Graham Ellis - Regular updates - my diary
Happy to Chat
Yesterday, I took a trip out to clear the cobwebs of winter, to enjoy the feel of the wind on the hills, the crashing of the waves on the beach, and the tranquillity of wooded glades. 2022 has started with the loss of several good 'professional' friends with whom I've campaigned for many years - fixtures in our landscape, and with the loss of our dog Billy too at the beginning of this month. I have written much on all three. Very, very much remembered with fondness, but the message here is "open for business" as Nigel and Jo would have encouraged, and as Billy would have accompanied and supported me on.
On Weymouth Sea Front, I came across this sign on a bench. "The Happy to Chat Bench. Sit here if you don't mind someone stopping to say 'Hello'". And - my thought - what a good idea. Not for the only bench somewhere, but perhaps one of the benches in the midst of KGV parki. Not really for lonely people to sit there, but rather where people in family or friend groups can sit, and others who perhaps are in need of a few words known they will be welcome, and can, indeed, say "hello". Just a word or two can make a huge difference.
Lisa and I live in a "Happy to Chat" house. We're in South Ward, which I represent (and am learning still how better to represent) on the town council, and our door is open - the physical one not quite at all times (best check ahead I'm going to be around unless you risk taking pot luck), the phone one far more, and the online / message door 24x7 though response is not always immediate. I do want to hear what bugs you and what pleases you, to help (with what few tools I have) you, and perhaps to motivate. And that's whether or not you voted for me. We may have a hedge at the front of our home, but it's porous to reduce the sound of the road, and not solid to block us off from the outside.
Added - 15th February 2022
The idea of a "Happy to Chat" bench has been positively received by Melksham Town councillors - a couple just looking to make sure that it's not the only bench in a part of the town so that there remains seating for those who are preferring their own company. But there are 14 benches around the circuit in the KGV park, and two in particular struck me as good candidates - for a choice of one such bench. As an aside, there are also 5 benches in the Dog Bark, but there is little point in making any of them "Happy to Chat" because people who take their dogs there are very much prepared for interaction! I have also checked with the amenities team who maintain the park, and they have no problem with the idea.
So - where now? At the Town Council's Asset and Amenities Commitee meeting last night (which I watched on Zoom), the subject of extra benches, sponsoring benches (and sponsoring roundabouts mentioned too) came up, and it looks like a whole policy and process will be developed, probably with a report back to the next meeting of that committee on 19th April. I am hopeful, but far from certain, that we may be able to fast track a "Happy to Chat" sign on a single bench before Spring. I would prefer not to wait for a policy to be decided and implemented and an application made ... by which time it could be high summer or even autumn, but other may take the view that suggestions such as mine which are in the pipeline should wait until the policy is set.
Published Sunday, 13th February 2022
Campus - what to do with other public assets"Melksham Campus" will open later this year. And the library and the swimming pool will move into the new building. I was on the "SCOB" - Shadow Campus Operation Board - a decade ago, and at that time the plan was a single site facility for Wiltshire Council, with eight (I think it was) eight other properties / sites being sold off. Some are outside the town (in Melksham Without), and at least one other has, I think, been removed from the Unitary Council's books already. But what happens to the remaining properties? And while that question's being addressed, wouldn't it be a good idea to take a wider view and at least give some thought as to how their future will fit in with the future of other Wiltshire Council and Town Council assets.
We should be mindful of what's wanted for the future at this time that so many things are moving around all at once and perhaps life expired, and we're also seeing major social changes brought on by climate change, covid, and the information age all of which were absent last "time around".
On Monday evening, Melksham Town Council appointed three members to meet with Wiltshire Council members and officers to discuss publicly owned assets in Melksham; those three are Councillors Simon Crundell, Pat Aves and myself, and a first meeting was held via Teams the following night. There are some tough questions to be asked; at this stage, over a very short period, we'll be looking at the scope and the art of the possible, and how things fit in with aspirations and affordability. Serious stuff, in co-ordination with other work and papers such as Priority for People, the Neighbourhood Plan and the Local Plan. And previous work, reports and ideas to be used as tools for us to learn from - repeat the good and avoid the bad.
Rather than speculate on what could be done and worry people with silly early ideas, I bring you an idea from the Wiltshire Times in 1955 who's time has passed. This didn't happen ... neither did the plan to put a road through from The Bear to the Church Street Car Park, demolishing historic buildings but it just might have meant that we could be considering a pedestrianised High Street now.
Published Wednesday, 26th January 2022
Town precept - how Melksham comparesThis bar chart shos how the Town council precept in Melksham compares to the other towns in Wiltshire for the current year. With the only exceptions being towns with a strong MOD presence (where it's the MOD rather than the civil local council who do much of the provision), we have the lowest town precept in the county and will continue to do so next year - unless some other town decides to make a huge cut.
Readers who live in (rural) parishes rather than towns will find that their parish council precept is much lower - almost without exception. That's because Town Councils provide facilities for their wider community area - town centre street scene, public loos, parks, halls, information and much more at the expense of the people who live in their designated "built up" area but for the benefit of their wider economic catchment.
"Unfair" you might say - "why should we pay for the non-residents" - and you would probably be right. But I suspect we need to be pragmatic and accept that situation - continuing our charitable gift of a town that welcomes (and pays for) people from "the villages". The alternative is for the Town Council to start charging for the use of parks, toilets, the Town Centre, etc - we already charge for use of the Assembly Hall. Perhaps the idea is not so stupid - watching on the news over Christmas, Bristol is talking about charging organised groups in their parks, and perhaps folks like ParkRun and Party in the Park and the River and Food festival should be paying [more] to the Town Council.
Published Saturday, 1st January 2022
Review of 2021I've tried to write a Christmas update for family and friends multiple times over the past couple of week. I start by saying "we're doing fine" and "nothing much has happened", but then I start writing further and realise the first bit ("we're doing fine") is true - couldn't be finer - but the second part (the "nothing much has happened") is not (!) exactly true.
That's the "Management Summary" - read on if you dare, or if you have hours to waste! I will try to "theme" things through what has been a complex year!
• Canine Section
• Family Section
• Holiday Section
• House, Garden, Car Section
• Railway Section
• History Section
• Bus Section
• Town Council Section
• This Christmas Section
• What will we do in 2022 Section and summary
As we entered 2021, we were looking forward to meeting Olive - in foster in Bristol - with a view to her joining our family shortly thereafter; sadly, the meeting didn't go ahead and indeed Olive struggled in her foster home and the rescue took her into kennels for long term work. We never met Olive - purely working on what we told largely on emails, so while we had misgivings they have to remain only that, and we hope Olive come through the rescue system well.
"We have a place for a dog to join our getting-grumpy-old-man" we said to ourselves and to contacts and a few places, and we met Nora and Moo in Bath. Lovely dogs, but that bit too much for Billy so we passed; Lisa felt that Moo - a Pondeco - was a bit much for her too ;-).
And so ... thumbing through web sites ... I came across Lulu at Dog's Trust, Newbury where our Gyp - who's passing in '20 left such a hole. Brindle would be nice for a chance - check. Greyhound or lurcher - check. Girl - check. Young but not puppy - check. Not an ex-racer - oops. To be re-home with Lightning - a black boy x racing greyhound ... double oops. "Silly idea" say I to Lisa ... and of course silly ideas are always the best, and we met Lulu and Lightning several times, and the bonded pair came to live with us in May.
I'm writing this during the night. Billy is asleep up against me, Lulu is on Lisa's feet and Lightning is in a dog bed on the floor; not always like this - it could be just about any of the three anywhere, and from behind we have to look at the tail tip to see Lightning's white flash. But what an eventful six months since they joined us!
Lightning came frightened of people, vehicles driving past, and his own shadow. As a "three year" project. He trailed a light lead to help restrain him - though we managed to get rid of that within a couple of weeks. To this day, he prefers to be on the open french window side of us, but he will sneak upstairs and settle down, give us "kisses" and so on - he's excited but yet frightened at the same time. Lovely dog - delighted he's one of our family and we totally overlook all those "oops"es.
And what of Lulu - a lovely, cheeky girl with such a different character - pushy and, it has proven, accident prone. She came with a great scar around her neck and no history about it. And - oh my goodness - running around the garden with Lightning the two of them ran up the mown grass / compost heap and leapt the fence - while out for a week in the early midsummer dawn. He made it - she didn't and skinned one of her legs in the iron spike railings.
No pictures of Lulu's leg - we would be banned from Facebook - and there was a question mark over whether the leg could be saved. Local operation, then a further operation with a specialist veterinary surgeon. Skin graft from her chest to her leg ("why has your dog got a nipple on her knee") and dressing every two days - initially sedated because she was in such pain. Cone of shame - which she hated and managed to manipulate so it helped her get at the very leg she shouldn't. Then a medical shirt while the graft site healed, and and medical trousers (with braces attaching to the shirt) to keep the leg dressings safe.
I have lost count of how many times we drove to Bath. Two return trips twice a week at first, then reducing to a single round trip once she didn't have to be sedated and in all day. Gradually extending from every three days to four, five, and a week. Final trip - 26th October - but still healing right across the knee joint even to this day. Excellent news was that she came with initial insurance; not so great that we blew the limit in getting her fixed - but you do, don't you?" So she's cost us the price of that cruise from Southampton around South America - but then that's been cancelled due to covid anyway, and Lulu is ... incomparable. And able, once again, to give Lightning a run for his money. Tough as old boots, strong as an ox, headstrong as [insert comparative word]. And fortunately very much a family member. I walked her, early September and still in trousers, through the middle of the Food and River festival. Perfect, amazing considering what she's been through, or perhaps because of it.
Lulu went along to the Great Global Greyhound Walk on 19th September too - another 75 hounds there - and was walked for a while by our MP while I briefed her on - oh, that will come later! See "Railway".
Billy is getting older and stiffer, and is now on a special diet to help his kidneys. He can still jump up onto the chair and bed though he needs to think about it a bit more, and asks to be invited - which we have to do with hand signals as he's now almost totally deaf. Bright, bright dog though - he's leart canine sign language very quickly.
This section will - dare I say it - be as short and the canine one was long. Chris and family in Amesbury, Kim and family in the Southampton area and Tyler, who has moved up from Florida to Georgia, all report that life and times continue. Proud of them all and what they do and achieve - but very much their stories to tell and not mine. Aspects of covid has kept us physically apart far more than I would wish and that's led to a growing apart which I have to regret; I also have to admit that covid may only be part of that story as our worlds are very different - I'm really not cut out to be a grandad and it rather shows.
You change during a lifetime, don't you? We have gone from "I would never cruise" to "when is our next cruise?". Everything was cancelled in 2020, and indeed in early 2021. We took the opportunity this August to take a week on P&O's new ship "Iona" from Southampton to Southampton - a non-landing cruise to - err Iona, in the Hebrides with a cruise around Mull and around Arran in the Clyde Estuary. A view of Fingal's cave on Staffa - memories of a trip with Gran in 1976 (+- 1 year)
We worried that "Iona" has twice the passenger capacity of our favourite "Aurora" but in practice we need not have worried; she's well designed and we didn't feel overpowered. We might - but were not - concerned about a smallish cabin and being in each other's pockets all the time. Lisa and I seem to be so much together - still so much to say and talk about after all these years, and both with a considerable element of "doing our own thing". More of those things below.
Our good friend Justin - who lives in Somerset - came up and dog-sat and house-sat. Our three love playing with his Jack Russell "Finn", and Justin has a holiday / break too. Can't thank Justin enough for what we does.
If Iona to Iona was our 2020 holiday, Iona to the Canary Islands in the second half of November was our 2021 holiday. The first time I have been to Madeira or the Canaries, and a chance to look around Cadiz and Lisbon on the way back. We are disinclined to take organised trips when in the ports and these days that can be slightly intimidating. But still we remain happy with our own company and with meeting casually others over dinner; all tend to be in the second rather than the first half of life and most have interesting stories. Most make us realise how lucky we are to have each other, and to so closely share views on nearly every subject, but they are superb acquaintances.
House, Garden, Car Section
Just material things ... OK - we are now growing some of our vegetables, we have help with the main garden (thank you, Doug) and as I write we have a new greenhouse awaiting its glazing. The smaller rear lawn has been destroyed by "Zoomies" and we need to be careful that the bigger front one doesn't go that way. For those who know it, we have allowed our "rear quarter" to go wild since Lulu's accident. Doug - if you're reading this - it looks really good (if he's not reading it, it looks good too!!)
Not had much done to the house - Lisa still looking out for dramatic improvements to the Kitchen, and to sorting out the Museum room but time on her history work has taken precedence. I tend to stack papers up all around as I write should probably find time to clear up a couple of rooms - build a magnificent archive which, however, lacks order and therefore not much use after I am gone.
We HAVE redone "The Cottage" - that's the outbuilding formerly used as a laundry at the front of our garden, and it's now a meeting room with a capacity of 12 (5 or 6 with 2 metre social distancing), and set up with projection, broadband and cabling so we can plug in there and run hybrid meetings - in real life up to the capacity of the room, plus dozens online. It's a bit rudimentary, but it works well and the very limited equipment can be used to set up meetings elsewhere - up to 100 on 20th October but that's another story.
Almost all of our driving has been in our electric Nissan Leaf. Lovely little car and what we need for the local trips including all those runs to the Bath Vet. We rarely take others and indeed the rear seats are a padded dog bed / dog stretcher from taking Lulu; big, big thanks to Steve for helping out with the very early journeys when Lulu needed what was virtually a pet ambulance.
Our Chrysler 'people mover' is back on the road - after 2 years - but annual milage being kept right down, and public transport trips have dropped like a stone too - my trips in the year 2021 are probably no more than my trips in a month in 2019 - and in that story, replicate by people all over the country, lies the very great difficult problem that's facing public transport.
I am going to try and summarise here, aware it's a bit specialist interest for many readers.
Early in the year, it became clear that my offer to help as a volunteer at the Melksham Hub Cafe - probably on "early opens" where I felt my prior hospitality / catering, and rail, experience would be useful was not going to be taken up. Once I admitted that to myself, it came almost as a relief - my name had remained on the TransWilts website and web app right up to that time, and I was sick and tired of irate phone calls from people feeling they had been wrongly penalty charged for car parking at the station, and further inflamed by the lack of initial response from an email box that no longer reached me. And that led to a window of time available in mind and schedule to try for Town Council. Out of sequence in these notes, I also resigned my shareholding as a friend of TransWilts in the summer so that I can speak at Council on the subject when it comes up - be it in support of their activity, or to help suggest they come back later where others on the Town Council are suggesting outright rejections of further funding requests.
The Melksham Railway User Group has widened its scope to the Melksham Transport User Group - and indeed there is and should be far more crossover between buses and trains. Having said which, the year has been a peculiar one as we have spent much of it informing rather than encouraging public transport travel, and Great Western have had enormous difficulty in providing the trains they have in their timetable. At a station like Melksham, cancellation of even one train means a two hour gap, and inconsistent information and alternative provision puts off all but the hardiest and desperate. Made double-bad for journeys with connections to or from other lines - double jeopardy if you like. So we have been much more supporting existing users rather than trying to promote new users to something that is broken.
Santa had planned to visit us on 5th December, but our officers got together in good time, and with Covid concerns and the close contact we would inevitably have had on the day, we suggested that people see Santa the previous day in Melksham; tough choice that one, but with some grandparents expressing worries we felt we should take a cautious line, and also help them by avoiding them having to make hard individual calls. In hindsight, the right call - though one we regretted having to make.
In March, I joined the Committee of the West Wilts Rail User Group - a logical step to have a Melksham rep there for what's the second largest town in the West Wilts district. Melksham is off on something of a branch - the other stations of Avoncliff, Bradford-on-Avon, Trowbridge, Westbury, Dilton Marsh and Warminster all being on the "mainline that government forgot" - the Cardiff to Portsmouth line. So expectation was that I would be rather a minor contributor. Funny how things turn out ...
The four main West Wilts stations have - or rather had - through service to London dating back to the days of British Railways, run by South West Trains for many years and then by South Western Railway when they took over the franchise a couple of years ago. We were - dumbfounded - to read in a stakeholder consultation from SWR for 2023 that these trains were to be withdrawn from December 2021 and that was already decided and outside the consultation scope.
Now - I appreciate that service need to change over the years, with those that have outlived their usefulness giving way to something better. Small problem here - these trains were very busy indeed, and the alternatives suggested involved cramming onto equally busy GWR trains to Salisbury, and waiting there for nearly an hour, or making multiple changes to get to the same destination in London, including a tube journey. The alternatives would work well for the fit, healthy, informed regular traveller who wasn't too worried about cost or inconvenience (the sort of person who works for SWR or the Department for Transport who specify services these day), but they are awful for most users. On doing a Freedom of Information request to find out how this decision had been reached, we eventually got copies of a heavily redacted set of emails from February to May in which SWR and DfT seem to have got together and looked at how they could reduce costs, characterising the service all through as "Bristol to Salisbury" and saying it duplicated GWR, overlooking many matters such as the SWR services providing the only direct trains from London to Trowbridge. By being economic with the facts in their data, SWR and DfT painted the change as a small local matter ... what limited information coming out just at the start of August making no mention what so ever of London (or indeed of West Wilts towns).
Long story, cutting short ... we lost the service. In spite of massive support from public, local transport authorities, watchdogs, MPs, user groups along the line who all came together in a public meeting. Six user groups came together and I found myself as the creator of a petition which gathered 6,300 signatures and co-ordinating a public meeting. It was raised in the House of Commons, where one of our MPs was referred on by one minister to another (who has moved on from the DfT now) but no change outcome.
I travelled on the last SWR round trip from Bristol to London and back on 10th December - very busy all the way, with people who still hadn't heard this was the last service making their long distance journeys - lots of luggage, few "last day special" travellers. The very last SWR train left Bristol at 22:25 with more than 100 passengers on board. I left it at Bath to get the last bus to Melksham and crowds surged to join the train. As it pulled out, people were standing all up the aisles - and it should be noted that there was no significant "last service" crowd. These are people who would have wanted to travel the following week too.
It's invidious to try and draw a line and thank some people and not others - core team at the final meeting with SWR - Mark, Richard and Bryony - are names I cannot leave out. But many many others have helped so much.
Looking forward - where one door closes, our team looks to open another - and indeed there are other doors already opening. See "2022" ;-)
My online Coffee Shop - http://www.passenger.chat/ - continues to thrive and keep me happily busy. "Steady as she goes". Huge thanks to the moderator and admin team if they're reading this, and to Vicki for all her work earlier in the year on updating the badly corroded Acronyms and abbreviations section. A really good AGM in Didcot - addressed by GWR MD Mark Hopwood and really interesting Q&A section - a hybrid meeting with a couple of dozen in person and also on line. "If it ain't bust, don't fix it" so no immediate plans for anything dramatic - but always one eye to the future.
I remain on the board of TravelWatch SouthWest, where we provided valuable linkage between community transport groups, politicians, rail industry and others - mostly quietly behind the scene. Often, it has to be admitted, so quietly that no-one realises. I remain very much a lightweight - a junior - at TWSW and 2022 will be the final year of my three; I very much doubt I will stand again, great bunch though they are.
Lisa has been ... consistently busy ... through 2021 with her Melksham People Historic data, leading to daily posts of "on this day" births, marriage, deaths and notable news. And this has lead to many other interesting avenues of exploration - often long research for people who live in Melksham or whose families used to.
2022 will bring the release of Census data from 100 years ago ... watch this space, and I hope Lisa still emerges from time to time from her keyboard!
What a year of ups and downs! "Bus Back Better" - the government announcement in March putting £5bn into bus improvements, adding in the community as partners in specifying services, connecting up individual train and bus routes, bus priority, sorting our fares, electric buses, decently frequent services - evenings and Sundays too, and buses going where they will be useful in the future helping reduce traffic and carbon consumption.
Across the UK, the idea of the local transport authority and operators working with the bus user community, and looking to grow services rather than cut and cut, has been novel and in many places very hard for them to get to grips with. And communities have had few user community organisations able to take on the role. I have a slide set from an online meeting we held in March asking "who should do this?" and coming to the conclusion that there really was no organisation there or looking to step up to do it. In Wiltshire, we are very fortunate in that we had something of a head start - work from 2016 on Option 24/7 has proposed things remarkably in line with Bus Back Better and from that time we had established a good relationship with Council Officers.
Lee (I must single him out) has put the most enormous work in on this in the county, and we (Lee, Peter and I) are working with others such as the new Somerset Bus Partnership. We have a structure document (constitution) and representatives active and making local service thoughts and recommendations in the 19 community areas. Bus Back Better called for a "Bus Service Improvement Plan" by the end of October - Wiltshire's was duly submitted with some tuning from Option 24/7, and costed. And now we wait to find the outcome of that costed plan - how much (if any) Wiltshire is granted from a fund 5 times oversubscribed, and without indication yet of how it will be allocated within the bids - how much local flexibility and how much micromanagement there will be.
Sadly, it's not that simple. Bus passenger numbers have fallen off a cliff because of Covid, and the grants to cover it come to an end in three months. We understand that BBB funds are tightly tied to improvements and cannot be used to fill the funding gap. There's a severe driver shortage too, and some of our politicians saying that electric cars and not better public transport is where we should be going. Net result - bus service registrations for much reduced or cancelled corridors being made for the end of January. The long term intent sounds good. Pity that the short term goings on are doing the exact opposite. And we are especially worried about bus services that cross between juristictions such as the D1, 271/2/3 and X31 from Wiltshire to WECA and x34 from Wiltshire to Somerset.
Town Council Section
I have said in the past that I wouldn't stand for a council - at the local election 5 years ago, geography I lived in a ward I hardly knew in a different parish. And I felt that I didn't have the wide range of knowledge to be able to represent on all necessary topic. I had also witnessed public attacks on councillors, and wasn't sure of my desire or ability to stand up to them. By March 2021, we had moved into Melksham South Ward (which I know) and it's a four member ward, allowing me to represent on topics I know and pass on items to other councillors where they have the knowledge and I don't. Over the years, I have become rather more robust to standing up too. So - with full support from Lisa, talking with councillors in other places, and anticipate voluntary work in the station cafe not coming my way, it was logical to throw my hat into the ring - if I didn't try in 2021, then I probably never would.
I chose to stand independently and didn't approach any of the parties, nor the new "Together for Melksham" team which had come together to market themselves under a single banner. And that brought a huge learning curve - and allowed me to make decisions which I felt were right, irrespective of whether that lost or gained me votes. Lisa helped me putting together literature in which I chose to include my signifiant views, and back them up with a thorough web site. Literature was delivered to every letter box (except those which requested not), but I chose not to knock on doors to canvass - very happy to talk with people I met. Thank you to the people who helped with the leaflets; a small enough area for me to reach every letter box once in person, though.
Well - in spite of "breaking conventional rules", I found myself elected. 15 councillors - 8 "Together for Melksham", 5 Conservative, 1 Liberal Democrat ... and myself, the only one elected on an independent ticket. An unexpected outcome but, dear reader, one I was fully prepared to take the consequences for and indeed I've said right through that I'm there if they want me (and health allows) for at least two terms - that's to 2029
STEEP learning curve. A flurry of early meetings, deciding on who was on which committee (to which the groupings came with their pre-discussed lists) and votes on re-organisation. On some of there I didn't appreciate the significance of at the time. I was one of only two councillors present who did not vote in favour of a staff reduction - quite simply, we were handed paper with 5 minutes to read and consider, and with the option to discuss for as long as we wanted, but not to go away and think about it. And much as I would prefer (and do in most votes) go along with the others, in this case I could not do so.
The effect of dispensing with two senior positions, and the subsequent loss of three other staff, stretches those who remain. Whilst the team members are all excellent, as could have been predicted there are tasks that have been dropped, and skills and knowledge lost with others looking to pick those elements up rapidly and throughly.
The only Committee I sit on is "Economic Development and Planning" - taking a look at planning applications and making our advisory views known to Wiltshire Council. My view is that there should be an assumption to let people make sensible smaller changes without hinderance, and I'm saddened that at times we have to recommend rejection based on road dangers created or cutting off a neighbour's light when they (often architects and for some big projects) should know better. Other committees - Staffing, Assets and amenities, Community development, and Finance admin and performance - I do not sit on, nor have I yet asked to be an alternate when another member cannot make it - no great surprise as it's natural for alternates to be chosen by a councillor who cannot attend from within his party/team. I'm not unhappy - the one committee I'm on is the one that meets most frequently and it allows me to concentrate on what I know - just don't expect me to know first hand about the Round House or Council electric bills.
For our first couple of meetings in the Assembly Hall, social distanced, we had Zoom and Youtube feeds for members of the public. And it worked well. From the beginning of August, though, meetings were moved to the Town Hall, to use a newly installed system there. Although it was said to have been tested it didn't work on 9th August where we had a large public gathering looking to speak on the item about the Assembly Hall, where one option on the table was mothballing the building. There was concern that the option had been put deep in the public agenda pack without where it could have easily been missed, at minimum (3 working days) notice during the holiday period.
Cutting a long story short, we still don't have a working AV system to let us use Zoom and Youtube for meetings. There's no legal requirement for us as a council to offer remote access, but I would very much like it to be available to aid local democracy. I think I'm allowed to tell you that in a secret session (which I asked and had my vote recorded as not being secret) a group of three councillors has been appointed to progress the provision of remote access to our meetings. All three volunteered, and I am not one of them.
Melksham's Assembly Hall is a longstanding institution and a unique venue which brings in people over an area far larger than just Melksham Town, and not just to the hall but also to other businesses in the town. It's overdue in maintenance needs, attached to the Blue Pool owned by Wiltshire Council which is probably going to be demolished next year, and has seriously lost money and required council (ratepayer) support over the last two years of Coronavirus. Of course, lots of other things are supported by the ratepayer - the Town Council does not charge for the use of the facilities at King George V, or the toilets, and helps fund groups as diverse as the Citizens Advice Bureaux and the people who run Canberra.
The coming of what was potentially a turning point for the Assembly Hall and all the people who use it, love it, benefit from it (indirectly or otherwise) lead to something of an outcry and the option to mothball it was taken off the table in a farce of a council meeting packed as much as could be in the Council Chamber, and with at least the same number again being denied sound access remotely because of the AV system running as just a V (pictures but no sound) system.
It led to a "what now" question with the formation of the Friends of Melksham Assembly Hall - a private Facebook group (all welcome - just that content is not public visible) at https://www.facebook.com/groups/fomah with 224 members and counting, and a web presence via http://www.fomah.org.uk . Huge enthusiasm and indeed a separate writeup needed - meetings hosted here in our Cottage (some people in the room, others remote - it can be done!) and a real intent to help in ways that it would almost certainly have been available, but not encouraged in the past. As yet, much unanswered including how we best persuade those who appear to be throwing hurdles in our way to be more constructive, and the elephant in the room of ongoing maintenance of the fabric of the hall and funding through a year when the budget / income / expenditure is an educated guess.
Each year, the Town Council sets its precept - the amount of money it asks for in Council Tax - and based on that, its expenditure plans too. Discussions start in the Autumn and should be set by Christmas. Three options were on offer this year, with "Together for Melksham" councillors taking up the idea of taking a loan of up to £1 million to be paid back over 20 years rather than increasing our charge. A couple of other options were offered, more in the form of "controls" giving the councillors the choice between doing nothing for the town but stand still, do all the projects we would like at an unrealistic rate rise, or take this loan. Many of us weren't happy with the loan which has not been put to the electorate in anyone's election campaign a few months earlier, and would saddle each household with a debt of hundreds of pounds for "investments" in things like public toilets, playground equipment and a CCTV system which would be life expired long before the debt was fully repaid. I do have to agree a loan could make us popular, allowing us to do some really good things without us having to get people to pay for them until after we are gone. In the end, a fourth option was tabled - a 3% precent increase (equivalent to the cost of a large doner kebab per household over the year) and in a late and extended session a filibuster was overcome and this alternative was accepted, with six of the eight councillors elected on a "together for Melksham" ticket voting against, 8 including myself voting for it, with one abstention. I am happy to stand by the decision, which increases our charge by less than the rate of inflation, and leaves a flexibility to handle issues such as the Assembly Hall through to March 2023 as appropriate under Covid; I really doubt than a delay in setting the precept into the New Year of 2022 would have produced magic firm figures for the following year, and I can't help wondering if those who wanted to delay were planning to apply persuasion to certain fellow councillors to go for the loan.
I should be looking forward here - talking of the proposed Melksham Bypass which has split opinion across the town (and which I have plentifully blogged about), and of the Neighbourhood plan which helps strengthen residents' hands when planning permission is sought for new homes - we can't stop the expansion of the town, but we can help guide where it goes and how it's done. The plan was a very great deal of excellent work by others (I was only on the distant periphery, not selected for that committee) and has already had some effect. Sadly, it has to all be done again as it takes so long there's another round due for the next future period.
Putting on my public transport - and the greening of public transport - hat, I was delighted to find the "Priority for People" survey going live shortly after I was elected. An excellent enquiry of residents, useful because it reaches people who do not normally use public transport and asks them "why not" and gives generous write-in boxes to allow for real data to be collected and it's not just a box-ticking exercise. The report from our consultant was really valuable; it's informed me for some of the bus stuff and I really hope it can be further used. Sadly, the ongoing forum was set up as a professional's talking shop and it took me some effort to even get an invite; the departure through redundancy of the member of the Town staff who was piloting this does not, in my view, bode well for it to be an ongoing source of data to inform the town's future direction - the priority is for cheapness, not for people.
And, chronologically final but of the key roles in the last fortnight has been sitting on a staff member's appeal panel. No details allowed, save to say I'm proud of my fellow panel members and this was such an important thing. We put in so many hours ... and rightly so.
This Christmas Section
Quietly at home. Just the five of us. Very limited outings indeed; we're happy with that and will catch up with family when the days are getting warmer and longer again, and when we're past the peak of the current covid transmissions.
What will we do in 2022 Section
On what we know ... each of the "plans" thought through, with options "B" and "C" considered in case they turn out to be better, and with a jar marked "left field" for the unexpected to be taken up should we see fit. Me thinks a separate series of targetted thoughts will be more effective, and if I say "next year" I still have a week to write them. This also allows me to move on from some of the less than positive elements to look forward in spite of hurdles and worries around at the moment.
I promised - or warned - Lisa decades ago when she moved to the UK that I hadn't - and wouldn't have - a conventional 9 to 5 life style with typical hobbies and leisure activities. So glad I didn't put her off - that this is a rich tapestry of life for both of us. I certainly could not be doing what I do without her and I would certainly not be as happy nor feel as secure - I really must finish with a "Thank you" to her; they say such relationships only come once in a lifetime and we certainly have both looked back and wondered at what we might have achieved together had we met in or just after our youth though we would have lost wonderful familys.
Goodness - have you really read all of this? Thank you - I am impressed by your persistence. Have a great Christmas (if any is left after all of this ...) see you - in real life, or virtually, real soon. Thinking of all our friends and family at Christmas.
Published Friday, 24th December 2021
Who do I contact about what - Christmas and the rest of the year too
One of the big things about being a town councillor is being available - and another is being able to help, suggest, talk through, and point people onwards in the right direction. I can't do all of this on my own - in fact I'm an insignificant cog in a wheel - but I can help you by sharing the work of Town Council staff and the Melksham Independent News in putting together excellent "who to contact" guidance.
Although there's a big panel of "Christmas Helplines", they are good all year and you might like to bookmark this page.
The Town Council (and Wiltshire Council) will be on "emergency service only" over the Christmas period, and many (or most) of the councillors and staff will be enjoying a very well earned break. Ahead of the game, Lisa and I took a break in November and we'll be spending the next two weeks quietly at home, and around an in contact if need be.
Published Thursday, 23rd December 2021
Work starting on Melksham HouseFrom Wiltshire Council to Melksham Town Council:
"I am pleased to let you know that we have carried out a successful procurement exercise for the enabling works for Melksham House. We have appointed a contractor and we are busy ensuring the pre start up planning conditions are in place and approved by Planning (Construction Management Plan) as well as arranging for the contract to be signed and sealed.
"The enabling works are due to commence early in the new year and it consists of the demolition of the newer parts of the building as well as soft strip of some internal elements (WCs, ceilings, flooring etc.). The works will last for approximately six weeks."
Background and comment - planning permission for the campus require that planning permission is obtained which maps out the future of Melksham House, and works are commenced, before the campus is opened to the public. Planning permission has been obtained for Melksham House and the works it allows will be started in the New Year as described above. It is my understanding that further works on Melksham House beyond initial clearance and stripping are not (yet) funded, so the six week strip out will not be followed directly by a restoration / rebuild. However, the work done will allow the campus to be opened. It does make sense to do the big / dusty clearance work when the building next door is not (yet) open to the public, but I can't help feeling there's an element of manipulation of the planning system here to get the campus open!
Published Wednesday, 15th December 2021
Melksham Town Council precept set for 2022/3Last night, your Town Council voted for a £5 per year (9p per week) rise in our council tax "precept" for a typical (Band D) property. That equivalent to each household buying a loaf of bread every 10 weeks. It's a 3% rise - in line with inflation - for the April 2022 to March 2023.
After a long meeting, we selected what we called "option 4" on our agenda. In the current 2021/22 year, we have spent less than we had anticipated from our "earmarked reserves" which is, basically, project money and in contrast we expect to spend more from this pot next year. No vote was taken on any of the alternative proposals, including "option 3" under which it was suggested we borrow up to 1 million pounds, spending in the next year or two to do much more, and more quickly, and to then claw back that money from your taxes for the next 2 decades. That proposal has been ruled out for the next year, for concerns and reasons I described in my blog at http://grahamellis.uk/blog344.html .
I was concerned - as many of your councillors were - at significant late changes made to costing projections for the Assembly Hall for next year. A strong case was made to delay a decision on the precept, pending the updating of budgets over the next month, but in the end the decision was made last night. There remain significant unknowns and differences in next year's incomes and expenditures relating to The Hall but they are within the limits that we can fund without eating in to our operational "general reserve" and little more would have been achieved in delaying our decision. We should (and I hope and expect will) refine the items within the budget long before it comes into effect but we live in such times of enormous uncertainty that the pragmatic approach was to set the bottom line in such a way that we can adjust and tune based on what happens with Coronavirus and its consequences over the next 18 months. I am comfortable with, and voted in favour of, the way forward that we took, but must record that the vote was far from unanimous.
A big "thank you" to all the team who worked on budget options 1 to 3, which provided such a strong base onto which Councillor Mortimer was able to build the selected option 4, and also to Councillor Mortimer for all her hard work over recent weeks. For the record (and it was a recorded for the minutes) she abstained at the final vote - I am adding that here too to make that totally clear; there were in total eight votes in favour of the precent passed and six against, with that one abstention. Added by Councillor Mortimer at my invitation: "Thanks Graham I abstained because I took on board that some people felt they needed more time to consider the options which I wanted them to be able to have. Please add something along those lines."
A big "thank you" too to The Mayor and Town Council team for switching the meeting from the Council Chamber to the Assembly Hall. The change makes huge sense for social distancing reasons, increasing physical separation and helping make us and the public present as safe as possible while we have to meet only in person.
Finally, a big "thank you" to my fellow councillors. You have a very thoughtful and great bunch there and there's such a strength in our differences. Last night, we were all between a rock and a hard place with the choice and timing of that choice and had to balance our misgivings. I look forward to working with everyone on the team - councillors, staff, and other volunteers and members of our community - through next year.
Illustration - from pages 173 and 174 of the public agenda pack for last night's meeting. Let me know if you need a link or copy!
Published Tuesday, 14th December 2021
SOB - State of Our BusesSOB - the State of Our Buses
* Buses not turning up?
* Bus services cancelled?
* Buses being withdrawn and reduced in January?
* and yet "Bus Back Better" and "Bus Service Improvement plans"
These things don't seem to add up!
What on earth is going on?
What does it mean for YOU, the bus user?
Bus industry background
1. There is a shortage of bus drivers. Quite a lot of bus drivers have left the UK bus driving industry for pastures new - other jobs such as HGV or delivery driving, away from the UK, or to some totally different job or retirement - and there's been no new inflow. You can also be short of drivers for a time is some test positive or are "pinged" and having to isolate.
2. Bus company income has been dramatically reduced by Coronavirus (or rather by the consequences of it) and although there is extra Government support it is reducing and as I write is due to end next March.
3. Local Transport Authorities (LTAs) (WECA and Wiltshire in our area) have put in bids under "Bus back better" for 2022/3 funding, but we know that the bids are five times the size of the pot of money the government has allocated, and we probably won't know until the New Year who is going to get how much - we don't even know the formula for decision making. Could be each gets a fifth of what they have asked for, could be on the merits of bids, could be based on populations served, could be targetted towards "levelling up" or marginal constituencies.
4. Bus Back Better funding is (in any case) supposed to seed-fund new and improved services, and it's still very unclear how prescriptive that will be, and how much it will be able - if at all - to fund services that were commercial (or needed much less support than they do at the moment) after next March.
5. Buses are always quieter early in the year - after the Christmas Party and shopping season and before the days-out and tourist trades return on longer and warmer days.
6. Roads are getting busier again and some may be busier that ever before, and with peaks at different times of day. This is due to changing work patterns, and it can throws established bus timetables into chaos when jams turn up in the wrong places.
What is the effect
1. With fewer drivers, current bus services cannot all run and there have to be cancellations and/or part-routes. There may be fewer bus mechanics too, and so fewer vehicles on the road.
2. Bus companies are not going to invest in new vehicles at a time when they don't know the future prognosis for funding and their business - that means older vehicles that are perhaps more prone to breakdown, and a cutting back on spare vehicles
3. With less and unknown income, bus companies are registering services for early next year assuming a poor coronavirus outcome for travel, and very limited financial support. They need to register now - otherwise they can be penalised for not running services they can no longer staff / provide vehicle for / afford.
Let's be a bit more specific about some of the things that might happen:
a) Where two vehicles are in use on a route / route-group, cut it to a single vehicle and halve the frequency
b) Where a route is constrained to single deckers because of low bridges, amend the route so you can run fewer but bigger buses
c) Where a route is on the margins of being commercially viable, register to reduce it right back to a minimum or even close it if you know that your LTA will be minded to help with funding
d) Where you have a town or city route running to the outskirts of a town, and another route running interurban from one town to the next, combine them so that one bus serves multiple purposes
e) In the short term, reduce services to minimum - helps the "only go to your office if you have to" message, and might mean that the "gap" created has a good chance of funding under the Bus Improvement plan.
f) Cut antisocial hours services - first and last journeys of the day - so that drivers have a better working day / environment, and are less likely to move to another operator who offers easier hours
g) Introduce and publicise emergency timetables to take account of reduced driver availability - that being much better than emergency ad-hoc cancellations on the day, even if the next result is running fewer buses than you could.
ALL of these background / effects are being witnessed in WECA and Wiltshire as I write (11.12.21). I saw someone writing about 33 different service changes. Looking to "fix" such a high volume, in a short space of time, with so many unknowns, is a monumental challenge for our local transport authority technical team.
I will leave others in WECA to comment on how it's been approached there. Here in Wiltshire, over years with "Option 24/7" ( http://option247.uk and https://www.facebook.com/groups/option247 ) and looking forward under Bus Back Better with the Bus Service Improvement Plan, we have a confidence that the significant influencers know the strategic outcome we would like to see. That worked when D3 and X72 transformed into 271/2/3 - I couldn't tell you if that was our influence or not - simply that everyone wanted similar goals and we all got more or less what wanted from that shakeup.
The D1, which is the trigger for this article, runs from Bath to Salisbury via Bradford-on-Avon, Trowbridge, Westbury and Warminster. It's at the "Oh Sh**" stage - with dozens of possible outcomes, rumours of which could frighten the bajeebas out of people, but are pretty improbable outcomes. Look wider, and we're also looking at other Wiltshire services. Look back over the years, and you'll find the Option 24/7 strategy laid out - and the Bus Service Improvement Plan is surprisingly close ( ;-) ) in echoing it. Look forward to early next year and there will be considerable evidence gathering to take us forward.
My view is that the very best we can do as a community while we are in the current turmoil is to strongly inform the LTA and indeed the operators of direction for the future and be there to back them up as they go for it, helping too inform the community and tune solutions.
Published Sunday, 12th December 2021
Should Melksham borrow a million?Would YOU borrow a million pounds, to be repayed over twenty years? That's what's being recommended by The Mayor to the Town Council, to be put to the vote next Monday (13th December 2021) at the 7 p.m. meeting at Town Hall. Sorry - still no remote access as the fiasco of the AV system continues.
Would you borrow a million pounds over 20 years? I would - IF I had something to show for it afterwards and for all the interest paid during that period. And I would IF I had the mandate of the people who would be paying that extra money back through that time.
Sadly, I don't think those conditions are met:
1. I'm not convinced that in 2042 play areas, toilets, and "a sophisticated CCTV system" bought in 2022 will retain much - if any - residual value.
2. I'm not convinced that you, the electorate of Melksham, have given your councillors a mandate to borrow money on their account. It was certainly not in my manifesto / something I suggested or talked about. It wasn't suggested as far as I can tell by any other winning candidate either, and I have spoken with several right across the spectrum and reviewed election videos in vain looking for any hint of the idea.
3. I'm not actually convinced that the loan board (the only place a town / parish is allowed to go) would approve our application for the same reasons I am concerned
To check my logic, I have been in touch with councillors elsewhere in the UK who I know through the public transport work I do, and have learned of experiences. However, they tell me without exception that it was easy(ier) for them because of a supporting local poll, and because they had bricks and mortar at the end of it. Loans referred to are much smaller than the Melksham proposal, and none has any experience of borrowing without a clear public mandate and for less long-lived investment.
Without any councillors having a mandate from the people who would have to pay, and without residual value, I cannot recommend that we borrow. It would be a very convenient way of doing a lot quickly - help us hold the rates, probably get re-elected next time around as we spent beyond our means and saddled the councils in the next decade with debt. Having said which, the interest rate as I have been told is a good one and fixed, and with a mandate (not personally but to the council as a whole) and with resource at the end, I would offer my support. There's even an argument to suggest that if we think the interest rate is going to be below the inflation rate, we could save money by borrowing. I would be happy to answer questions on numbers.
So - if we are not going to borrow to do impressive things, where does that leave us? Two other suggestions were put forward - a "do nothing, don't increase the precept" (1) option and a "do most of it anyway and get the money from the council tax payers" (2) one. Another option would be to put up the precent in line with inflation and to undertake a number of the projects, but spread out over a number of years (4). That would probably lessen our chances of getting re-elected next time, but feels right to me - it doesn't smell of mortgaging our votes with the next generation having to repay Option (3). And it leaves us with a clean slate if - in due course - we DO want to invest in bricks and mortar with the support of our electorate.
Whichever route we take on next year's budget, it will be the first year for this set of councillors to be in command of both the amount of money we have, and how we spend it.
Published Friday, 10th December 2021
Back in Melksham, but not at tonight's meeting24 hours late back from what I've described as our main 2020 holiday, having been stuck at sea on a ship unable to berth in Southampton until Storm Arwen subsided. And now back, but with a "lurgy" that I don't want to pass on - nothing serious, I don't think, but I am bowing out of meetings in person for the next couple of days. That includes the Economic Development and Planning meeting this evening.
Bearing in mind that one or two subjects I will be involved in will be raised, I have asked if an audio feed could be made available to me, but have been informed "Unfortunately, there is no alternative method to enable you to access the meeting from home". Very sad, as meetings were successfully held that way in May, but the new system launched in August is still not working even though it's nearly December, and I regularly take part in and even run "hybrid" meetings. However, the safety of my fellow councillors, council staff, and any members of the press and public who attend this evening trumps my desire to attend, and my 100% record falls. A proxy will attend on my behalf (thank you ;-) ) and I am confident of her common sense on the agenda items. What comes up in "public participation" is - in theory - anyone's guess. Usually nothing, but I suspect that subject of public footpath MELK29 and the section 56 order that the council maintain it to the extent that it can be accesses may be raised.
On this (or indeed any other town council matters) please do get in touch - online and on the phone, I cannot pass on the lurgy.
I should be well back in full circulation long before the next council meeting on 13th December, at which the 2022/3 budget will be set. This year, we have been working to the budget set by the previous council - for next year, your current council will be able to both set and then follow their own budget. I have taken a look through the Together for Melksham web site, claiming eight councillors, but not really found any definitive election promises made. Melksham's Conservative Town councillors - five of them - haven't published any policy or proposals I can see either. Many things in the budget are going to be pretty much agreed and there will be little dispute over expenditure; there will be a few items that may raise some interesting discussions and I'm somewhat disappointed that so little information is around from the councillor's teams as to their plans for raising money from you and how they will spend it.
Published Monday, 29th November 2021