Graham Ellis - Regular updates - my diary
My "Update Needed" list and comment on council structure
Two related items in one today. Jump ((here)) to read my "update needed" list and read directly below for comments on council structure
A discussion deep in the bowels of a Facebook thread the other day erupted when a comment suggested that we dispense with parish and county councillors and let paid managers get on with doing the job. The commenter, as I understood it, suggested that councillors have their own agendas and don't really represent the people who elected them. And that (paid) professionals would do a better job. He raised an interesting set of points (here):
"The system of so called local government which extends from County down to the lower parochial levels doesn't work. It isn't just Melksham that is experiencing the incompetence, and self serving nature of this system, you can find countless other examples spread across the whole country. Time for a root and branch change. This current system is not democracy and so there is no loss to replace it with paid professionals that answer directly to the community and both do what is best for it, rather than best for the so called representatives, and also have the skills and experience to effectively and correctly perform that function. But I don't see the turkeys voting for Christmas anytime soon, too much much personal investment for that to happen."
There is a strong argument in the present system to suggest that it is over-managed by elected councillors. At times it feels micro-managed - when I read in minutes about elected members discussing cut (large) cakes or cup (individual) cakes for an event in November, I find myself asking "is this the best use of everyone's time"?
There is also a strong argument to suggest that the representatives often have a conflict of interest or are serving multiple masters. Some of these things have to be formally declared, but others such as a paid role as a representative at another council level, or a political or union allegiance, or self promotion towards greater career things, do not. Some of those things, mind you, are not easy to define.
We already have paid professional managers with many of the skills we need, and indeed there is a project under way to review staffing (it's in public - staffing minutes, 7.8.2023) which will be brought to full council. We have some good people there, and a lot going on well and quietly behind the scenes. And we and that team have the opportunity to call in consultants and contractors to bring us skills that we don't have in-house - done quite a bit already.
The question remains, though, that is much more is done by those managers, how are they directed - not managed, but directed. And that direction could and perhaps should come from a far less micro-managing set of councillors. You still need something. To the original questioner - you overlook (or have not answered) how the tasks of the paid moguls are set, and how they are evaluated and tuned / altered over time. And that's where I'll differ from you as I think we not only want but need some form of board of directors, selected by the people of the area. Call it an elected council.
Locally, we have a huge pool of skilled volunteers which we should and to some extent do use in both the day to day operation and long term changing of our town. Some of these volunteers are councillors, others members of the community who have no desire, not enough time, or don't feel robust enough to take on the role, or have stood in the race for election and have come in with a creditable return though not on top. Any revised system should cherish and make best use of those volunteers. Those volunteers should be members of the team and they are so at times, but in a very patchy way, at present.
Almost all of your councillor volunteers do things on the side to help the staff team, but I can only thinks of a couple of instances where that has been working alongside staff in the same roles on the ground, and there is more scope for that - perhaps making good use of time released from micro-managing. There are also situations where volunteer or potential volunteer members of the community are offering to help; often highly skilled but the barriers and other obstacles placed in their way are discouraging, frustrating and sometimes come across as insulting of the skills held and work done in the community as a whole.
When I ran a company here in Melksham, I didn't have all the regulations to follow that are there on the public democratic sector. But my role was three-fold. Firstly, it was to provide the support and help for the customers and the staff we employed to work for us; in most cases I should have known the jobs and been able to stand in on occasions. I did so, and indeed we were set up with a team just a fraction of the size of MTC to answer the phone and respond 365.25x7. Secondly, I was there to project us forward developing what we provided for our customer base, encouraging the planned growth of that customer base, and ensuring we continued to provide what made them and our staff motivated in all the time they spent with us. Thirdly, I was a technocrat giving IT courses and writing and maintaining software and putting systems together, looking after our own IT systems that typically informed and encouraged customer and helped make all of our jobs so much easier over the years. Fourthly - not really my role - to enjoy what I did and to look forward to working with all the marvellous people encountered on a day by day basis.
This is an answer to a poster who suggested that we should replace the Town Council with paid professionals, and my writing in thinking it through got out of hand.
I am a one of your turkeys. And I would far rather be on something operating as a board of directors than as senior (or even junior) management. Then I could enjoy my Christmas. I wrote above of running a 24x7 operation here in Melksham. What I didn't tell you was that we had systems in place to run and manage unexpected happenings and to keep everyone informed. Add to that the confidence and trust we had in our team, the understood delegation to them, and the lack of competition between team members, and Lisa and I could go away for a week or two secure and happy in the knowledge that things would not be held up or go against policy in our absence. Help the team change to give me that confidence, and ensure that the public really knows what's going on, and I will/would cheerfully step across into that board of directors of holding company role which, ironically, is I suspect the intent of the system and what does happen in some places.
But in the meantime, I am an elected councillor and I said when I stood for the role that one of my three overriding philosophies was to keep people informed. And there are far too many things - little and large - where I feel uninformed myself. Stop me in the street and ask on any of these and I may not have a complete, or adequate, or in some cases any, answer.
Monday evening's Full Council meeting added a regular agenda item to our "Finance Admin and Performance" committee to provide an update on all current projects. This is no different to what's already there - "Monitoring the performance of the Town Council in meeting its obligations, Action Plan and internal objectives" - in the terms of reference. Next meeting of that committee is 20th November - feels a long way away, but this allows good time for the Town Clerk and her team to work on this and provide the updates.
I am working on this list still - 29.9.2023 - and will update as I work through things. It may change over the next day or two - to be frozen at the start of October
1. Action Plan
Where can I see it?
2. Yellow lines on Waverly Gardens
The request for yellow lines, in particular to prevent cars parking there as the drop off or collect school pupils
ISO 14001:2015 helps an organization achieve the intended outcomes of its environmental management system, which provide value for the environment, the organization itself and interested parties. Consistent with the organization's environmental policy. Clerk to investigate. What happened?
4. Clackers Brook improvements
Project to rewild, last update was for work to be done August 2023
5. Tree Planting
Competitive bids received and one selected. Missed spring planting - to be done this autumn?
6. Staffing update and issues
Questions asked by Councillor Hubbard at full council on 17th July confirmed there are outstanding issues. Is this still the case, when will they be resolved, and what load is this putting on other staff and what reduction of their availability to do other work?
7. Staffing review
Commissioned by decision of staffing committee - from public minutes of 7th August. Stated to be coming to full council. When?
8. New date for informal staff and councillor meeting
Meeting on 20th September was cancelled at very short notice - or was it postponed? If so, what is the date of the new meeting?
9. Remarking coach parking in Kings Street Car Park
Request was to be passed through to neighbourhood plan. Can you confirm this happened and what the outcome was? Did the NP tea accept this as a valid input of is it really something that should be taken up through LHFIG?
10. East of Melksham Community Hall
It appears that Verbana Court will not be available and we are not happy with the site at the extreme south end of the East Ward. But we have funding set aside. Where are we on this project?
11. Lighting to The Forest Centre
I understand that the residents nearby are being formally asked. An update in due course would be appreciated.
12. Our Teams system
One intent of the software "Teams" system we have is to allow councillors to check on all the various things in this list and see how they're doing without lots of repeated and inefficient enquiries from multiple councillors. However, it's not working at present. When will it or an equivalent system come back to life?
13. Neighbourhood Plan
OK - no questions from me on this one as I'm deeply involved; others may have questions and you'll read a lot more in coming weeks.
15. Christmas Market and lights
Both of these two going along well as far as I know - I am not on the committee / working group for either and trust to them running properly along.
I am chair of this - astonish having to chase up the next meeting which on 1st August was offered for 2nd October but no agenda published and I suspect it won't be happening.
17. VAT on Assembly Hall bookings for events
There was confusion on this last year resulting in the taxman being paid twice - once by the Town Council and once by the booked act. Whilst wrong, I don't expect the taxman will object. We had a long technical meeting a few months back but I have not seen an outcome instruction and confirmation that we now have it right.
18. Visioning for the Town Council
We had a visioning day a couple of years ago - time given up by all councillors and staff - to look forward to our four year term. What happened to the outcome? There may have been reports to / within "Together for Melksham" and the Conservative group, but I didn't see them, I don't think. A very useful day none the less but I have it listed as "open project" and I don't see the data it should provide when we come to looking at following years budgets - we stumble along year to year.
19. Improved public information
The Virtual Hub was a good idea that was due to go live a year ago. Project stalled, now defunded; we're doing a bit better on social media these days but it's still very hard to find what's needed, even if it's published, and to know if it's up to date.
20. Progress on environmental considerations
We have a spread sheet but it needs updating. ECWG meetings have stepped up but environemntal issues cross right over council work and we could do with much more support. I can tell you that admin progress is being made - as to action, we do some things but really we are not doing or considering enough
21. Sensory Garden
I recall funding has been voted for this ... I am somewhat out of date on what's happening - not on the relevant committee or working group.
22. Lighting in KGV
The latest is a demonstration of an option in the park and a survey in the MIN; all sorts of options come and gone - not clear on where we go from here.
23. Demolition of Maintenance shed
I hear that all the reports and authorisations are in place within the last few days and we are awaiting a contractor to tell us when. I am not clear as to how the site will be left.
24. Blue Pool and Assembly Hall Structural Survey
Funding voted for this is June for work to be completed and option survey written in time for report
25. Happy to chat / PB memorial bench
My request of 17th January 2023 et seq. Latest update request to David Elms on 14th June who I was told now looks after this. Progress report would be appreciated.
26. Rivermead School Parking
I've heard there are issues / I am not "in the know" but this should be added to the project list and with answers available to councillors.
27. Cycle maintenance station at the Pavilion
Park of a project with one at the Town Hall (installed May 2022) which has been a huge success. Latest I hear in November this year (2023)
28. Dog park gates
The second gate opens onto drop onto a grassy slope and not onto the hard surface inside. Bizarre and to be altered, but when? Second page is unsprung and can be left open. Apparently a spring was not part of the spec. What is happening with the new almost-enclosed area that was created under the cherry trees?
29. Dog park water
What has happened with this?
30. Priority for People
This was a very useful project that has massively informed transport and town work. Where did we end up with taking if forward or terminating of has it lapsed? Where has forward looking planning for people gone?
31. Communications Policy
Council Agenda 17th July, written by Town Clerk, not reached. A proposal for an electronic communications and social media policy which (IMHO) needed work. A useful things to do but had undue restrictions in it in some parts, and in other parts left holes. I sat down with Town Clerk to go through these things in August. It has not re-appeared at the recent council meeting nor have I seen feedback on my concerns. I understand that the Town Clerk has not been able to take it further - guess that's due to workload?
32. BMX track
Updated 25 October - Committee Clerk has looked at overview lis of possible alternative locations.
33. Wedding Venue
Investigation into setting up the Town Hall as a wedding venue - first stage would be licensing. What's come of this?
Plan was to start quiz nights in the spring - done and bingo in the Autumn - what's become of that?
35. Town Hall hours and evening opening
Hours reduced to 4 days a week on the condition that one extension - probably Monday when staff are around anyway for meetings - was looked at. What came of that? There was to be direction to the TIC for ticket purchases etc on Fridays - what has happened to this?
36. Assembly Hall roof works
There was a massive quote for fixing the roof and staff were looking at making urgent fixes with the same contractor. This has been going on for ages and we seem to not have got anywhere
37. and 38. High Pavement and Union Street
Latest look at railing and something to slow traffic down?
40. Speed detection devices
I'm getting lost ... other councillors more expert on these. Status update on what we have and where it is in use and what's being changed / added when would be appreciated.
41. Maple Close / Sandridge Road
The corner of the path from Maple Close onto Sandridge Road is to be widened - I thought this was all agreed and funded but I am not sure where the project is
42. Booking of Comedians and other acts
How have a good program this autumn and I am delighted to see Rich Hall as an act there. Comedians are popular - what actions are we taking to encourage other acts wider that the tribute acts which while they bring in a lot of guests to the hall do not have the width of attraction that we should have?
43. Pavement stones - "Temporary" tarmac in Town Centre
When will it be fixed?
Missing from the list above - a great deal; it is not a complete list - it is just a list of where I would wish to be able to look up an update.
Published Friday, 29th September 2023
Splash Pad - my last shiftShared from Facebook - here for the record. It has been really enjoyable and I'm open to accept an invite to help again next year. It has also been useful - helping keep me informed as to what's going on and meeting our residents and staff - and people who come into Melksham to use the park and other facilities too. The role is to some extent like that of a babysitter - long periods of sitting around and then a few minutes where attendance is vital, and those long periods used, as I am now, for other thing such as writing. Fitter (and younger!) staff on other days have a whole variety of Park Ranger tasks to get on with during the blank times.
Open today - Thursday 28th September 2023 - and Friday, Saturday, Sunday too - 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. then closed for the winter. It's a cool morning, but set to get warmer this afternoon.
This is my final shift - I have enjoyed doing the the job one day a week, meeting people, helping ensure the Splash Pad is open and running sweetly and safely. I have enjoyed working alongside colleagues who have been doing an excellent and largely unsung job, rain or shine - and have been doing much more that me around the area with other resposibilities like loos and litter - big THANK YOU to them.
As a Town Councillor, you are welcome to pop in for a chat today or to get in touch at any time. Community input helps inform discussions and decisions and gives me real strength; perhaps especially so in my case without party or group affiliation, though working with all staff, councillors and other volunteers for the town.
I hope than over the next weeks - before we summer staff forget the detail - we'll have a wash-up to help the council learn and perhaps tune for next year. 2023, in spite of significant challenges early in the year, has been enormously better and more reliable than I understand 2022 was - and we can help pass on our experience to help the 2024 team do well.
Numbers in the SplashPad at any one time may not be massive (when they are, they challenge the water cleaning system) but it brings lots of people into the park to enjoy all the facilities we have here. Perhaps 15 in the splashpad - but another 30 with them as parents, guardians and siblings and another 50 in the dry play area, another 50 picnicing or enjoying the cafe. It makes the park as a whole substantive enough to be a destination.
Published Thursday, 28th September 2023
Millenium Post. Where are we going?1000 days ... from 1st January 2021, which is the baseline for this blog. So today's post is something of a test - waking up on 27th September 2023, I am checking in real time that the blog software I have written works with 4 digit day numbers as well as 3 digit one. I don't expect problems, but I know (or by the time you read this, knew - past tense) that I needed to check.
The supporting image show John O'Groats and the north east tip of Scotland showing some very long distances to places. I looked at various "starting line" images but many that I have show the start or races. But getting things right - be they Melksham or wider - is not a race; it's a long term thing and it's more imporantant to get to the right place than to rush to be first.
Most of us councillors are looking as a Town Council at being where our people want to be, which involves looking after the good we have, and moving things forward to reflect changing wants and needs too. There is no point (and a frustration) in taking a very long time to get to where we want, but at the same time we have to manage risks and plan and get things right as we progress to destination and it will often take longer than we wish.
We need to define, though, "where we want". On 26th June 2021, our then-new coucnil held a visioning day where all of us looked forward to the next four years, but I'm struggling to see the outcome documents which correlate and filter all the ideas and give us a vision. And this has been such a very long time that the intent to set the scene for four years has gone and we proceed along without that rudder that would help steer us. The lack of a rudder also means that a lot of short term projects are on the books, clogging our systems and without an overarching strategy that makes it obvious which way we need to proceed.
The Joint Melksham Neighbourhood Plan II is one of the "works in progress" and should be coming to a public consultation later this Autumn. Whilst it must conform to the Wiltshire local plan / core strategy, it will allow us in Melksham to have a greater influence in where and how our town develops. I note this morning that there is social media discussion on a planning application just to the East of Melksham, with various critical comment about the lack of supporting infrastrucure; JMNPII won't stop the critical comment nor the growth mandated by Wiltshre Council, but it will help make growth better planned and supported by compleimentary infrastructure. Help us define "where we want".. Meeting tonight and I am deputy chair (excellent chair!) and it's a pleasure to have everyone pulling in the same direction on this one, including Town and Without councillors who have been briefed and staff who have put a lot of time in.
However - there's an elephant in the room - the environment and the climate change element of it. We as a race have pushed the natural balance of our planet to, and perhaps over, its limits of stability. At the very least, we are in for a rocky ride. And there's a very strong possibility - a probability if dramatic habit changes are not only signed up for but also really implemented - that we are changing the world in a way that's irreversible and catastrophic.
The previous Town Council adopted an environmental policy in June 2019 and a get together of the Environment and Climate Working Group members last night took a look through it in review; really good stuff in there an we should be (and need to be) acting on it wider. Our own council operations are not going to change the planet's future directly, but the example we set in our little way can help establish a framework that others can follow.
The environment is so important that our "ECWG" has stepped up to meeting formally every three weeks - ahead of the Economic Development and Planning meeting in order to be as efficient as possible in town council staff time. And additionally we get together informally at the same time in almost every other week. That's a big step up from where we were a year ago and it's a direction to b maintained - not (please!) for the joy of another meeting but to have the environment at the heart of our agenda. Appreciation of how important the environment is does grow, but I still see "Environemntal Impact - None" on some of my fellow councillor's proposals. Well - our environment is everything and the impact of decisions all effect it.
To close - two maps that were presented at Melksham's ClimateFest earlier this month. Both are distorted - one to show the world by its carbon footprint, and the other to show the world as it's currently being impacted by climate change. You may argue detail of how the numbers are reached but the overall picture is bleak.
Published Wednesday, 27th September 2023
Full Council highlights, 25.9.2023Something of a return to sanity at full council last night - with the offer from Wiltshire Council to asset transfer the Blue Pool to Melksham Town to be left on the table until we sufficient data to know what would be taken on. The discussion was in public - something of a victory for local democracy and a long way from the proposal for us to make a decision, out of public site and without the option report we funded in June. Getting that going has been slow, but progress is being made. The proposal to run a competition "what could be done" was withdrawn; it may make sense once we know the outline of what is possible, though one councillor out of the ten present clearly already knows the outcome - or was he letting his heart rule his head?
The proposal to set up a brand new committee (or sub committee) to scrutinise projects was, perhaps, born out of a frustration at some current situations where things that are resolved seem not to progress to completion, come back and keep being revisited / changed, and are very hard to track / know where they are. I understand the intent, understand the proposal, but adding yet another committee and system on top of what we already have seems over the top and liable to make the workload worse before it's better. So having a "standing" section on the finance, admin and performance committee, with an agenda item that gives a tabulated progress report on all projects / resolutions makes sense ... the big open question remaining is to actually see how the work of updating these things happens. Last year's attempt at using Microsoft Team failed because the projects weren't updated and most of the staff actually entering data and knowing the system have left. We don't have a member of staff with the sort of project management skill / background on our team - we declared that person redundant 2 years ago and identified the gap in our skill base at the time, but it remains unfixed.
Prior to "Scrutiny Committee" proposal, I had written down a list of a dozen projects I would like an update on, and further items were raised by the member of the press present. Not necessarily any answers, but my expanded list would include in no particular order ... Yellow lines on Waverly Gardens; Lighting to The Forest Centre; Our Team system; Visioning for the Town Council; Improved public information; Progress on environmental considerations; Virtual Hub; Sensory Garden; Lighting in KGV; Demolition of Maintenance shed; Blue Pool and Assembly Hall Structural Survey; Happy to chat / PB memorial bench; Cycle maintenance station at the Papillion; Dog park gates; Priority for People; Assembly Hall Working Group; Communications and Social Media Policy; Informal Councillor and Staff briefing; BMX track; Wedding Venue; Town Hall hours and evening opening; Assembly Hall roof works; High Pavement and Union Street; CCTV; Allotment water; Sandridge Common footpath / Maple Close corner; Staffing issues including prioritisaton; Speed detection devices. List does NOT include many things I feel fully in the picture about - so it's not a complete issue list!
We DID go into confidential session on the Neighbourhood Plan and correctly so; that will inform a further meeting with Melksham Without tomorrow, and is expected to be public by the middle of next month. Really good to be working on long term planning, through and within a system with some teeth and local inout and gain, across the whole Melksham area.
Finally, a note of thanks to the Mayor, assisted by the Locum Clerk and Commitee Clerk on running a positive and polite meeting with a heavy agenda, yet within the time allocated and with all speakers who wished called to have their say. It was not an easy one with an agenda like that! I will admit to going into the meeting with serious concerns as to how much of it would turn out - revieved at how it went.
Photo - our plate is stacked high at the Town Council with all sorts of different issues ... Image from wikipedia
Published Tuesday, 26th September 2023
350 pages and I feel ill informed!I am having my final wade through 350 pages in the agenda pack for tonight's full council meeting. An incredible amount of data for us to take in, and a big ask on us as councillors, though confirming that all 14 of us stood for election to this role knowing we would not be paid to do it and would need to find the free time to learn and read in. I will do my best tonight, as I know that most of me colleagues will - each of us in our own ways an hopefully bringing sensible compromise to the decisions. And yet in amongst so much bumph there are so may unanswered questions.
But the council has changed since I was elected, and I feel naked and uninformed in making decisions for the town. We started in May 2021 with a clerk, a deputy clerk, a business development manager, a head of operations and an Assembly Hall manager. Of those five, three are no longer with us and not replaced - workload not much reduced but falling on a much smaller team. And if you email either of the two remaining, you'll get an "Out of Office" message. There is, of course, very much a practical limit to what a much smaller employed team can do, so the situation is best attributed to early staffing decisions and the activities of the staffing committee, which meets quite often but is only open to those councillors on that "star chamber".
In June 2021 (that's right - over 2 years ago) all councillors and staff gave up a Saturday ("their free time" for councillors, but I suspect staff were paid) to do a day's visioning and come up with long term plans. Long term plan are recommended for setting budgets and ensuring that organisations such as the Town Council don't waste time and money on short term disjoined activities, some of which contradict each other and some of which put the kibosh on others. I still await the outcomes; I asked for them about a year ago so that last winter's budget setting could look ahead for sensible spending with the longer term in mind - we should have a three year plan at least. But I fear that we'll be looking to address the immediate issues only again this December without clear vision.
I've hinted above that I don't know what's going on in some sectors of the council's work and indeed other councillors feel the same and are regularly asking for updates. This leads to more work (answering us) on are already-stretched team, and drives them to an unnecessarily increased workload, and a spiral of frustration all around. I'm not sure if the "Project Scrutiny Subcommittee" that's proposed to be set up tonight will act as a cure to kick things into line, or just make things worse. An informal meeting of councillors which could have discussed this last week was cancelled at a couple of hours notice - a problem with the room, I understand but had it been my business I would have made a couple of phone calls and relocated - let people know by email, notice on the door for anyone who missed it. But of course it's not my business - if it was and I was leading / guiding, there is much I would look to tune differently.
You might thing that one of the first steps to sorting out our efficiency would be to get information systems and communications right. Our Electronic Communications and social mediapolicy was due to come before council on 17th July but got lost because we ran out of time. It's not even made it to the agenda tonight because "you will notice that Social Media Policy has been removed from item 11, Policy Review and Adoption. [Officer name] has been unable make any amendments to the proposed policy in line with suggestions so it will be back on the agenda another day".
Picture - Blue Pool at night. On the agenda tonight. Goodness only knows what decision if any we'll make.
Published Monday, 25th September 2023
Melksham Town - some statistics
note 1 - 20.8% overall aged under 18
note 2 - 21.1% overall aged over 64
General note - Melksham's Forest, East and South wards correspond to Wiltshire Unitary Councillor wards, but the North Ward is only part of a unitary ward; the figures above are derived for North Ward from the figures for the whole of the Melksham Parish.
Observation - to be noted, the significant differences between the proportions of younger people in each ward, and older people too. Also noting the very different growth rates and population densities.
I was surprised by the lower population density of the North Ward, but then when I think about it, it includes large industrial areas such as Cooper Tire, Avonside, Challeymead Business Park and the Up Yard at the station. It also includes Leekes, Asda and other businesses in those area and some land to the north of the Urban area before Beanacre, and to the south of the Blenheim Care Home on the Bath Road.
For my own ward of Melksham South, from Citypopulation I can also see it's 49.1% male and 50.9% female, that 4225 out of 4577 of us were born in the UK, and that 2343 of us regstered as Christian and 1806 selected no religion at the census.
Published Friday, 22nd September 2023
Can a private citizen make a difference?What can I as a private citizen achieve? Is it worth even trying? A question asked of me the other day.
18 years ago today (Wednesday 20th September 2005) I hosted the inaugural meeting of "Save the Train". See my old Horse's Mouth blog
"Graham - this is Melksham - it would be a miracle to get 20 people to a meeting". So said the doubters.
Going forward at that point, the train service was 2 trains each way per day (06:36 and 19:18 southbound, 07:21 and 19:47 northbound) and there were 3,000 passenger journeys per day - that's an average of one passenger arriving and one passenger leaving on each train. The platform was long enough for a single carriage, there was just a bus shelter on it, and the bunny rabbits hopped around if you ventured down there. Few people in Melksham even knew we had a railway station!
Where are we now?
* We have 9 trains each way per day rather than 2.
* Passenger numbers have risen to 75,000 journeys per annum rather than 3,000
* We have daytime and peak trains that we didn't have before, and in the last few months a late evening service has started
* Our trains (of necessity) are now 2 or 3 carriages long and our platform has been lengthened to that passengers can leave and join at any carriage
* We have a new much larger waiting shelter. Cycle racks, help point, CCTV and a ticket sales and collection machine have all been installed
* We have two real time departure boards, telling you when the next trains are due and alerting you to any disruption on them
* Car parking has been expanded from 6 spaces outside the station to around 60 spaces, some with electric charging points
Pictured - 46 people got off the 18:09 arrival from Swindon last Saturday, and a further 12 joined. 53 people remained on the train - passengers from Swindon and Chippenham to Trowbridge and Westbury, giving a total of 111 passengers. That's twice as may on one train as would have used the entire service in a week when I first got involved!
Good, but we're not all the way there yet
* An appropriate service would run every hour rather than every 2 hours, and we forecast that this would raise passenger numbers - 3,000 a year when we started, 75,000 now, up to over 250,000.
* Foot and cycle access to the Station from Foundry Close and / or the A350 opposite Scotland Road would bring many more homes within walking and cycling distance of the station
* A bus service to connect to and from each train at Melksham Station to the Town Centre, residential areas to the east and south of the town, and industrial and business areas at Bowerhill and Hampton Park would allow the station to serve the whole urban catchment and not just a part of it.
* We have always had a problem with service reliability and that remains. In early days, as few as 60% of the trains ran. It's been up and down over the years, but is now officially around 90% excluding industrial action which at present is loosing us all service on 2 or 3 days per month. We need to reach 98% running with robust alternative transport provided for the few remaining cancellations
* There is a desire for direct service to Bath and Bristol rather than passenger needing to change at Chippenham or Trowbridge. Once that can be provided as an hourly service in addition to hourly services to Swindon and Westbury, it would make sense
* The present trains are diesel powered and over 30 years old, and they will need replacement in the next decade or so. It would make sense to electrify the line as that is done, not only for our passenger trains but also for the heavy freight.
* The fare system is complex and off-putting. Having a simplified system and / or advise available to help would make a huge difference. This is a national issue but we must work to ensure that changes work for Melksham.
The question at the beginning was - "Did I as a private Citizen make any difference?" I am not claiming to having made the differences listed here, but I am claiming to have had a hand in them happening, and with the rest of the communty too. I have been pretty visible along the way, but it's beem pretty much a team effort. Full and fulsome credit to the many, many people I have enjoyed and still enjoy working with and to the wider public who use the services, and the mostly-wonderful people who staff them.
Published Thursday, 21st September 2023
Decision on Blue Pool to be taken behind closed doors next Monday?The agenda for next Monday's full Town Council meeting (25.9.2023) has been published at (here). A confidential session is proposed at item 22 - from the (16 Mb) full public agenda pack:
22. Assembly Hall & Blue Pool
22.1 Updating report (Pages 277 - 282) - To receive an updating report on progress.
22.2 Asset Transfer (Pages 283 - 314) - For decision – Whether to accept the transfer of the Blue Pool on the terms suggested.
22.3 RIBA Competition (Pages 315 - 342) - For decision – Whether to hold a RIBA Competition for design of the Assembly Hall/Blue Pool site.
|* From 22.2 it is clear that Wiltshire Council have offered terms to Melksham Town Council to transfer the Blue Pool to us and we are being asked to make a decision|
* From 22.1 it is clear that Melksham Town Council's work to study whether we want to take on the Blue Pool isn't completed - we are offered just a "progress report"
* From 22.3 it would seem that we are deciding whether to hold a design competition for the future of the site ... and that word site suggests, does it not, something new to be built?
And all of this in a confidential session with the press and public excluded! Looking at the background information in the pack, those items are marked "Document is Restricted" and although I have the full documents, I am not at liberty to share them, nor their content.
It is my view that the transfer of the Blue Pool from Wiltshire Council is decision for us that will have huge consequences. The price of the transfer may be trivial, but the opportunities it offers the town of Melksham are massive. And so are the risks and costs of us owning, and perhaps operating, a building without a proper outline plan, and without as yet even a condition report to tell us what's the framework of the possible for both the Blue Pool and the Assembly Hall which shares part of the structure and houses some Blue Pool equipment. This is not a decision which should be rushed, nor one that should be made behind closed doors, without public sight and comments on the documents involved, and without the decision makers being informed of the state of what they are buying and the likely consequences
In June, we (Melksham Town Council) allocated £10,000 to look at what could be done with the Blue Pool and Assembly Hall, with a three month timescale for the work and having a strong indication we would be offered the Blue Pool. The Town Council has failed to deliver to me, or as far as I can see in public, the reports needed to make a good decision. The Friends of Melksham Assembly Hall have, using local volunteer effort and expertise, produced an outline business plan looking at the various options, and an example of what could perhaps be done with the existing buildings, putting community need first. You can see these document via the Friend's library.
More Background Last week, I was invited by one of our officers to "if could you forward any ideas you think I may not have seen so I can forward them on" ... to our structural engineer. Casting around a dozen key FoMAH volunteers, I came up with the following over last weekend. These are my writing, volunteer's inputs, and I am happy to share in public. It gives you an idea of the questions that need to be addressed in order for your Town Councillors to make an informed decision:
Quoting from me ... "Formally, thank you for asking. As discussed in subsequent emails and in person, I have taken the weekend to cast around friends involved in order to do our best to ensure that as many aspects as possible are covered. See below my signature. They should be read in conjunction with the documents and presentation to council on 17th July - business case outline at http://www.fomah.org.uk/lib/fomah_20230716_businessplan.pdf and the example of what could be done within the repurpose option at http://www.fomah.org.uk/lib/fomah_20230717_mtcpresent.pdf - our document library where we try to keep all of this together is at http://www.fomah.org.uk/library.html
"I don’t think we are party to the work brief given to the Structural Engineer (are we? Is it published?) so this is very much a set of fill in notes from various people to help inform yourself and the other staff members involved, and it’s a bit rushed as we’ve cast around ourselves in less that a week, though obviously we have know since late June that this work was to be undertaken so you can characterise the below as pulling thoughts together to help you ensure that noting is missed,
"Inputs are a combination of thoughts from about half a dozen people.
"On a related topic, I am being asked again how we are doing on roof repairs … did we get an estimate for lesser works and how are we proceeding?
"P.S. Happy to answer questions / meet / fill in as appropriate, [officer name redacted] - and to ask our other minds with more experience of this sort of thing to do so. We are here to help."
Backing up that emails ...
Structural Engineer notes / specification / my thoughts
Overview - the objective is to allow us (the Town Council with, one hopes, community input) to be informed as to the current state of the Assembly Hall (including the caretaker's cottage) and Blue Pool (including the patio area and wall) so that we can make good decisions as to the future of those buildings and the site, and to what extent we as a Town Council should be involved. We are looking for a report that tells us
* the condition of the buildings including a look forward to life expectancy and ongoing maintenance issues if we retain the buildings
* the works needed to be done in order to remove and allow for general use of the buildings (removal of specialist swimming pool equipment such as water tanks)
* the structural integrity and any necessary ongoing reliance should the Blue Pool and Assembly Hall continue in separate ownership or be handled as two semi-detached properties
* the structural integrity and any necessary issues should the Blue Pool be demolished
* The relative costs and timescales of clearing one or both buildings and starting again!
We are looking at not only immediate costs but ongoing costs and it is logical to consider the next 15 years in line with the local plan and neighbourhood plan, and the next (say) 40 years looking at total project lifetime
Of particular and growing concern are environmental issues; we are of an understanding that a new building could be more environmentally friendly in operation, but that the capital environmental investment might negate or reverse that benefit and guidance would be appreciated.
Notes from others to be considered ...
It’s quite understandable to initially think in terms of extending the Assembly Hall with the addition of the Blue Pool, but does the Assembly Hall really need extending and what might be any real benefit in doing so ?
Why not give consideration to creating a Town Museum in the previous gym area of the building, and part fill and part leave as a small lake with possibly a waterfall in the swimming pool.
A mini Eden style of project as in Cornwall with seating and tables around the outside for public relaxation/coffee and drinks, and also as a venue for small gatherings and meetings could very easily be created.
This would certainly be a unique venue in the county, could be maintained by the street scene people, balance the forces of ground-heave on the pool walls, and if a few large boulders were incorporated there is ample available on a site very locally.
It may possibly also act as a source for growing plants for the town displays.
It appears to me that a project like this would reduce any significant structural revisions or costs.
Further questions / suggestions I have correlated
A Structural Engineer has been appointed by the Town Council to take a look at the Blue Pool and Assembly Hall and provide a report on their condition. I have been invited (and passing the invite on) to suggest some more specific guidance for him. Your inputs would be much appreciated - virtually by return as this request has come in about 6 weeks later than I would have wished.
I don’t personally know the engineer, but my feeling is that our backup brief to him in addition to “tell us what condition the buildings are in” would be to tell him that we are looking at options going forward for the Assembly Hall and Blue Pool, and his work will help inform us between the options. He is being copied, I understand, on the business case and also suggestion put by the friends to council in July. Headline must be to inform us (or rather the TC) to make the decisions rather than going on educated guesses and assumptions.
Specifics already passed to me / questions to be answered
• If the Blue Pool was torn down and the Assembly Hall remains intact, what damage if any would be done to the Assembly Hall wall? How structurally sound is this wall?
• If the Blue Pool remains and becomes the main entrance to the Assembly Hall, is it possible to remove the wall on the right side as you enter the Blue Pool front lobby to create a double-wide walkway through to the Assembly Hall? How difficult will it be to remove the pipes and equipment from this area? Is there anything there that is used for utility or other purposes of the Assembly Hall, or is it only for Blue Pool use and no longer needed? In other words, can this whole area be stripped out to create this lobby extension into the Assembly Hall?
• Is the roof of the Blue Pool sound enough to be able to install solar panels? (These would help to supply electricity to the Blue Pool and Assembly Hall areas and the Town Hall).
I would also request something to answer questions such as
a) Pool condition - without water is it likely to collapse / would it need filling
b) Patio area - suitability for reuse such as parking
c) Assembly Hall roof - condition
And I would look to having a look at relative cost of works of various options, ongoing running costs, and environmental impact relative to other options. I would also suggest we look ahead to 2038 - a fifteen year window aligned with local plan and new neighbourhood plan - with comment as to the life of the structures for the following decades too - a forty year vision might help inform.
Published Wednesday, 20th September 2023
Which councillors actually attend meetings? - SubbingIt's common practise for councillors to stand in for one another at committee meetings. Committee meetings are usually scheduled well in advance (for the whole year) so, really, when we join a committee we should be able to plan our diaries around them but there ARE circumstances that arise late on, very much like occasional absences from work in employment for - for example - medical or urgent family matters.
The system (know as subbing) makes sense for occasional use, allowing a grouping on the council to be formally represented at committee meetings, typically, by another member of that grouping who can then vote and help the meeting have its minimum number (quorum) to proceed.
You'll find it very rare indeed for me to appoint a "sub". I have tried, and so far succeeded, in making most meetings. Partly due to my only serving on committees I have the time for, partly because I make a point of "zooming" in even when out of town (though that means I cannot vote or be part of the quorum, and some chairs choose not to call remote speakers) and partly through my good fortune in not having other health or similar matters come up.
"Subbing" as a common practise worries me. It can routinely place councillors, selected by a private arrangement between two of them, into a decision making position where they are not as familiar as the proper member with the topic. Perhaps it's a bit strong for me to suggest it's an afront to our democracy - the electorate can see which councillors are on which committee to lobby them on matters arising, but what good is that when a different councillor turns up at the meeting?
Of course, it's never that simple:
1. There's no "subbing" at Full Council - all councillors are there in their voting rights and so there's no-one available to stand in
2. The Staffing Committee is NOT open to all councillors to attend, and those of us not on that committee have only the vaguest idea (if any) of what's going on
3. Working Groups have no authority - unlike Committees which have delegated powers. Each differs, but usually any councillor can attend if (s)he knows about them. As I see it, little point in asking a colleague to formally "sub", but it is done - there's a cast around going on for a Park Working Group sub as I write to come in (evening of 19th) and help make recommendations for the parks and leisure areas.
4. Meetings dates are planned for the year (good) and but occasionally extras are necessary to consider urgent matters. These have (in my view) become less that "occasional" to the detriment of the good sweet running flow and full representation we should have; I cannot attend a late-called meeting on the evening of 20th, for example.
We're halfway through our four year term, and who could have predicted their personal circumstances for September 2023 in March 2021? So some seepage is only to be expected - but it's sad that we've been having trouble being quorate at our meetings.
Councillor Records from election (May 2021 to September 2023)
Data in the public domain from the Melksham Town Council web site; I have chosen to delete the councillor's names as I'm writing in general, though I have left my own name there as I'm happy to share my own record and face comment.
Although I criticize routine "subbing" above, make no bones, there is an awful lot of dedication to cause there - 982 meetings attended and if they average 2 hurs then at minimum wage that would cost £20464.88 even before you count travel and preparation time. But they're not minimum wage - they're all volunteers and they do it for you for free.
Now - a bit of a game for those of you "in the know" - shown are all 13 councillors who were elected in May 2021 and remain councillors today. Can you work out of guess who's who?
It's not all about council meetings though - it's also about preparing for those meetings, being involved with resultant and other council activity, and listing to the public and keeping them informed too.
P.S. Meeting invites - 1248, so about three out of four attended on average. One councillor in particular who is on a lot of committees has managed an astonishing 94% attendance and that pulls the average up - I would suggest that the six councillors who are below 80% could do better. Four are at or over 85% and that is (in my view) a realistic target when taking on a council role.
Published Monday, 18th September 2023
Yes - you can!"I often feel that we can’t change things ..." writes a correspondent not happy with some of the Town Council activities, or apparent lack of activities and their consequences.
I have good news and bad news.
The good news is that you can influence decisions and that will change things. And the bad news is that by the time most of the choices come to the attention of the wider public, they've already been made and any veneer of consultation is just that - a veneer to help make the outcome look as if it's community supported.
I have been thinking this through over many years and here are some notes:
- Get in early
- Stick at it; be there to help implement the fruit of your labour.
- Look a long way ahead, but learn from the history behind you
- have a strategy which lets you make tactical decisions easy and efficient
- Be trustworthy and partner with others
- Study those who take a different approach to yours to understand why
- Motivate and respect those you work with and understand their motivation
- Offer solutions not criticism
- Be clear and consistent in your ask
- Understand the issues and address them all
- Where others have made a decision, respect it and support them
- Have a good case and don't overplay it
- Smile when something gets pushed back; understand why and have a plan "B"
- Make sure that what you seek works not just for now but into the future
- Research and earn technical respect
- Be prepared to admit errors and explain occasional changes of position
- Listen to others and put yourself in their shoes
- Use time wisely and think "why am I doing this"
- Don't over-bug people
- Have a partner / significant other who supports you but can challenge you
- Play it as a game - though the outcome may be far from a game!!
- Have fun, enjoy friends an enjoy the mental challenge!
Sorry - a bit (or should I say "a lot") preachy. I was sitting on the train last night and started writing up. These things can be pretty darned hard and readers who know me will be able to find copious examples where I fall short of what I'm suggesting.
Success may be nothing - it may be the maintenance of the Status Quo
Success may not be noticed - it may creep up on you and just be there
Success will almost inevitably be a team effort
Success may not be notified to you and you may not even know
Success will be claimed by others, some of who's contribution you'll question
Failure is the absence of success as yet
So - where do you start if you want to change things? Look at what is up and coming and not what is coming towards a conclusion. Choose things you have a passion for. I am resisting the temptation to come up with my own examples - but let's just say I'm feeling celebratory today. Much to be thankful for - but briefly before planning the next phases ... and in that personal celebrations comes public feedback to direct that next phase.
Published Sunday, 17th September 2023