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Graham Ellis - Regular updates - my diary

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Bank Holiday thoughts
Coronation of King Charles III
Wiltshire Council - Homes for Ukraine Policy
State of the Nation Council
Council Diary - May 2023
Bigger Trade Shows
Coaches, Melksham
New Town Councillors?
Melksham House - Important Questions
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The Role of the Town Council and Councillors
How YOU can help and • Contact me
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Through April 2021, I posted most days. Thereafter (elected) you hear from me here at least once a week.

Minutes and resolution - proposed Melksham House purchase


The draft minutes from the Town Council's extraordinary meeting held on 28th March 2023 were published a few minutes ago - 9th May 2023, 17:30. Here for your information is the draft section discussing the motion for the Town Council to buy Melksham House, and the resolution at the end. You will note there's no input from me. Councillors need to be physically present to fully take part (the temporary rule change during Covid no longer applying) and I was away on a preplanned vacation at the time - we had actually left before the meeting was scheduled! Councillor Hubbard was also absent due to commitments he had made before the meeting was added to our diary.

Minutes at (deep breath - long URL!):
Minutes at https://moderngov.microshadeapplications.co.uk/MelkshamTC/documents/g910/Printed2028th-Mar-2023%2019.0020Council.pdf?T=1
:

Councillor Rabey expressed concern that no information had been circulated in advance and the motion should be taken off the table and members given time to read and digest the motion.

Councillor Alford – as a town councillor and Melksham resident, stated that the building has deeply rooted history in the town with memories of weddings and many other functions and it is an integral part of Melksham’s social fabric. Adding that it was an Avon Tyres social facility. Councillor Alford suggested that the town council should be chomping at the bit to purchase the facility, that the size of investment with zero carbon running costs and energy efficiency meant any investment was more than worth its value. We need to approach Wiltshire Council; however, they may by now have found an alternative use for the building. Notwithstanding that, it would be insane not try and make a bid for the building, we have all known for some time about the plight of Melksham House.

The town council should seize this opportunity, it would be crazy not to secure it for the community. There is enough space for our officers and a community hall to accommodate events. We should know shortly where Wiltshire Council are in terms of disposal. The Asset disposal team have gone through the process internally and an organisation has expressed an interest. A business plan will be required which will be assessed by Wiltshire Council. If the town council does not stake a claim the building will be lost.

Councillor Price said that a decision at this meeting would be difficult, we have not had a chance to speak to residents and as the information was only available some twenty minutes ago making such a huge decision on the hoof is not right or fair and not the way the council should run.

Councillor Goodhind reported that he would not have any trouble supporting the motion in conjunction with the survey on the Assembly Hall and discussing it with residents and would have no trouble selling the decision to any resident who wants to discuss it. So no hesitation to support.

Councillor Mortimer referring to Councillor Alford’s reminder that the council knew it was going to happen stated that residents are ecstatic at the thought of keeping the facility although it would need a bar and kitchen facilities. In answer to a question from Councillor Mortimer, Councillor Alford stated that it could hold 150 people.

A do nothing option would mean closure of the Assembly Hall which needs some extensive work and maintenance carried out.

Councillor Aves sympathised with how the town might feel, it is a big decision and supported going ahead. At the time of the offer the town council should make requests for elements that are currently missing to make it a great facility.

Councillor Houghton suggested the town council could explore the option of purchasing but not commit to spend £2 million yet. There will have to be further public consultation but we should not miss out on a potential opportunity.

Councillor Cooke asked if the Assembly Hall would be part of the purchase? Going on to state that the lack of information at the meeting is hampering a good debate but Melksham House is paramount to Melksham and it should be kept for the town. It has a lot of potential which the town council could benefit from and it can be utilised by the council and the community. It is likely that the Assembly Hall will require a closure of at least two years whilst it is refurbished. There is space behind Melksham House so it would see a natural place to relocate to an equivalent building as the Assembly Hall.

Councillor J Crundell agreed that the future of Melksham House has been on the cards for some time and asked Council, was this going to be something else the town council does nothing about?

The Town Mayor, Councillor S Crundell reported that we should make a positive step to secure the community asset that is Melksham House, for the community of Melksham. As had been stated the Assembly Hall will have to close at some point, for possibly two years whilst it is refurbished, Councillor Crundell then reminded members that this council had previously resolved that it would always provide a ‘village hall’ type venue for the community and the town council now has a golden opportunity and should not let it pass by.

Councillor Rabey advised that she would be abstaining from the vote. Councillor Alford advised there is still some way to go. Councillor Price added that not many residents are interested in Melksham House. The working group should complete a business plan.

Councillor Cooke remarked that it is the best choice, whilst not ideal a small percentage would use Melksham House and everyone should have a choice.

Councillor Alford advised council that some organisations had already expressed an interest and any price offered to Wiltshire Council should be subject to a RICS valuation.

Councillor Price sought clarity on what commitment the town council were making. Are we financially tying ourselves in. Councillor Alford stated not at this stage we would be entering negotiations for the purchase of Melksham House. Those negotiations could be complex and long winded to satisfy the requirements of the town council and Wiltshire Council. The Town council must consult with residents.
Councillor Rabey asked at what point would the town council be fully committed and how would any loan be repaid which might be required for the purchase of Melksham House; would it require an increase in the precept and what is the impact on a Band D?

It was suggested that a public works loan of £2million over 40 years would mean repayments of £100,000 per year. The impact on a Band D increase would be approximately £15.00 per year.

Councillor Houghton suggested that all negotiations up until the exchange of contracts would be without commitment to the purchase.

It was RESOLVED to suspend Standing Orders to allow the public to address Council. Joe McCann (JM), Melksham Independent News - Will the town council still refurbish the Assembly Hall and buy Melksham House?

The Town Mayor, Councillor S Crundell advised that the town council have uses for the Assembly Hall.

(JM) How advanced are negotiations?

Not advanced at all, the town council has submitted an expression of interest in Melksham House but there have been no further discussions with Wiltshire Council nor negotiations.

Standing Orders were resinstated.

It was proposed by the Town Mayor Councillor S Crundell, seconded by Councillor Aves and

RESOLVED that the council enters negotiations with Wiltshire Council and makes an offer to Wiltshire Council for the purchase of Melksham House, setting a limit of not less than £2,000,000. The offer to be subject to a full Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) valuation.

Notes

Addemdum - I note that Councillor Alford is also a Wiltshire Councillor, and the member of the cabinet for Housing, Strategic Assets and Asset Transfer. He stated (as I recall) that he was not speaking in that role

The picture at the top is before work was started on restoration. Current pictures would show it swathed in scaffolding and the planning is that it the restoration would be completed before any purchase.


Published Tuesday, 9th May 2023

Bank Holiday thoughts

Why is today a bank holiday? The Coronation was on Saturday, the follow ups and cleans up on Sunday and today is - well - just another wet Monday. But then it's a chance to recover from a weekend that started at around 07:30 on Saturday and ended at around 23:00 on Sunday, so perhaps my "day of rest".

Having said which, I'm running a full backup of the web sites I manage on our server, and thinking ahead to next Monday's council meeting at which we have our annual reshuffle / election of council roles - mayor, deputy, chairs and memberships of committees and working groups, and representatives to other bodies. It's a chance for all us councillors, as we get more experienced, to take on extra interests and responsibilities. It's also a chance to ease back on some things to concentrate on other matters.

There is an embarrassing list of things that as a Town Councillor I have supported and indeed wish had been done, but are now lying on the task list with less pogress than I would have hoped. In my view:

* We should really be pulling together as a team of councillors and staff to act where the public wants us to act (see my survey of the other week). Although publicly popular actions are key, we must not overlook essential enabling work behind the scenes. Perhaps we can cull some of schemes for which we don't have staff time and are way down your list in the footnotes?

* We should be guided by our visioning which took part on 26th June 2021 (not a misprint - it really was nearly 2 years ago) which is now with officers in draft and could probably benefit from an initial tuning - annual each summer, once we're had our mayoral elections, would make sense.

* We should review working methods and procedures to ease the implementation and efficiency of our work, and to allow contractors, suppliers and the public to have confidence in our role in our relationships with them.

* We must, of course, prioritise meeting legal requirements within time limits, and as a high priority we should look after staff and councillor welfare.

A number of us got together last Friday (5.5.2023), and in the second part of that session we were looking at how we should be moving forward in these directions.

Last year, I looked back at my colleague's records as I meditated as to whom you (reading this) feel should be mayor for the next year. This year, I'm welcoming thoughts and inputs. But I aleady feel rather more full informed for next Monday than doing a raw statistical analysis.

I was President of the Chamber of Commerce here in Melksham for a number of years. I certainly welcomed that extended period as an opportunity to follow through on projects I had piloted, but there is also the school of thought that suggests that a mayor should launch his or her vision, and then let the wider council see it through while the next mayor adds further vision.



Published Monday, 8th May 2023

Coronation of King Charles III

Wishing King Charles and Queen Camilla a really excellent coronation day, and a long and happy rein, not that they will actually read this. Whatever your view of our monarchy system, they have a job that I would not want, and I wish them well.

We say "long to rein over up". Yes indeed, and perhaps aptly it looks like the weather will rain over us today. We have a party in the park, organised and staffed by a team from Melksham Town Council (staff, councillors and volunteers - thank you all). Do come along and enjoy what's been laid on and how it works in the wet; personally I'll be there from 10 a.m - happy to chat, to help, and to hand out new train timetables and Assembly Hall programs. I look forward to seeing lots of you!

Have a good day, however you choose to spend it.


Published Saturday, 6th May 2023

Wiltshire Council - Homes for Ukraine Policy

On Wednesday 3rd May (2023), I and around 20 other hosts who have been co-ordinators under the Homes for Ukraine scheme met with Wiltshire Council Leader Richard Clewer and three of his senior council staff. My thanks to Richard and his team for taking the time to meet, and for a very useful set of discussions and explanations. My double thanks to everyone who helped set up and inform the meeting - David Vigar, Felicity Courage, Caroline Kay and others.

Comments herein are my personal views and understanding, and I am open to correction.

Our guests arrived here to generous hosts in Wiltshire opening their homes for up to 6 months, or 12 months, or longer. Having a family of strangers in our home for a period is no easy thing for either for us as the hosting family, or for the guests who are equally unused to such an arrangement. Furthermore they come from a war-torn land and should be regarded as vulnerable. Although uneasy, it makes sense for guests to live with hosts for a while to help them settle, learn the language, and sort out the issues, establish an ID and living in England.

But then most of these families want to become independent. And that's a problem in Wiltshire. Our Unitary Council, Richard tells us he has a total of 4,500 on the overall housing waiting list. Our private rental market is "broken". Virtually nothing is available for those on Universal Credit. Landlords and agents able to pick and choose who they let to from a sea awash with applicants when a property becomes available. Those landlords will naturally pick tenants who have years of UK security, and are likely to be around for a considerable period rather than being on a three year "no route to settlement" visa and with an intent to leave the UK by mid 2025. It's a big problem.

Landlords are looking for securities (deposits, guarantees) that by the nature of their recent arrival, our guests cannot provide. Wiltshire Council has the power, and the funding, provided by central government to help the Ukrainian program and help overcome these obstacles. It has, however, done so only in a very limited way. It's getting better, but still pretty limited. The Council advertised for a specialist housing officer for a 12-week contract to speak with, inform and help. 8 months later, no one has been attracted to apply for the role, and the work remains undone. There are guest support officers in place, checking that host house provision is adequate, and that guests are OK in homes. Indeed, they help re-host when something goes wrong, but the supply of willing hosts who can afford to house guests is limited.

Wiltshire have been paid more than £10,000 for each guest who has arrived in the UK to help in their resettlement support - though that figure has now dropped for the most recent arrivals (the theory being that systems have been set up). That's a total income of around £15 million. It's intended for the short term support of the guests as they arrive and settle here for a year or two; it includes a thank you payment of £350 per host per month to help towards costs. It does not include things like Universal Credit, medical costs and schooling for which funding come additionally from central government.

Richard told us that he does not want to spend the whole £15 million he has been given for short term support on that short term support, but is rather taking a longer term view. He has a major housing crisis is Wiltshire and asks (with some justification) how doing things like paying the first month's rent for guests moving into the own homes would help his overall problem - "robbing Peter to pay Paul". He tells us that Wiltshire has a far bigger problem that other counties - Richard has not been leader all that long, so perhaps he has a problem here that he's inherited from Jane Scott and Philip Whitehead. "Once it's gone, it's gone" he says. So he's looking to spend the bulk of the money on buying houses. But hang on, Richard:

1. You were given this extra money to help the current wave of guests, and whilst it was not ring-fenced to limit how you spend it, it was stated as intended to help now, and not your longer term problems.

2. You called us out on the morals of "favouritism" support and asked why Ukrainian guests should be treated differently, but in the next breath tell us of other schemes that are only available to Afghan refugees. Difficult topic, but I think you are trying to have your cake and eat it.

3. The housing is starting to come online - "aren't we doing great?". No, not really, it was needed from last autumn (2022) onwards and not with the first homes coming online now and the rest in the next year or so - whilst you may prioritise Ukrainian guests for these homes, by the time they are available to be occupied, most guests will have moved from their hosts. Properties will (surprise, surprise) available for use outside the scheme, helping you overcome your general problem.

4. "Once it's gone, it's gone if we help with rent". Not really - our guests are only in transient need of governmental help. This group is not a "support throughout life" group and they will be repaying taxes back (Council Tax, Income Tax, NI, VAT, etc) once when they're helped over their initial hurdles.

5. The £350 per month per household does not cover the extra costs hosts incur. You are relying on and stretching the goodwill of your hosts by sticking to that sum. Good people who have their household budgets being stretched at present and have taken in refugees are having their kindness and budgets abused. They cannot go on strike, and they do not want to put people out onto the street; your cynical calculation is that you can "get away" with £350 a month - even (as one example from our meeting) a host with 8 guests has brought the council an income of more than £80,000.

6. Purchased houses will be mostly in "Chippenham, Trowbridge and Salisbury" whereas guests are spread across the county - Marlborough and Malmesbury and Melksham - and many a guest family moving to them, after the upheaval of a war move, will be moving again to access them, uprooting children just established in a British School, giving up the new jobs that many have already settled into, and having to take further rebuilding steps.

Am I being reasonable in my concerns? I believe so, and I look at what other counties are doing to give me a check based on what others are doing

a. ALL neighbouring counties have made or are making additional payments over and above the £350. It's a postcode lottery - some have upped it to £600. Others are paying an extra £50 per month per guest. Travel out of Wiltshire to any of our neighbours and you'll find a more generous scheme that's helping guests stay with their hosts and helping avoid the disruption of them having to move on as household budgets are squeezed

b. Other councils are paying first month rentals as people move to rented accommodation (yes, that costs money) and guaranteeing deposits (that is a cheap thing to do).

c. As far as I know, no other council is using the bulk of the money to buy homes which will fit into the general stock. Your wording of "we are not the only ones looking at this" is (no doubt) correct, but clever. You quoted another county who have, I believe, taken a serious look at what you are doing but I have seen no evidence of them adopting a similar scheme, and certainly not putting the bulk of monies intended for immediate support into it.

Richard had a one hour slot to talk to us. And it was really good to have Felicity and others explain the issues to him, and to listen to his response and explanations. But he then had to move on to another meeting, and left us with senior council staff who, however, could make no further comment on political policy. As a group, we did not press such points with them, but I really wonder how they feel about the rather unusual policies they're required to implement in Wiltshire.

Other topics not covered in my narrative above:

The Council HAS helped provide English for Speakers of Other Languages courses. Good, but there remains the issue of them not being difficult to access for many of the guest who have issues such as:
* Fitting in with children and childcare
* Public transport to get to and from classes
* Be at time that do not clash with their (often shift) work.
Not an easy one, and a magic "you can learn online" answer does not suit everyone

The support staff provided by the council have, over time, moved from looking purely after the guests to now having an eye out for the hosts too. There were some appalling examples in the early days, but it has been so much better of late - I can certainly say that in our part of the county, where a closer working relationship between the council officers and the hosting community is working much better. I appreciate it is a concern to professional offers that "do-gooders" in the community might not be fully aware, for example, or all the safeguarding issues and may - with the best of intent - make some situations worse rather than better. But at the same time, talking person to person within our communities does, for example, open up more potential hosts and help us help landlords understand that, actually, these guests are a "good bet" for them as they select tenants for vacant properties.

How do we progress this - "date of next meeting"? Richard considers it impractical to co-ordinate diaries for regular meetings, but has offered ongoing Zoom sessions with his staff. Excellent and an offer to be taken up. However, the overall strategy is set, and whilst the team may be persuaded (for example) to advertise the housing officer role in such a way that it actually encourages people to apply, I don't see Richard making any policy changes and indeed his intent would appear to be that the door is firmly closed to any changes.

Looking further ahead - our guests have 3-year Biometric Residence Permits and are in limbo as to what may happen beyond that point. We and they - for the most part - dream of being able to return safely to Ukraine, but it's anyone's guess as to how the war will drag on and whether remaining infrastructure will support them as they rebuild. Their visas are clearly stated as having "no route for settlement" in the UK. But are we going to chuck them out the year after next? I would doubt that - more than 100,000 people kicked out of the UK, most of whom are the very younger generation we need to be in our workforce. The answer is unclear, but no one has yet given us an answer other than "I'm sure there will be an answer"; I hope it's a caring one, and not a politically motivated one - an answer which looks out for the people concerned, and not just for popular vote.


Image - County Hall, Trowbridge, where we met. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WiltshireCouncilTrowbridge.jpg - under Creative Commons license

Published Friday, 5th May 2023

State of the Nation Council

Handforth parish council, which found itself at the centre of a media storm after a Zoom meeting went viral earlier this year, has since lost two members. First to quit was chairman Brian Tolver, who told stand-in clerk Jackie Weaver she had "no authority here" ...

Beneath the smooth facade of many parish councils is a much less than smooth operation, and it's no exception at Melksham Town Council which is in constitutional terms a big parish. That should be no great surprise considering the complexity of authority - is the mayor, the clerk, the staffing committee, or the key groups or full council of 15 (14 at the moment) in charge? How do you ensure the enthusiasm of the people concerned for their town, their allegiance, their campaigns or their careers does not get carried beyond strong debate into what other consider and sometimes is bullying? How do you keep the whole organisation stable through these ructions?

It is common knowledge that our town council has been lost a number of staff and a councillor too. There will always be a turnover, but in my opinion that turnover has been far too high to be normal, and we are so short of staff - especially experienced team members - that the remaining people have far more on their plates that they're used to, and in addition have extra work "firefighting" issues that are there as a result of staff shortage.

I'm telling you this "as it is", if you like - and as I see it from my personal councillor viewpoint. I am not offering you a solution today. I myself only have an overview of some of the issues, and actions I see being taken that may on the surface look perverse may be made for excellent reasons I am not aware of. But I do know that we need to move forward from what looks like a downward spiral and (re)build a team that can all work together for our town.


Published Tuesday, 2nd May 2023

Council Diary - May 2023

Looking ahead in May - I have whole series of meetings, and there may be more to add.

By theme:

* On 15th May, the full meeting of the Town Council chooses its mayor and deputy, committee and working group membership for the next 12 months. There are probably going to be a few changes, though at this stage most of us have settled down. I am currently on Environment and Climate, on Economic Development and on the Assembly Hall Working Group - shown in my diary below marked "*" because I may be voted off them; if there's a lot of councillors wanting to be on a committee, on vote the places tend to go to the group members, with the independent left to pick up poison chalices and council areas where there is little disagreement. A full council meeting on 22nd May will be lead and chaired by whoever if the mayor by that time.

* At the neighbourhood plan steering group on 3rd May, we should learn the results of the Town Centre Masterplan consultation that took place in February and March and will allow us to work towards a proposal based on public input. It can come to Economic Development on 9th May, as can other element of the neighbourhood plan. We'll also be looking at new planning applications, as will the new economic development committee on 30th - now moved to Tuesdays.

* Coronation events and the Shambles festival and the council quiz night happen during the month.

* For saying that the was a rush to set up a Melksham House Group in February, and hold a special meeting in March to agree to offer £2 million to buy it, here we are in May with no action that I have seen. We don't even have the minutes of the meeting yet. The Assembly Hall Working Group met last month and a new date was set, I recall, for late May, but again no notes received yet, and the next step hasn't even been added to the diary. I hear the sound of feet dragging!

* If residents in the East Ward want an election for the seat vacated by Louisa Lewis last month, they need to let the returning officer know by 22nd May. My own view would be to welcome an election to give the new councillor the legitimacy of a vote and give us a new voice happy to enter the fray, rather than existing councillors clubbing together to co-opt the person most in line with them. That latter would be fine (and cheaper) if there were a general consensus in the community that the council is doing a good, consensual job, but that is not the case.

3rd May 13:00 - Meeting Richard Clewer on Wiltshire's Ukraine support
3rd May 18:30 - Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group
6th May 10:00 - Coronation Party in the Park
7th May Coronation event in the Assembly Hall
9th May 19:00 - Economic Development and Planning
15th May 19:00 - Full Council, Annual meeting
17th May 19:00 - Environment and Climate working Group (*)
20th May Shambles Festival
21st May New train service starts
22nd May Last day for East Ward residents to ask for a by-election
22nd May 19:00 - Full Council
24th May 12:00 - Electric Bus meeting
25th May Closing date for Customer and Community (Rail) fund
25th May 19:00 - Assembly Hall Quiz
29th May Bank Holiday
30th May 19:00 - Economic Development and Planning (*)
31st May 19:30 - West Wilts Rail User Group



Published Monday, 1st May 2023

Bigger Trade Shows

A Really enjoyable day at the Bristol Model Railway Exhibition in Thornbury yesterday, and I'll be there today (Saturday 29th April) and Sunday too, with my http://www.passenger.chat Coffee Shop Forum, Railfuture, Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways and the West Wiltshire Rail User Group. I met a number of retired railwaymen, and also campaigners from the wider area, and that makes events like these a really useful learning opportunity to help me understand what might work in the future in our part of Wiltshire.

How sad that we no longer have the big TrainWest in Melksham, now that the hall where it was held has been demolished, and the replacement that Wiltshire Council have provided is does not have sufficient space. Plans for our Campus originally included indoor bowling for winter use, with the green covered over for the rest of the year to host major regional events - exactly what the have done in Thornbury. The program doesn't look quiet - there's a cat show next weekend, and other events there though the summer. In case you were wondering, Thornbury is about half the size of Melksham.

We need to take care as we update our town's facilities further that we meet the needs of our existing users as well as going forward in such a way that we can meet needs not currently met. Wiltshire Council in their move to The Campus have driven away events like TrainWest, together with the business it brings to the town. Melksham Town Council needs to ensure that it does not make the same mistake in its handling of the Assembly Hall and the much smaller Melksham House.


Published Saturday, 29th April 2023

Coaches, Melksham

Melksham is on the way from many places to many others. Could it be a place where people pause as they pass and in so doing help support town businesses?

I first knew Melksham in 1981 as a town I bypassed on my way down the A350, heade for Dorset, Devon and beyond. I changed jobs and moved a few years later, and then I bypassed Melksham on my way past on the A365, headed for Bristol. I can't recall even stopping here, except perhaps at the Little Chef once or twice. Our move here in 1999 was to a landmark fixer-upper and only at that point did I come to know the town. Roots put down for good.

Why don't more people stop here? Is it because we don't attract people into Town? Is it that people passing by simply haven't discovered what we have to offer? Do we want to attract more people into our Town Centre?

We have a coach park in King's Street. We have a number of places to eat. We have pretty and historic buildings. We have parkland and a nature reserve. We have shops. We have a Tourist Information Centre. Should we be signposting our town and promoting it better to passing traffic including on regular holiday coach runs for their restbeaks?


Published Thursday, 27th April 2023

New Town Councillors?

I have seen comment of "we need an election and new councillors" and stronger criticism of councillors about being uncaring, secretive, unavailable, not solving issues. In my personal view, no, we don't need new elections, at least wholesale. Let me tell you why.

Fifteen of us were elected 2 years ago for a four year term. Thirteen of us had not been on the previous council and eleven were, I believe, parish councillors for the first time. In common, we knew that we had / have four years to fulfil the role we were elected for. And that means learning, then researching, then making difficult and informed decisions, and then implementing those decisions. It would be a truly extraordinary situation to go back to "step 1" again replacing the whole bunch again half way through the cycle.

For the most part, no, your councillors are not uncaring. They may be having to make or support difficult decisions that personally disadvantage you but benefit others. They may have no authority or ability to influence on various matters, and so be seen to taking no action in that area, or may be shot down as being the messenger who says "cannot help".

For the most part, no, your councillors are not secretive. There are times that things need to be looked at behind closed doors - issues involving personal privacy of staff, councillors and everyone else. Commercial matters where bids are invited and must be kept confidential during the process. Problems which are flagged up and being solved before our team worries the public - for example "problem - who's going to man the splashpad the weekend after next" is best kept between ourselves when we can expect our staff to find a solution. Then there's the little matter of councillors receiving dozens of pages of data daily and not being secretive with it, but rather having to be selective as to what they pass on.

For the most part, no, your councillors are not unavailable. But please bear in mind that we are all volunteers. The majority of town councillors are in full time employment, and others of us are at an age where we have plenty of experience but are slowing down. I am impressed by the commitment to their role, and the tie they give to it, by most of my colleagues. Forgive us, please, if you don't find us as available as you would wish. We are un(der)trained, unpaid and have other lives to live. That's the system and looking around the council chamber, you would be hard pressed to find a new bunch of people who routinely give so much thought and time to both public stuff which is the visible tip of an iceberg and all the backroom work.

15 people. 8 elected on a "Together for Melksham" platform. 5 elected on a "Conservative" platform. 1 elected on a "LibDem" platform. Adds up to 14; I stood on my own platform in the full knowledge that it wasn't an easy route. I always was and remain happy to work with everyone and anyone else where I (and people I "talk" to in Melksham) have similar goals. But views and goals do differ on a minority of issues across the chamber, and you have a number of strong personalities who will do everything within their legal power to make decisions go their way. That may mean bringing proposals forward at short notice to reduce debate, and it may mean being seated on then resigning from a committee to slow down its work. Such things make progress much slower than it would be if we were a commercial company, a charity or a CIC, but then that's the price of us being democratic not a dictatorship. Yes, it's frustrating at times.

OK - very "internal looking" today - in summary, in my view you have a good crew of councillors and wouldn't do better if you ousted them. Please let them get on with their job, and look forward to giving your verdict two years from now. In the meantime, PLEASE tell us what you think as we do our job (that survey I've been running has been really useful to inform me, as is talking to people on a daily basis.

Still want a new crew or some replacements this year? Tough - you can't demand that (well you can, but your demand will have no way it can be implemented. See Towncouncillor.com:
""If you're hoping for a procedure to oust a councillor, I'm afraid you're out of luck! A councillor becomes disqualified only for limited reasons. The main ones are failure to attend meetings without reason for six months, becoming bankrupt or being sentenced to at least three months imprisonment (even if suspended). They can also become disqualified in relation to corrupt or illegal practices, or by becoming a paid officer of the council.""
""However, citizens do have the right to call a parish meeting, which requires 10 signatures. A parish meeting can be called to discuss any local matter, and can pass resolutions. These are not binding in all but a few specific cases, but will have some impact as expressing local feeling.""

Personally, I believe myself to be caring, and as open and available as is practical within my current and waning capabilities. Not all my colleagues agree; I have been told to "check my moral compass" by one of them. I have done so and found it, in my view, in order. But, yes, please tell me where you disagree; I abhor the activities that have resulted in one of my colleagues feeling bullied and to the extent that she has resigned but at the same time we need to know if you feel we are not doing a good job.

Footnote - there will be an opportunity for the electorate in the East Ward to replace Louisa Lewis who has stepped down. If 10 or more voter in the ward write in and ask for an election, there will be one. If there is not that request, volunteer to fill the seat may be sought and the remaining 14 councillors will chose which volunteer they want. Even though an election is an expense to the Town Council, I would like to see an election as it's the opportunity to bring in fresh blood and to test the view of the electorate, and it gives the person elected a mandate an authority far stronger than the mandate of a co-option.

Published Wednesday, 26th April 2023

Melksham House - Important Questions

On 28th March 2023, Melksham Town Council held an extraordinary meeting to conduct urgent business. The main business was agenda item 5.1 - a motion worded as follows: "Members are requested to resolve that the council enters negotiations with Wiltshire Council and makes an offer to Wiltshire Council to purchase Melksham House. Members are further requested to set a limit of not less than £2,000,000 for the purchase of Melksham House." Full motion ((here))

I watched the meeting, open mouthed at what was happening, online from my holiday. The meeting was called at such short notice that I was not only booked but actually away when the date was added to our councillor's diary.

Yesterday, four weeks later (24th April 2023), I went to view the meeting minutes. Not received. Looked on the council web site to read them there as public record. Not there. So I checked with the Town Clerk. "I haven’t got round to doing them yet. I am slowly working my way through several sets of minutes. I will get them done as soon as I can. Apologies they are later than normal". So for the residents who asked what the official outcome of that urgent meeting was and how it's being followed up, my answer is "I don't know yet". Which at first seems extraordinary for a special meeting called at short notice. I do have sympathy with our town clerk who is short staffed

Personally, I try to write up notes and meetings soon after the meeting. Firstly I find that's easy to do accurately while it's fresh in my mind. Secondly, it allows actions agreed to be kicked off without delay. Happy memories of the way Phil McMullen does things - Chamber of Commerce, TransWilts CRP - now with Westbury Town Council and still very much around and a really good public transport friend. What works for Phil is typing in notes during the meeting, and continuing afterwards to lick them into draft minute shape, circulated long before we wake up next morning. I appreciate we can't have Utopia at the Town Council at the moment, with the clerk having to deal with other urgent matters (such as another meeting!!) directly following. But wouldn't it be great?

Forget the haste with which this extra meeting was called.
Forget the motion not being available until the minutes before it was discussed.
Forget that some of the motion support text/information is questionable.
Forget the absence of half of the ward councillors for Melksham House.
Forget that councillors had to make guesses during discussions.
Forget the lack of draft minutes a month later.
Forget any further feedback to councillors (me, anyway) about seeing the place.
Forget the key speaker being the Wilts Cabinet member for properties.
Forget the failure to call the Melksham House Working group set up in February.
Forget the lack of feedback from the Town Centre Masterplan consultation.

Forget all these things; they WILL be forgotten in a month or two.
Look instead at why the Town Council might wish (or not wish) to purchase Melksham House and the consequences.
* What would the Town Council do with it?
* What would the business case be?
* What would be the effect on our council tax?
* Would we need or choose to cut or sell something else back to fund it?
* What do our electorate want?
* What would happen to Melksham House if the Town Council don't buy it?
* Is the Town Council in competition for a purchase or letting by Wiltshire Council?


In my view, it makes sense for the Town Council to carefully consider the opportunity to buy Melksham House. That was resolved in February. It does not make sense for us to have committed to making an offer, site unseen, and without clear answers to the questions I have raised just above. Our consideration, in co-operation with Wiltshire Council, should be "post haste" to ensure that public money is not wasted in an inappropriate fitting out which then has to be redone to meet out needs.

I look forward to actually seeing the site and getting on with the jobs, and not sitting in the doldrums of waiting for minutes while, perhaps, one or two others who are Town Councillors take their agendas forward.



Published Tuesday, 25th April 2023
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Thank you for voting Graham Ellis onto Melksham Town Council

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