Graham Ellis - Regular updates - my diary
Assembly Hall Working Group - setup
Initial meeting of the Assembly Hall Working Group tomorrow (1st August 2022) at 6 p.m. - set up in May to look at pricing for the following six months. Hasn't actually appeared on the council's calendar nor list of working groups yet, but this first meeting will be a scene setter as to how it will work.
1. Appointment of Chair
2. Welcome and Introductions
3. Terms of Reference
4. Regular meeting date and date of next meeting
I Suggest Five Town councillors, four community reps / unelected expert members and one Without councillor invitation. Guests to attend by invitation. Other Town Councillors welcome to attend. Clerked by a member of the town staff, and with other staff supporting as appropriate.
Recommendations of Working Group to Community Development or Assets and Amenities? Agenda and meeting note conclusions to be published, but not normally to be in public or live streamed
Perhaps beyond the terms of reference ...
To balance income versus expenditure whilst ensuring service and quality and breadth of product
To facilitate and make best appropriate use of community and volunteer input
To help make it a venue that people want to support, use and work at into the future.
To make best of Assembly Hall and it intellectual property and customer base
To ensure that provision for all activities is considered into the future
To properly account for all hall use including that by the Town Council itself
To look to future models for the provision of current, new and refreshed activities and used
Published Sunday, 31st July 2022
Council Projects - systemic updateLast year, 12 of your 15 newly elected Town Councillors reduced administration staffing levels, re-arranging tasks and making two staff redundant. At the same time, the workload on staff of a new set of councillors who looked for more support as they learned into their roles, and bought a new enthusiasm for matters not previously high on the agenda, brought more work for the remaining staff.
We are now in the summer holiday season, when overall staffing is stretched with outdoor requirements, and many of our staff are looking to take their vacations. Add to that the inevitable need for staff to be absent for physical medical reasons from time to time, added to stress pressures which reduce availability. And on top of that you have a natural and positive move to a new job and life elsewhere for at least one skilled team member.
Our Town Staff are for the most part "Full Time" - worked out as Monday to Friday daytime. But many council meetings are in the evenings and so they attend them, taking Time off in Lieu. (TOIL). With remaining limited time, some decisions may be made with less thought that ideal, and rushing can lead to mistakes which cost time to correct - and time is money for staff, and goodwill for volunteer councillors. How to break this cycle?
Firstly, the Town Hall will be closed next Thursday afternoon. It's normally open Monday to Friday all day, busier (I understand) in the morning, and I see no huge problem in a very occasional afternoon closure. Actually I suggested to the deputy clerk and my fellow councillors that we close afternoons through August for people without appointments to give us a real firebreak, but of 14 other councillors only one replied in support. Ah well - I asked.
Secondly, the town team has been switching to a new online workflow system which allows councillors access to project statuses, and to ask questions and make suggestions efficiently. It needs to be used by all of us with a co-operative maturity, and indeed this was discussed at a recent council meeting, with an extra confidential session that allowed us to learn from specific historic cases in as positive a way as possible.
There are 57 projects on the workflow system, and I have been taking a look through them - the word grid hows you the breadth of things there, with their being "ACTION" labels on about a half of them. Routine daily stuff is not logged as a project, and of course the system is only as good as the data entry, but early signs are good. I an NOT about to start copious sharing, but please ask me or any of my councillor colleagues for updates, and we should now - or as the system beds in - be able to help better than we have been able in the past.
Published Saturday, 30th July 2022
"Homes for Ukraine" - an updateA scheme that went beyond expectations
When The Government launched "Homes for Ukraine" it did so in a surge of public opinion, an emotion to help. I don't know, but I suspect that expectations were that perhaps 10,000 or 20,000 hosts would sign up, and many of them would drop out when they thought it through further, or when they had problems contacting anyone from Ukraine, of got bogged down in systems and paperwork. And from the viewpoint of people in Ukraine fleeing a war zone, why try and jump the high hurdles to reach the UK when those hurdles did not exist on the way to Poland or Germany or the Czech Republic?
Well - the scheme has grown beyond all of those expectations or suspicions. It's a source of huge pride in my countrymen and women that they have opened their homes ad hearts, and rather than a few thousand guests in this country, we now have over a hundred thousand. We ourselves have four guests staying with us - a major change here, and a delight. In our home town of Melksham (population 25,000) there would be around 40 guests here pro-rata, but actual numbers are around 100 - and that's ten times what I suspect The Government expected. And I don't think we're at final numbers here yet - wouldn't be surprised to peak at around 150.
I read that over 100,000 have actually arrived, and indeed there have been 200,000 applications.
A major change for everyone concerned
Now - just imagine that YOU "ran for your life" from your home and ended up in a town you didn't know, 3000km away, staying with people you didn't know and with whom you didn't share a language or even a character set. With a passport and a right to work, but with just a suitcase of clothes, with no bank account, no job, no doctor, no school for the children and no money. A disconnect from friends and family back a home, a new culture, a new climate; a mad combination of so much to worry about, and yet so little you can do initially. Sharing bathrooms, laundry, kitchen, sitting rooms. And no answer to "what next?"
It's a major change for us who have lived in Melksham for decades. And it's a life change for our guests. We were matched (in March in our case) almost at random - an introduction at three degrees of separation, and a short international conference video call huddled around phone screens, all words translated for us by one of the intermediaries. We have - as it turn out - fallen on our feet, as have many - raw humanity at its finest - but there have been challenges for everyone to overcome. Online I read of so many problems (and indeed I hear about some in Wiltshire) but those tend to receive publicity and attention out of proportion to their numbers; if things are working, they get no attention, but if there are issues it's news.
Where are we now?
So where are we now? Phase 1 - get people the heck out of harm's way and to a safe refuge for the medium term - largely done. Phase 2 - get those people established in guest homes and schools and jobs and with a new life here - we're getting there. Learning enough English is a huge part of phase 2. Phase 3 - "what next?".
When hosts signed up, they were asked how long they could host for, ranging from "up to six months" to "indefinite". There is a further cut-off at one year; hosts who have jumped through all the local council hoops receive a payment of £350 per family hosted as a "thank you" monthly for up to a year. The payment does not really cover all the extra costs and is considered such, but its ceasing after 12 month will necessitate a rethink for many.
When guests signed up and arrived, their primary concern was for a safe haven in which they could go ahead with their lives. There may have been some thought as to what the next stage would be, but there was little knowledge. And for many it remains that way - but for some we are already three months into their six month initial window.
For a very few guests, the war in Ukraine has retrenched back to the east of the country, they are feeling homesick, and they are returning to take their chances.
For many others, they are looking forward to returning to Ukraine as and when they can, but aren't seeing that happening any time soon - and are seeing it as returning to a very, very different land to one they knew this time last year.
And for some, there is a feeling that they may never return to live in Ukraine. Indeed there are some (arguably not refugees but economic migrants) who left with the intent of setting up a whole new life in a different country.
Few of our guests were without friends and family in Ukraine, so almost all of them have their familiar group of contacts torn apart, and wonder when and where they will see each other again. And with the passage of time - which is more likely to be measures in years than months - families will grow up and new relationships flourish amongst individuals catapulted here from different parts of Ukraine, and indeed between guests and people who were around here prior to their arrival ... for some families who have moved here together, next moves may be apart as their lives move on.
So - "what next?" for most guests. Long term plans are not fixed.
* Many have jobs, but many of the jobs may not be suitable for more that a short period. People who have left roles as computer security experts, teachers, Human Resource specialists, architects, lawyers, civil servants and vets are ill-suited in anything but the short term to take on repetitive tasks where they will get bored to put it mildly, but yet their qualifications may not transfer easily, and their prospective employers may be loathe to invest in them as they may be moving on soon
* The idea is that in 6 months of hosting, many guests will find their feet, be earning money, and move on to their own rented homes. The problem is that there is little to rent in this area, and landlords require a deposit of many months, British employer references and proof of long term prospects in the area. When a property comes up for let, many apply for it ... and the chance of a landlord choosing to rent to guest without meeting their requirements is slim indeed.
In reality, some hosts and guests have already parted company even within the first six months, and it may happen with others. Wiltshire Council are obliged to step in when this happens, but they are stretched and it is scarcely comfortable to anyone involved.
And on the other side of the coin, many hosts are flexible about the six months or year. We'll see what happens, as we will when the "three years in the UK" expires under the "Home for Ukraine" scheme. I would be very surprised, should it still be unsafe or inappropriate for people to return, for us to kick them out.
We have in Melksham the same number of guests as some northern cities of 10 times the size, and those cities have little or no housing shortage. There is scope for guests to move "up North" or to the North East - accommodation is available, sensibly priced, but at the cost of a further upheaval of friends, family and job to another very different place (and IMHO or course, to one that's nothing like as nice as Melksham!)
I'm not sure if it was clever and intentional, or an unplanned side effect of the scheme, that by its very complexity it reached those Ukrainians who have passports, drive and are well educated. We have a very great number of guests who can and will be a great asset to this country, and indeed are already showing that.
What has this got to do with the Town Council?
Formally - nothing. Informally - everything. A huge "thank you" is due to Town Council Officers and Councillors and Volunteers for helping those of us involved with this with enabling support (and there has been a lot of hard work in doing that enabling) - you and the community have maded - and continue to make - a massive difference in your support of both our guests and our sponsors
Published Friday, 29th July 2022
Getting to Melksham Campus by Bus Melksham Community Campus opens from next Monday (1st August 2022). Yes, there will be car parking available, but why not walk, cycle, or take the bus? The following routes will bring you to the Market Place (weekday, daytime) or Lowbourne (marked *):
14 from Melksham Forest and Queensway (Fromebus)
14 from Portman Road and Addison Road (Fromebus)
15 from Cranesbill and Skylark Roads - * (Fromebus)
x34 from Chippenham and Lacock (Faresaver)
x34 from Frome, Trowbridge, Hilperton and Semington (Faresaver)
68 and 69 from Corsham (Faresaver)
68 from Staverton, Holt and Broughton Gifford (Faresaver)
69 from Bradford-on-Avon, Holt and Broughton Gifford (Faresaver)
x76 from Marlborough, Calne and Bromham - * (Swindon's Bus Company)
271 from Bath, Bathford, Atworth and Whitley (Faresaver)
271 from Bowerhill (Faresaver)
272 from Bath, Box, Atworth and Shaw (Faresaver)
272 from Devizes, Sells Green and Bowerhill (Faresaver)
Evenings and Sundays only:
273 from Bath, Box, Atworth and Whitley (Faresaver)
273 from Devizes, Sells Green, Bowerhill and Melksham Forest (Faresaver)
Faresaver ( (here) )
Fromebus ( (here) )
Swindon's Bus Company ( (here) )
Published Thursday, 28th July 2022
A dozen updates from full councilThe following are my personal recollections (26.7.2022 meeting)- "Errors and Omission Excepted" and written up next morning. Please ask if you have any questions. In no particular order ... and brought to you in line with my promise to keep people informed.
1. When it receives a planning application, Wiltshire Council still writes to close neighbours, but it no longer puts up signs in the neighbourhood to let passers by know. This means that if you may wish to make inputs to applications effecting routes you travel along you will now need to check the weekly lists; within Melksham Town, councillors also discuss applications at their Economic Development and Planning meetings (every three weeks) and make their views known to Wiltshire Council who make decisions.
2. I have been appointed to the Steering Group for the Neighbourhood Plan to represent Melksham Town alongside councillor Pat Aves. I replace the previous rep who resigned last night
3. A first meeting of the Assembly Hall Working Group has been called for Monday 1st August. It will set up its terms of reference and will be supported by officers. Several members of the Working Group spoke in favour of a wide membership for the group and sample terms of reference from the Events Working Group and the Environment and Climate Working Group will be used to inform that meeting.
4. The Town Council unanimously passed a motion "This council supports the concept of an environment friendly town bus service to update and enhance the current service to meet new and future needs. It supports the work being undertaken to consult further on, provide a business case analysis for, and if favourable work towards the implementation of an appropriate service.
5. Councillor Alford revealed in open session that tomorrow's (now today's) full council meeting, which it is proposed will be held confidentially, will be following up on the work of the public assets working group - a joint group with Wiltshire Council mandated to look at the future provision and use of buildings and sites in the town.
6. My proposal that an advertising enhancement for the Assembly Hall - be it a TV/sign on the roof, a display in the window of the hall, a dynamic stand-alone sign in the Market Place or something else be delegated to the Assembly Hall Working Group (meeting 1st August) to make recommendations including a review of how effective each option would be was rejected (only 2 votes in favour) with the council choosing to ask the officer concerned for a further report for a later meeting. A suggestion that a display be placed on the bus stop to attract the attention of passing cars was clarified to suggest that the intent is to attract the attention of passengers in passing cars.
7. Sgt Twyford of Wiltshire Constabulary presented PCSO Janet Gould with a bouquet and thanked her for 18 years of wonderful work in Melksham and nearby parishes - and there were unanimous thanks. Janet told us how much she still enjoyed the job, but was now of an age she should retire and make way for younger feet
8. Sgt Twyford reviewed the recent HMICFRS (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services) PEEL (Police Efficiency, Effectiveness and Legitimacy) inspection which found 3 areas that were "inadequate" and a further areas that "require improvement". In questioning, he revealed that extra police on the beat in Melksham - stated as an aim - will take some time because new officers all spend a time on the response teams before they specialise and it'll be several years before they specialise as beat bobbies. In answer to my question, he told me that there ARE only the 8 factors measured by PEEL, so the inspection revealed no area that were outstanding, good or adequate.
9. The Council was unable to agree a policy on the use of electronic devices such as mobile phones in meetings. Although there is a consensus of agreement that such devices are necessary in modern meetings for some purposes, that they can also be disruptive, and that we should all be responsible about their use, no form of wording that we could adopt was found. A mature sample supplied by councillor Price from Holme Valley Parish will be reviewed by council staff in association with councillor Price and will come back to a later meeting.
10. There is a view held amongst councillors that major projects over the past couple of years have not gone as well as they might, and we held a long discussion as to how we might update our procedures to make things better in the future. This discussion was held in confidence, as outlined from the previous full council meeting where it was element no. 2 in a proposal from councillor Goodhind, postponed from open session.
11. We were asked to appoint a permanent substitute for the staffing committee for when a regular member is unable to attend a meeting, and that was agreed with Councillor Lewis taking the role.
12. For this Thursday's staffing meeting, I had already been asked to stand in for a councillor who is unable to attend, but in light of (11) I suggested I withdraw in favour of councillor Lewis. Councillor Lewis, however, confirmed that she is already standing in for another councillor that evening so is unable to take on the sub role I have been asked to cover. I am withdrawing my offer to sub as both the mayor and councillor Hubbard felt it would be inappopriate for me to attend staffing as a sub. Apparently, they want councillors not involved in staffing matters to stay clear and uninformed so that can form an clean appeals panel if necessary, as we did in the run up to last Christmas.
Published Tuesday, 26th July 2022
Assembly Hall Working GroupOn May 12th, your Town Council set new hire charges for the Assembly Hall. This was done based on a dynamic spread sheet during the meeting, based on an example published 3 days earlier.
An "Assembly Hall Working Group" (AHWG) to monitor the new charges over a six month period and to look wider and further ahead was created as part of the motion which I supported - as I stated at the time, that group was a key element in my accepting - even proposing - the autumn hire charges.
Full Council on 16th May appointed Councillors Aves, Ellis, Houghton, Hubbard and Oatley to the AHWG. Four good people and myself, with Councillors Houghton, Oatley and Hubbard all having experience of working (or with or at) the Canberra Centre on Spa Road, and Councillor Aves with considerable Melksham community and council experience.
I am frustrated at the lack of any further follow up. It looks to me that without further intervention, work to support the future of the Assembly Hall will be left in the long grass, with so much of community value potentially being lost. Not only are we on a short timescale to review prices for 2023, but also to consider the wider future. The Blue Pool - part of the same building and intimately linked - closes today. Work is ongoing on Wiltshire Council's Melksham House which has become something of a solution looking for a problem. Likewise, the future use of the old library is uncertain. The Assembly Hall has maintenance and promotion needs, and the needs and desires of the community that use and support it need to be considered.
I have submitted a councillor's motion for tomorrow night's Town Council meeting (25.7.2022) asking for the AHWG to include a wider range of interested parties (such as people who use the hall and run or help with the running of events) in the same way that the Environment and Climate Working Group does already, and for it to meet with all interested parties present on 15th August.
The motion IS in the agenda, in spite of my being challenged as to whether it was appropriate. Apparently, meetings are set up by officers as required, and so I am at a loss as to why the May requirement to set the working group up did not trigger a meeting last month. I have rejected a couple of suggestions such as having a meeting of the five councillor in September to look at how we set up the working group's membership. Darn it, to have even five months of data for a sensible rates suggestion for December council we should have been gathering data from the beginning of this month. I agreed a compromise of an organisational setup meeting on 1st August with a view to getting down to the actual business with a fully representational meeting on 15th August, but I was advised at the tail end of last week that's now not considered practical because of the absence of the key council officer prior to 15th August, or for an estimated six weeks thereafter. I have every sympathy with the reasons for absence, but really we should be in a position where the show can go on!
Do I illustrate this article with a picture of long grass, of a stable door being shut with a horse bolting, or "the show must go on". I don't know - but I do think of the current and future users of the hall, of the taxpayer support funding that could be reduced if we have the hall in better use, and of whether we are sleepwalking into a poor outcome.
Published Sunday, 24th July 2022
Should your Town Council be involved?In recent years, Melksham Town Council and the Town Hall have been a drop off location for Shoebox gifts for Operation Christmas Gift - run by Samaritain's Purse. They say:
"The mission of Operation Christmas Child is to show God's love in a tangible way to children in need around the world, and together with the local church worldwide, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.
"Since 1990, more than 186 million children in over 160 countries have experienced God's love through the power of simple shoebox gifts from Operation Christmas Child."
Over the last day or so, there has been a major discussion between your councillors as to whether we should continue with this - a healthy discussion. On one hand I'm in very much in favour, but on the other hand some elements that really concern me. I ask myself
* Why (and as a council) are we doing this?
* Is this what our electorate want us to do?
* Are we happy with the messaging results?
* Are we happy with the results for the recipients?
* Could we be doing it signficantly better?
* How does it impact on officers time which is in short supply?
* How "big" is this - does it merit the resources of a review?
What do YOU think?
Published Saturday, 23rd July 2022
Is everyone welcome?Should Extinction Rebellion be invited to talk at Melksham's ClimateFest in September? A question that's exercising the organising committee. Should such event be a promotion of the views of that subcommittee lead by the Town Council, or a forum in which all views can be promoted?
My personal view is that ClimateFest is taking place to help publicises the various environment and climate challenges we face, and will be strengthened in that intent by having a wide range of presenters, stalls and exhibits there, subject only to a test of relevance and adhering to law at the event. It will make us richer for the variety of views expressed, even though it may be more challenging for some in sharing an event with others they may not be aligned with.
When elected last year, I stressed three major pillars that mould my views and would be considered with pragmatism in decisions made and votes taken. Those were an openness to everyone, equality and the environment. You elected me with those pillar policies.
Illustration - from my election literature - supporting an event where everyone came together to help wake up the world to the need to change our ways for the sake of the environment. Disparate groups, different views, common cause. This was the visit of Greta Thunberg to Bristol two years ago; not expecting anything like that in Melksham in September, just as our Black Lives Matter support differed so much from the activities in Bristol.
Published Tuesday, 19th July 2022
Working for the communityI've submitted two councillor motions for consideration next Monday. More details to follow in the next few days once they're published; both could be key steps in something much bigger.
There's much more to being a councillor, community representative of campaigner than just attending meetings. Let's say that something substantive comes to light ... there's a series of steps to taking it forward.
Here's a set of guidelines I've been in the habit of applying over the years:
1. Make people aware there is something to look at
2. Work out what needs to be done (if anything)
3. Work to actually get it done
4. Work to ensure it works, sustains and improves
and notice that it's work, work, work, work with much of that work behind the scenes.
Major things take time.
I first got involved with Melksham's Train service in 2005, making people aware that 2 trains each way per day was "neither use nor ornament" to most people and it took until 2014 for us to get a usable (though still poor) service. Later work has filled a couple of key gaps and got passenger numbers of 25 times, but much remains to be done.
Over a decade ago, Wiltshire Council proposed merging 8 separate facilities in Melksham into a single facility - a Campus - on the Devizes road beyond the new school. Good principle to put them all together, but moving a number of things out of town was perverse, and we helped the council work out what was really needed and - in just two weeks time - the Campus will open in the town.
Bus services to Bath, Chippenham and Trowbridge all used to be operated by two companies competing on the same route. Combined services of two-per-hour but with the buses running directly behind each other and overtaking to get to the next stop ahead of each other were daft. Sanity has returned and on the Bath service (at least), community input has helped shape what was actualy done.
None of these is a completed project - still working of step 4, and in all three cases the community / campaigner element has been overtaken by a Tsunami of professional officialdom. Much of the knack of getting things done is to have them become the obvious policy of those who know what they're doing and letting them take on the project, and the ownership, and the credit when it works.
Image source and copyright - see (here)
Published Monday, 18th July 2022
Collecting a national award for MTUGThe Melksham Transport User Group was awarded the bronze award for its web site at the Railfuture national Rail User Group awards yesterday. As a member of Railfuture, I was there at the organsation's AGM anyway and picked up the ward on behalf of the group.
The presenter of the awards commented that the judges applauded the groups move from purely a railway group to a public transport group - considering both trains and buses as part of the network. As if illustraing the point, I left Melkshan on the train in the morning, and arrived back late afternoon on the bus. And that was done because it was best on the day, and not actually on principle.
Travel and transport has a "Melksham Element" but is something that needs looking at far wider - whether you're talking about cars on a bypass, trains on the railway, or bus services between town Melksham is just one end, or one intermediate point in the story, and being informed on a regional and national angle is vital. Appearing on that stage as an example of good practise is not only a help to others in seeing what we have done, but also a help to us as it builds our visibility and "street cred".
The Melksham Transport User Group website is (here)
Published Sunday, 17th July 2022