30, 18:00, 20:00, 21:32
- current Sun: 09:40, 12:05, 14:05, 16:09, 18:09, 19:54, 21:50
Swindon to Melksham - about 22 minutes before the Melksham to Westbury times
Features of that proposal and what they mean
* Services per day - numbers little changed
* Different trains on the line - 3 or 4 down to 1 each day
* Efficient crew use - two shifts per day on the line
* Lack of late evening service - FIXED
* Lack of Saturday evening northbound service - FIXED
* Lack of commuter service to Trowbridge / Westbury - FIXED
* Lack of early morning connection to Frome / Yeovil / Weymouth - FIXED
* Poor return connections from Weymouth / Yeovil / Frome - FIXED
* Commuter service in and out of Swindon - MAINTAINED
* Mid afternoon (timing important) train from Swindon - MAINTAINED
* Still no train circa 16:30 from Swindon
* Gap from 09:33 to 12:03 northbound (same gap length but shifted)
* Loss of 18:45 from Swindon and combination of 07:05 and 07:33 from Westbury
For the record, this was the service on offer 10 years ago
Melksham to Swindon:
Monday to Friday - 07:20 and 19:47
Saturday - 09:10 and 15:22
Sunday - 18:50 and 20:40
Melksham to Westbury:
Monday to Friday - 06:40 and 19:18
Saturday - 15:39 and 21:32
Sunday - 19:54
Published Thursday, 5th January 2023
Looking forward - 2023, Melksham TownOn 31st December, I posted my blog summarising 2022 with one story per month. Today, on the last day of the long Christmas break (2nd January 2023), I'm going to look ahead through 2023. I can't do it all by diary - I don't know what may happen when, so there are some other big-ticket items below this diary.
In January, the Town Council will set its budget for the year from April 2023 to March 2024
In January and February, Town Council tenders for necessary repairs to the Assembly Hall roof, and to run the cafe in King George V will be open and answered, and I look forward to hearing of good responses that will help us progress both of these projects to implementation by the summer
On 21st January, it's the grand opening of the new Berryfield Village Hall. It's in the neighbouring parish - Melksham Without rather than Melksham Town, and I have visited already ... but it's interesting to see because people from the Town will go to events there, and because it's a template for the planned new hall to be built (as a cost of around £850,000 before inflation) using Developer's funding (Community Infrastructure Levy) behind The Spa medical centre, accessed through the new housing under construction there. With a new Melksham House being "surplus to requirements" from Wiltshire Council and looking for a use, I find myself wondering how this additional meeting / event capacity will be used - I have not identified a shortage of meeting places in Melksham / people saying they cannot find suitable venues. Obviously, as both the "East of Melksham" Hall and Melksham House are significantly smaller than the Assembly Hall, and do not have the same facilities, they cannot directly replace the Assembly Hall but should rather complement it. The East of Melksham hall in particular will be accessed through a residential area and will have limited parking and very limited public transport so by nature will be for smaller and quieter events for those living nearby.
At half term in February, facilitates such as the zip wire and slide in KGV Park should be available; they are closed through midwinter to allow the grass to settle rather than being destroyed prior to the main season.
For the months of January to March, single tickets on buses are capped at £2 - a substantial saving on many journeys from Melksham, and senior bus passes are accepted all day every day rather than starting at 09:30. But then come the start of April these schemes are slated to end, as is much of the support money from central government to the bus operators, and there are significant worries right across England about major service reductions.
Lisa and I will be away from Melksham throughout March - a cruise which was planned for May 2022 but cancelled when St Petersburg went off limits. We will still be accessible online and by email, but due to local government rules I am not permitted to attend council meetings as a councillor, even if the public are watching a Facebook feed or interacting on Zoom.
Plans are that by April, progress will be made / will be being made at King George V Park - openings for the summer such as a cafe. With the demolition of the old maintenance shed, lighting around the circle and the sensory garden overlooking the main road, most of the earmarked budget from the plans of the previous council will have been spent ... I have given April as a "key date" but I would suspect that works will carry on into early summer.
If past years are a precedent, the Maker's Market will return in late April 2023.
Our mayor is appointed or re-appointed in May, and it's an open secret that I think that the mayor should really serve for two years unless there are major issues. Quite the reverse - very impressed by Simon and Sue as his deputy and would love them to carry on to at least May 2024. Also at this meeting, committee memberships and chairmanships will be reviewed.
Melksham's train service performance is currently poor. Although our timetable has done well to survive Covid intact and still be at around 94% of the level it was at in 2019, a very large number of trains have been cancelled in the last 9 months - so much so that the Melksham Transport User Group is not at present marketing the service to new users. A new timetable starts on May 21st 2023 and in the weeks prior to that we'll need to review whether the service is likely to be reliable enough to market through the summer.
In late June / early July, I am tempted to take another Interrail pass and visit the north of Scandinavia; a number of lines on my "bucket list" and I need the long days. The 2023 council meeting diary is already published, and so this can be worked around my responsibilities as a councillor; it does not, though, allow for late changes which were, unfortunatly, a feature of 2022.
In August 2022, I ran a web site that correlated all the various opening hours of facilities through the summer holidays - Splashpad, Town Hall, TIC, Campus, Animal Trail, Church, Friends Garden, Assembly Hall Events, and also included the planned running hours of public transport and the children's events in KGV arranged by the Town Council, and a weather and news feed from the Wiltshire Times. There was some daily work to be done on such a system, though much can be automated from live feeds and in time the individual facilities featured may be persuaded to do their own updates. This was very much a demonstration - the "Virtual Hub" Town Council project which started in January last year was supposed to be specified by March and be live for ClimateFest in September, but has not been progressed as it should. A proposal for £12,000 in the budget for this for the year from March was reduced at the full council meeting in December to £1,000 and I find it difficult to see how the council will take this project forward under their wing. There is a need, though, for the Town Council to crispen up on the provision of correct and current information that's easily accessible to the public, and a single portal would be a good start. I will not be repeating my summer 2022 exercise in summer 2023 if it would be done in spite of, rather than with the support of, staff and other councillors. With that support it could be done; bear in mind that I have personal experience of running an updating news and information site (on a different topic) and could help - BUT it needs a dynamic ability to re-act and not to be tied down by the conventional tape of local government.
Likely dates in my diary (things the public can attend unbooked):
27th January and monthly - Assembly Hall quiz night
1st March - West Wilts Rail User Group AGM
8th March - Meeting of Melksham Area Board of Wiltshire Council (+)
13th March - Annual Town Meeting (*)
6th May - Coronation of King Charles
31st May - West Wilts Rail User Group
14th June - Meeting of Melksham Area Board of Wiltshire Council
24th June - Melksham Carnival
15th July - Party in the Park
2nd and 3rd September - Melksham Food and River Festival
16th September - ClimateFest
30th September - West Wilts Rail User Group
29th November - West Wilts Rail User Group
2nd December - Turning on of Christmas lights
Every 6 weeks until May, then every month - full council meeting, Mondays
About every 3 weeks until May - Economic Planning and Development, Mondays
4 or 5 times a year - Assets and Amenities Committee, Mondays
4 or 5 times a year - Community Development Committee, Mondays
Invites / prior booking needed:
24th March - Mayor's Reception (x)
8th July - Day trip by train to Weymouth
* - In my diary - however, I will be sending apologies (email only day)
x - In my diary - I will be sending apologies (or could be there on Zoom?)
+ - Unable to attend in person; no need to send apologies as I would just be public member
I really enjoyed Southern Europe last autumn - looking at doing similar this year, but this year taking Lisa and basing us perhaps in Italy or Portugal. Shall we say October?
The life of this council is 4 years - May 2021 to May 2025, but things move slowly in local government. And by November 2023 we'll be just 18 months short of an election. Already, nearly a year ahead of that, I'm seeing a change in the character and self-promotion of some of your councillors, being in the photo-frame of popular projects which they are only tenuously linked to. Such is one of the characteristics of the cycle of democracy.
And so, by December, I'll be writing up the year just gone and looking forward to 2024.
There are some big things that I know will be happening in 2023 ... i just don't know when.
The Homes for Ukraine program and the various phases of it continues. Signups peaked last spring, arrivals peaked last summer with few possessions, but guest support and guests moving on from their initial host continues now. Further guests are arriving or applying too as the war in Ukraine continues its ugly course; in Wiltshire we have soaked up the supply of willing hosts with spare rooms (which was far more than HMG expected) and have a long tail of continuing support as guests who had, perhaps, hoped to be in the UK only for a few months realise that they're here for years, and need or wish to move on to a more long-lasting situation. In Melksham, this is not helped by a lack of suitable accommodation - many here complain about all the new housing been built near them, and yet those houses sell quickly enough confirming the housing shortage for everyone.
We need a Vision and Strategy for the Melksham Area. We have the first version of the Neighbourhood Plan in place, which gives us an element of influence as to where and what new housing is provided, but NOT in the quantity nor whether any more doctors and dentists move to Melksham! But the plan's powers start to expire in July and a new plan is needed. A massive amount of work has gone into that already, and the work continues. I was appointed onto the steering group last summer as the second (junior) member to represent the Town Council. The process is complex and detailed and a huge thanks are due to Teresa taking the lead from Melksham Without and Linda for Melksham Town on this very technical work that does let us help guide the area forward.
But we are missing a vision and strategy from the Town Council as a whole. And that makes the business of setting a budget for next year rather difficult - if we don't know where we are going overall, we can't make the financial plans properly. Councillor training (yes, there is such a thing, though I feel undertrained) says that you start your budget planning by starting with your long term goals; we can't and are bumbling along making individual decisions (or indecisions) on items out of an overall context, and so inconsistent and probably wasteful. A visioning day was held in summer of 2021, but that like much else the council's looking at seems to have been parked without the resource to complete the work.
A Town Centre Master Plan is under preparation as part of the Neighbourhood Plan and will be consulted on in coming weeks. It has been expanded to take account of the impending release of the Copper Tires / Avon Rubber site, and consideration is also needed for Melksham House, the Blue Pool and the Library / Lowbourne Car Park sites just released by Wiltshire Council. But the strategy needs to go wider - looking at the whole Melksham area. And we have neither the strategy, nor the business development manager (redundant, 2021) nor the consultant on priority for people (obfuscated out of role, 2022), nor the clerk's time (too busy on other things) to take us forward. As chair of the Economic Development and Planning Committee, which is now designated to be proactive and not just reactive to planning applications, it's my role to help councillors create more of a vision; perhaps I should push my own views very much harder on this rather than taking the position of the chair as being first among equals. But I am not personally fond of being a steam roller with my voice doing the majority of the talking at a meeting of perhaps half a dozen, where 25% would be appropriate for the chair.
Although mentioned above in the dated section, the Assembly Hall is likely to be a significant concern all year. Further Public Transport issues arise too, as does helping make effective use of council staff time. When I ran a business, we really appreciated our staff, made sure they knew that, and helped them do their job with responsibilities well define, understood and enjoyed. Our Human Resource bill was low, and a big complement I paid nearly everyone on our team was that they were "low maintenance". Our savings on HR could be re-invested in their training, in providing them with better tools for their jobs, and in making their work more enjoyable. Of necessity, individual HR issues are not public, but the more observant of readers may have noticed that the council's spending on HR consultants in the current financial year is already two and a half times the (generous) budget we had, and I won't be breaking any confidences if I tell you that I spent more volunteer time on staffing matters in December than on all other council matter put together. One of my hopes for 2023 is that the council staff team can be moved towards that "low maintenance" standard in the best possible way; not my call, though - that's with the Staffing Committee, which unlike other committees is unchanging throughout the term of the council, save for the mayor and deputy mayor seats which change as the major / deputy change.
I ... remain ... committed to the Environment and Climate, to Equality and opportunities for all, and to providing information and working openly. You may not see much mention of those above, but they are guiding priciples - my strategy if you like, even if the town is short on strategy. Some of the comments and data will not make my life easier, nor help me get re-elected should I run in 2025. That is not my priority - my priority is Melksham and the region around, and its people.
Ooops - Melksham Bypass. Wilts and Berks Canal. Not forgotten, but not current highlights
I have seen a number of my fellow councillors over the past 10 days, and am looking forward to working with them, and other councillors and the staff team as they return – mostly this week, and with the full team back a week from today.
Published Monday, 2nd January 2023
Train and Bus - Melksham, for early 2023Writing the following on behalf of the officer of the group, where I am acting chair:
An update from the Melksham Transport User Group
The Rail Industry is in utter chaos this 1st January, with cancellations galore and "do not travel" advice. The entire service at Melksham has been cancelled. And the chaos and the disproportionate cancellations a Melksham is not just today - it's ongoing.
The Melksham service has always been one of the more difficult operationally to run reliably with big junctions at both ends where things can go wrong. It's also a very easy service to cancel because there is only very limited interworking with other lines, and if it gets cancelled, knock on effects onto other lines are few. Furthermore, it's not considered an "important" intercity service that people will complain about over a wide area and in London if it's pulled, and the fares in the region are much lower than long distance fares, so the financial "hit" on the train operator is limited. A perfect storm, I'm afraid.
The Melksham [Rail / Transport] User Group and its predecessors have partnered with the train operators over the years to promote growth of services and their use. However, we are embarrassed to promote the current service with its awful reliability record. For regular users who are robust to the issues it is still useful - for newcomers there's a significant risk of their first planned use going wrong, quite apart from the worry beforehand of not knowing if it will run.
Four officers of the group met last month, and we have decided on a hiatus until the spring. We'll maintain insurance and CRN membership; our annual Zoom account runs until mid-year and I will occasionally feed online media and deal with correspondence from it. As a group, we've some funding left over from events like Santa trains, and from grants from both Melksham Town and Melksham Without councils in past years; I'm letting those organisations know of the suspension.
Through the winter, we'll work with / recommend the West Wilts Rail User Group which covers the five towns (Trowbridge, Warminster, Westbury and Bradford-on-Avon) and also Avoncliff and Dilton Marsh; they have a newsletter in preparation now, a committee meeting in February, and a public meeting and AGM in March to which guests from Melksham will be welcome (and lifts back available as it will be after the last train). On the bus "front", the Option 24/7 team has local representation in each community area including Melksham (I am the local co-ordinator) with an active online presence and monthly or more meetings with Wiltshire Council - and that's the route to us picking up the bus mantle. See https://www.wwrug.org.uk and http://option247.uk
On the topic of buses - we do not have the same reliability issues on the services between our towns, and I am delighted to remind Melksham residents of the following Faresaver ( https://www.faresaver.co.uk ) services:
* Services 271, 272 and 273 to Bath - 7 days a week including all evenings except Sundays
* Services 272 and 273 to Devizes - 7 days a week including all evenings except Sundays
* Service x34 to Chippenham, and to Trowbridge and Frome - daytime, Mondays to Saturdays
* Services 68 and 69 to Corsham, and to Holt and Trowbridge - daytime, Mondays to Saturdays
* Service 69 to Bradford-on-Avon - limited service, daytime, Mondays to Saturdays
All timetables on the Faresaver web site - proven reliable, and their tracking app is helpful
From January to the end of March (2023), single bus fares are capped at £2.00 per person per journey, giving significantly lower fares for many. Bear in mind if you're going somewhere like the Royal United Hospital in Bath, which involves a change of bus in Bath, your best value ticket may still be an Avon Rider.
For holders of ENCTS cards ("senior bus passes"), your pass is valid all day, every day on local bus journeys staring in Wiltshire - also until the end of March 2023, so no payment will be required on any of the services listed above on presentation of your card, even before 09:30 in the morning or after 23:00 at night.
Published Sunday, 1st January 2023
What happened in 2022?2022 in pictures - a story for each month that have affected Lisa and I living here in Melksham, and the community around us. Most of these stories ran for far longer than a month ...
January - Shortages on the shelves. Although we've got more used to shortages on the shelves and rising prices through 2022, this phenomenon was going on all year (I saw similar a few days ago). Blame Brexit, the war in Ukraine, people changing to cheaper products that then run out, shops keeping a tighter inventory. But yet we are not overall short of food; you will not starve if you are prepared to try something new, and our foodbank and community larder are providing real help to those for whom the cost of food is a barrier.
February - Goodbye to Billy. A hard parting; Billy was a special dog. He adopted us a decade ago, and we lost him to Osteosarcoma in February. Loyal yet everyone's friend - a dog who had been to hell and back before he arrived with us, literally draping himself around Lisa's shoulders the very first time we met him.
March - Reopening of travel. 2022 dawned hopeful that we could once again promote rail travel within the UK and continue to rebuild traffic decimated by the Covid restrictions.
Early journeys for publicity pictures to Weston-super-Mare and Weymouth and a good summer timetable tuned for the new normal were, alas, stillborn due to an awful reliability of services which made them - and continue to make them to this day - unmarketable to newcomers to rail (though those of us who are aware of the issues and make allowances continue to travel).
April - Cruise to Greece. A lovely trip on "Aurora" - though much of our time on board was spend working with database and helping match applications from guests looking to come to Wiltshire from Ukraine to hosts wishing to take them. Athens, and I have now seen the Acropolis and Pireas, Santorini and Corfu. An enjoyable trip.
May - Election of new mayor. On 16th May, we (the town council) elected Simon Crundell as our new mayor, and Sue Mortimer as his deputy in a hard-fought election with an intrigue and emotion fit for national level.
Simon and Sue have taken over many significant ongoing issues (for nothing happens fast in local government) and are doing an impressive job of taking us forward and into 2023. I don't always agree with them, but we have a lead councillor team dedicated to the town and very effective, and I look forward to working with them through 2023.
June - Settling of guests from Ukraine. Our really big story though 2022 has been guests from Ukraine - starting in March when Lisa and I signed up to offer accommodation through "Homes for Ukraine" and carrying on to this day, now with an extended family living with us and into next year, and perhaps beyond. The picture is a Christmas one, with our guests and their friends sharing a Ukrainian Christmas feast, while Lisa and I ate a traditional Christmas dinner and they sampled it.
June, under which I have posted this picture, was perhaps our busiest month. Our guests arrived in May and then we had to get them sorted out for life in the UK - National Insurance numbers, registered with the Job Centre, Jobs, Doctors, Dentists, Bank Accounts, Biometric Residence Permits, more clothing that what they arrived in or was in a single small suitcase. Help with learning the customs of the UK, and English, establish contacts and friends here and welcome them to our community. Helping resolve issues as they arose, both "actual" issues and ones where emotional support was the best description. Remembering that these are people torn from their established lives, and in most cases from their extended families and sometimes from close relatives.
We have also been helping support hosts in the area; it's a very different thing to have someone come and stay in your spare room for a few days to taking in people who will be living with you and sharing your home, and looking on you to help them, for a number of months. And there's a big difference between having known people coming and random strangers who may be war-damaged. We (Lisa and I) have fallen on our feet, but others have needed significant help and support, and some relationships haven't worked out through no fault of either party. This is a personal writeup, but I MUST mention Stuart, John and Sharon, Martin, and Adrienne for Melksham help and so many others in nearby towns with whom we have worked.
July - Assembly Hall promotion. Melksham's Assembly Hall is a local institution with a marvellous history - but that history doesn't fill the hall for events, it doesn't promote the hall, it doesn't keep it maintained, and it doesn't pay the bills. Its use was seriously dented by Covid, and one of the first actions of your newly elected council in 2021 was to declare its manager redundant; not an action I supported, but it was rare to see any councillors in the hall and most of them considered it to be a run-away expense - that voters would be happier to save £1 a month on their council tax than to have a vibrant hall. I acknowledge that some raising of hire rates was necessary (they hadn't been touched for years) and indeed a revised set of standards to ensure the hall being best used for the most appropriate meetings.
Things have moved forward since the summer - although there is spilled milk and there has been a lot of heart ache; some hires have been lost that really should not have been, and the question of the divided loyalties of our (unremunerated) Town Councillors who are also (remunerated) Unitary Councillors and have a responsibility for Melksham House still gives me grave concern. However, things have moved on with the formation of an informal - to become formal, perhaps, friends group, and more willingness to take volunteer help from outside the council staff team on things like promotion and bar work. Management has been lacking - the work of the "redundant" staff member being piled onto others not recruited for that role, and already overloaded with a great deal else. Approaching Christmas, the Town Council's "need survey" looking at what the community needs is drawing to a conclusion and we look forward to seeing results in the New Year. I won't pre-empt the outcome, but it has been good to see the hall filled at the Christmas Lights event (so busy we had crowd control), at the showing of "Polar Express" in the lead up to Christmas, and indeed a vibrant hall of people who would otherwise have been alone on Christmas Day sharing Dinner there.
August - Plastic Animals. You either loved or hated these. Presented (thank goodness) to the Town Council funded from above as "you can have this or nothing", we were still criticised for how the £10,000 was spent. And yet - they did, vey much, encourage people out locally into their local parks and walkways, and they did generate a great deal of discussion and thought about artificial grass, our effect in our environment on wildlife, and how our councils work.
Together with playgrounds, splash-pad, and an ice cream van often in the park it was lovely to see the town so busy in the hottest of weathers.
September - Electric Bus. The centre is all the more clogged with cars looping around the Market Place to get to the Central short term car park, and with private vehicles accessing the newly opened Community Campus also off the Market Place. The Town Bus service, because of staffing problems at the operator, is reduced and providing a service that only looks after customers as they were a decade ago. These customers still need to be looked after, but things have changed so much that the second service needs to come back fit for the future, and not sitting in the rut of the past. And we should be moving towards a community supported service, and moving from fossil fuel to sustainable energy.
Thus it was that we ran a demonstration of what could be done one Saturday in September. From the Railway Station, connecting with trains; there was no point in serving the station a decade ago because there were no daytime trains, but trains are up 4-fold and passenger numbers up 20-fold and it now makes sense. Through the Town Centre to new housing areas; there was no point in running buses to the fields there a decade ago, but now that there are house, shops, a pub, a school, it's a different story. Past the new Rugby and football clubs. Up Pathfinder way, with newly occupied housing, some still under construction, and through the Bowerhill Industry area - serving recent factories and facilities such as Knorr Bremse, Gompels, and Herman Miller - on via the new Portal Way link road to further employment at Great Bear, Dick Lovatt, Avon Protection, G Plan via the Travelodge (biggest hotel in Melksham) to the Police station - onward connections to Trowbridge and Berryfield with its expanding housing.
The demonstration and test day was a huge success; at that point, the company we were working with (the big lemon) were Brighton based but recently - and working with / encouraged by our "Option 24/7" group they have started operations in Bristol and - very significantly - in Bath. That is especially significant because it will allow a depot / complete operation in the area to be practical, with half a dozen or more routes based there and the benefit of a single set of management, support staff, and a spare vehicle to allow services to be maintained when the normal vehicle is being serviced or require unscheduled attention.
October - ClimateFest, 2nd October, delayed from September due to the passing of her majesty Queen Elizabeth II. An excellent day and big thanks to all the organisers. Personally I was somewhat on the fringes, extolling the case for public transport and for the Assembly Hall - why go out of town when you have a good local offering?
November - Interail. This was the fiftieth anniversary of Interail, and they were offering 50% off European Rail Passes. I took a two month pass, and within that period spent about 4 weeks away. I enjoyed, and learning first hand, about public transport in Europe. These days, I was online and "virtually" in Melksham every day, and I returned between weeks for key pre-schedued meetings.
A wonderful set of trips, and I come back not only with a theoretic view of how some things are done elsewhere, but also having at least sampled them first hand too.
December - Town Council The picture is of the Market Place of the light switch on that all the community has been so much involved in - a great day. The big memory of December, though, is of "Town Council Internals" which must remain confidential. I have been "working" (should I use that word when we are not paid, even expenses) with a couple of other councillors and thank them for being very much part of the team. I very much hope that the issues we have been dealing with will not be issues in the same way in 2023, and we can all - councillors and staff - concentrate on working for the positive good of Melksham in a far more effective way than has been possible this year.
I do need to add here my appreciation of ALL of the staff who work or have worked in 2022 for the Town Council; you are all gems, and may of you are real diamonds. That is perhaps said less that it should be by councillors. I know that I get frustrated at times at all the rules of local government, and that at times it's not my role as a councillor to be accepting but rather to politely challenge, and I apologise if that may make others feel uncomfortable. Our team is a team of fantastic people - however, jobs have changed for many so dramatically with covid, staffing changes and other councillor initiatives, and we sometimes find that a square peg recruited for a square hole has had that hole redrilled and it's now round, to some discomfort. It's my hope (but not within my remit, as I'm not on 'staffing') that we can adjust where we are so that our existing pegs will all be comfortable in where they fit, and a vacancy that we have can be filled with a peg to fit the remaining hole and pull the whole thing together.
After my review of 2022, things you will find me stepping back from in 2023.
* I have been a director of TravelWatch SouthWest for six years, but stood down at their AGM. I do not have the technical expertise or industry experience of the rest of the board, and I have no longer got the stamina or concentration to be able to throw myself into projects / reports for them. I have been something of (and literally!) a passenger where they know what they are doing. I'm also aware that the board has been concerned for many years at being unrepresentative of the community it serves - and being an old white able-bodied straight male living in Wiltshire and more "train" than "bus", I have not helped that. I am delighted to see that my seat has been taken by a very experienced person from Somerset, and I'm seeing lots of activity of the sort I wasn't able to deliver on the buses ...
* I have not been more than a member (one of thousands) of Railfuture for a number of years. However, with a loss of members in the Severside branch as an old organisation gets even older and member pass on, I have provided some limited assistance to the remaining local officers. That needs to remain limited; a younger and more vigorous team is needed than I can help provide, and indeed I am at odds with the strap line of "a bigger better railway". I agree the "better"; not so sure that "bigger" is more than an impractical dream at the moment, and it should be based on benefits for passengers and freight, and not on features such as size.
* Rather than spread myself thinly, I am limiting myself to the Coffee Shop Forum, Facebook, option 24/7, my personal Blog and West Wilts Rail User Group activities where something is not mentioned above. That means that am consolidating away from Twitter. Neighbourhood plan, Cooper Tires, and vision for Melksham Town are still very much present under my councillor banner
* I have been one of the designated signatories of cheques and payment schedules for the Town Council. I have also scheduled my times away to ensure I am around for scheduled council meetings. Rather sadly, I have missed more meetings than I would like because so many have been moved or added at short notice, and the existing signatories have been criticised for their lack of availability. I'm relived that the meeting schedule for the next year is out already so I can mostly work around that (though I am away for all of March), and I am stepping down as a signatory in favour of someone who's indicated she's more available than I am.
Positive development - I'll be posting in the New Year to take stories forward
We said "Goodbye" to rail campaigners Nigel Bray, Peter Blackburn and Julie Boston. All three of them are sadly missed for their friendship and support and selfless knowledge. Three funerals too many, but three celebrations of lives lived to the full, and in the knowledge that each of them has changed the course of things for the better, and will be remembered for many years to come.
Finally, I owe a HUGE Thank You to Lisa for her help and support through all of this - couldn't have done a quarter without her. And to friends and colleagues alongside whom I have worked in just about all of these projects - far too many to name and there's always the question of where to draw a line. If YOU are reading this and we work togther on anything, this is my message to thank YOU.
On the national front, we have had two Monarchs, three Prime Ministers and four Chancellors of the Exchequer and I look forward to much more stability of people in 2023.
Published Saturday, 31st December 2022
Melksham Town Council - budget and precept for 2023/4Proposed Melksham Town Council budget coming before the full council tonight (19th December 2022). Worked on by the "Budget Working Group" last week - 13 of 15 councillors invited (*) and I understand it was well attended. Meeting was an extra one at short notice and I could not have attended anyway, no online option offered, and apart from the raw budget proposal figures, no notes or minutes as yet.
Here are the highlighted increases I noted - no huge surprises:
* Salaries 225k to 300k
* Building repairs 0 to 70k
* Insurance 10k to 38k
* Grasscutting 18k to 30k
* Virtual Hub 1.2k to 12k
* Art project 2k to 10k
* Highway projects 7.5k to 12.5k
* Street Furniture 10k to 15k
* Legal 0.5k to 7k
* HR Consultancy 5k to 7.5k
* Switch on event 1.5k to 6.5k
* Service Contracts 7.2k to 12k
* Environmental Projects 1k to 5k
* Software / licenses 4.5k to 7k
* East of Melksham Hall legal 1k to 5k
* Reduced Assembly Hall income 82k to 55k (needs to be made up)
* Assembly Hall expenditure on events REDUCED by around £40k
* Many other rises for inflation, etc, especially things like utilities
* Many, many figures more or less the same from 2022/3 to 2023/4
Precept £966,204 to £1,248,000 - so that's up from around £170 to around £210 pounds for a band D home. Which is still less than other town councils THIS year. Allow 10% of the rise for inflation, and perhaps the biggest change is the £70k added for some catching up on the backlog of maintenance on the Town Hall, Assembly Hall, Pavillion in the park, etc; this is necessary overdue work. There has been a modest increase in housing in Melksham Town during the year, so the increase per houshold is a couple of percentage points below the headline precept increase.
I DO have background on most of these line items - better informed than I make out above - and happy to answer questions / discuss. I doubt this will go to a final decision tonight! In general terms, I can and will support most of the above, and if they all go through I can work with them.
"Earmarked Reserves", "General Reserves", CIL, Solar Dividend, etc - not listed above. Things like £250k for a maintenace shed, £80k for the sensory garden, £80k for lighting, £800k for the east of Melksham communuty Hall are all potentially funded / planned from outside the precept.
(*) - I understand that the inclusion of only those councillors elected on "Together for Melksham" and Conservative platforms to the budget working group was an error, and I have received an apology for being missed off.
Published Monday, 19th December 2022