Main Content

Graham Ellis - Regular updates - my diary

Links in this page:
38 years ago today, Melksham Station reopened
What it's like to be Independent
Minutes and resolution - proposed Melksham House purchase
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
(Back to top of page)
Some other pages on this site:
Home page and • town diary
Graham Ellis - blog and • blog index
Graham Ellis - background and • views
Philosophies of working as a town councillor
The Role of the Town Council and Councillors
How YOU can help and • Contact me
Links to other web sites and • pictures
Through April 2021, I posted most days. Thereafter (elected) you hear from me here at least once a week.

Stepping back from chairing


I don't plan to promote myself for chairing positions of any formal groups within Melksham Town Council at the annual reshuffle on 15th May 2023 ("this evening" when I publish this)

It is just possible the meeting will ask for background. Whether that happens or not, here are my reasons:

1. As chair of "Economic Development and Planning", we need to look ahead and have a longer term strategy, but we have been waiting for that council vision to be completed since summer 2021. Over the past year, officers have been out of the office or if in the office have failed to progress projects. I need to be in a role I feel I can fulfil and be proud of what is achieved in common goal within a team [of staff and councillors], or if need be to have support to build the team, and that has not been the case. I feel I can do better without the constraints of being chair.

2. In the last year, I have chaired 6 grievance appeal panels. Of necessity, the details of these is not in the public domain, but I can tell you of many hours of meetings and many days of reading and following up. At times some of the individuals involved in the cases have overstepped norms. This is important work, but not at all what I signed up for nor what I enjoy, nor (most important) what I do well.

3. I have getting older and slower. And with my deafness in one ear I am unable to tell who is speaking and reducing sight also means I am no longer easily able to pick up everyone raising their hand in the room. I would like to thank officers for their assistance over the past year, but in listening to their concerns over the loads put on them by councillors, feel that now is the right time for me to stand back from chairing activities, and step back to let them get on with their proper role.

This is a decision for one year. I believe I can do best for the residents of my ward, for my family and other interests, for the load I put on other councillors and staff, and my own sanity by being an ordinary councillor. Things change (though my age cannot) and the balance of decision may differ next year; it's even possible that some overwhelming argument could be put this evening.


Background ... this should not come as a shock when you see how others have refactored or been refactored. Councillor Lewis had resigned, citing bullying. Councillor Oatley has joined a political grouping, stating his belief that it will help further what he can do. Four permanent members of staff have left or are working their notice in the last three months.

* The working environment at Melksham Town Council is alien and feels toxic to me. I can look back to time working, including managing and volunteering at Well House Manor / Consultants WHC, TransWilts, Railfuture, Megatek, CGL and First Alternative. They have usually but not always happy times, but they have never been like MTC.

* Everyone seems so much in their own positions and defence of it that there's no duty of care and little thought for working as a team. Personal or other interests are prioritised to the detriment of the role and in doing so hurt others around. No "how are you doing" which could make such a big difference.

* Some of the procedures, systems and practices in place are not appropriate for Melksham Town Council in 2023. Some need modernising to work best with modern technology and others were accepted earlier in our working lives, but we should shudder with embarrassment at them these days.

I refer to the last year, but some of these things are much older - they are inherited situations (as I hint at in my reference to summer 2021) and it's not a secret that some of the grievance material predates Covid.

Solution for the Town Council's woes? I'm given to understand that the staffing committee have much in hand, and as this takes time to pull back, I offer them my support. It would be good if the five councillors who have been working on that task can continue to do so.

I'm planning to be a useful voice for the community, and a useful interface and information provider and explainer, on the Town Council for the next year. And to look after myself too. And projects remain public transport, the Assembly Hall, and Melksham.


Published Monday, 15th May 2023

38 years ago today, Melksham Station reopened

Melksham Station closed in 1966, and then re-opened on 13th May 1985 - 38 years ago today. For most of the early years, there were two trains a day during the week - to Swindon in the morning and back in the late afternoon, with a number of short-lived experimental extras.

From 2013, a train was allocated to the line all day and run up and down, giving a service about every 2 hours. At first, it was a single carriage train but that got so busy it could not cope. These days the train is two or three carriages long, and it needs to be. Our line is no longer the "lemon" of GWR and the flow of passengers to and from the station for almost every train is a sight for the sore eyes of those of us who have promoted it for many years. At the same time, the service remains sparse / poor. A huge THANK YOU is due to the people who have helped us get this far, but it's still very much a project in progress ...

We have moved up from 2 trains each way per day to 8, and in passenger journeys to / from Melksham from around 3,000 per annum to around 75,000 - but that's 75,000 journeys where people have to make a significant adjustment to their travel plans to co-inside with a train. Move the frequency to a train each way every hour, so that there's always a train within 30 minutes of your ideal travel time, and passenger journeys will grow in three years to over 300,000 per annum. Add to that through journeys from Westbury and Trowbridge to Chippenham and Swindon (Melksham has the benefit of sharing its trains with those other towns), and you've got around a million journeys a year, and a service key to the economic life of the whole area. With added freight traffic, there is no longer reliable capacity on the line for this extra service, and with the long single line section, it would require a step up from one train shuttling up and down to three, with a layover in Swindon (or a useful extension to Oxford with a fourth train) for it to work, or the addition of a loop of double track to the north of Melksham Station.

From 21st May (2023), we have some service changes. A significant extra new service in the late evening is added - 21:15 from Westbury and 22:30 from Swindon - meaning that for the first time in many years, Melksham will have an almost "all day, every day" service. That service runs every day in the summer, but sadly not - yet - on Saturdays in winter. Daytime Saturday and Sunday services are evened out; slightly fewer trains but that should aid reliability. We loose the early morning train (at 05:33) to Swindon, but since it was introduced in 2019 that's really been more run to get an empty train up to Swindon that to be a mass transit conveyance.

New timetable sheet available for download (here)

The early work to re-open the station and then support keeping it open and was undertaken by the Melksham Railway Development Group (MRDG) - predecessor of the Melksham Transport User Group, aided by the Save the Train campaign for a number of years from 2005. As that campaign bore fruit, we formed the TransWilts Community Rail partnership to work with local government, central government and the train operating companies to regain and retain an appropriate service. I am proud to have been a founder of "TransWilts" and their Community Rail Officer for the period up to the summer of 2018 as we regained the service and grew it until we had full (and over-full) single carriage trains.

Over the last five years since my departure, TransWilts has moved on from being a local support group to being an organisation accredited to the Department for Transport and concerned with future rail development across Wiltshire, and with engaging with groups in the community who need extra support when interfacing with the railway. Both excellent pieces of work, but in my view leaving a gap in day to day promotion and supporting passenger use, and loosing the independence that they used to enjoy; I was given the choice of staying in my Community Rail Officer role (as in effect a civil servant), or retaining the independence to express my views and act as the passenger community wanted. And I chose to retain my independence. In practise, that's usually in line with the Department for Transport - though I noted without surprise that when the Department for Transport decided to cull the popular through trains from Bradford-on-Avon and Trowbridge to London, TransWilts was unique amongst local and regional passenger and community groups in not even offering words of support when asked.

The current chair (who moved me on) has done a very great deal of excellent longer term planning and engagement, setting up reports and potential schemes - getting them on the table - for the future. He retires this month - THANK YOU for all your hard work, Paul. Perhaps we can look forward to new stations at Wilton, Corsham and Devizes from his legacy over coming years, and an extra platform at Westbury and a passing loop near Beanacre to help as we move from the current poor service at Melksham up to the appropriate one I describe above, with four times the passenger numbers on two times the number of trains.

We have other work to do in Melksham.

* It was pointless running a bus to the station prior to 2013. But in 2023, a town bus dropping people off at the station prior to each train call, then carrying people back to the Town Centre, residential areas to the East of Melksham, and business areas of Bowerhill, makes sense. The temporary "rail link bus" while the car park was extended in 2014 rapidly grew, but wasn't properly funded and council priorities moved what little funding was available.

* TransWilts are seeking a new chair - I have copied the advert and linked to the job description at http://www.passenger.chat/27474 . It is unclear to me whether this is just a "form" advert and they already have a successor in mind, or a genuine casting out for a successor looking for an outsider to come in and guide them forward. I have taken a look and won't be applying - although I believe I'm much better qualified than most, there is no way I could achieve all that's asked of their new lead in the 7 to 10 hours per month that has been specified, nor would I be happy to be a puppet of local and central government.

* The station remains unstaffed. Not an issue for regular users, but for occasional users and enquirers, and at times that the service is not running "clockwork", this would make a huge difference. The cafe across the road from the station opened at a very unfortunate time early in covid and has never really taken off for the benefit of rail passengers; it closes this month. As a volunteer staffed enquiry desk, with simple and quick catering (drinks, packeted cakes and biscuits) in could meet both the staffing and the refreshent need.

* Access to the station is limited to Station Approach. Plans that have been in the offing for YEARS need to be brought to fruition to provide a walkway and cycleway via Foundry Close allowing shorter, safer and more pleasant "green" connection both to north Melksham, and across the river via Scotland Road to the whole of Melksham Forest. Re-instatement of the steps to the Bath Road would substantiality reduce the walk to Scholar's Way, Southbrook Road, and the new up yard development which has gone through planning and will bring 112 new home close to the station.

* Continued promotion of all public transport is needed to help ensure people are aware of what's available when they wish to use it.

Using the train today

* Services run from 06:36 on Monday to Friday, 08:00 on Saturday and 08:37 on Sunday, last trains at 22:55 on Monday to Friday, 22:37 on Saturday and 21:59 on Sunday - up to 18 trains a day, alternately to Chippenham and Swindon, and to Trowbridge and Westbury.

* Tickets can be bought online ahead of time, or at the machine at the station. If you want to pay in cash, or require a ticket that's not available from the machine, you can pay the train manager.

* The Station is a 10 minute walk from the Town Bridge, and cycling along that route is good. There are free pick up and drop off spaces in front of the station. There is also a paid station car park if you want to park at the station while travelling.

* Some sample fares
- day return to Swindon £11.90 (£8.80 all day at the weekend, and after the 08:02 train on Monday to Friday)
- day return to Westbury £4.70 (£5.40 if you leave Melksham on the 06:36)
- day return to Bristol Temple Meads £14.00 anytime
- day return to Clifton Down £14.20 (£11.90 off peak - also valid to and from Temple Meads)
* Railcard fares and groups of 3 or more adults after 10 a.m. - 66% of these fares
* Children - 50% of these fares

* All trains that call at Melksham are wheelchair friendly (the train manager will help you board or leave the train) as are the stations at Melksham, Chippenham, Trowbridge, Westbury and Swindon.

* Trains are operated by Great Western Railway - https://www.gwr.com
* I suggest you buy tickets direct from GWR, but you are welcome to ask me to suggestions if you help working out which ticket(s) are right for your journey


Published Saturday, 13th May 2023

What it's like to be Independent

You'll be told that we leave politics at the door of the Town Hall in Melksham as we (councillors) work for the good of the town. We may well be free to vote as we wish in the council chamber, but we sure as heck face the consequences outside when we make the opposite choice to our group's view.

Our Deputy Mayor, Sue Mortimer, was elected on a "Together for Melksham" ticket in May 2021. In the latest Melksham Independent News, she writes: ""If I decide to stand for Melksham Town Council Forest Ward in two years’ time it will be as an independent candidate as I was taken off the WhatsApp group of Together for Melksham in May 2022 for presumably losing the non-existent whip during the mayoral elections for an independent decision I took at that meeting.""

She carries on ... ""It sometimes has been a lonely place being an independent councillor. No more so than when the motion I put to Melksham Town Council to provide some free disabled parking spaces in the Church Street car park failed to get a seconder but I was under no illusions being a councillor was going to be easy and with the support of the residents and most times like-minded fellow councillors, I will continue to work hard for the benefit of our residents to get a fresh start that the town still desperately needs.""

Couldn't have put it better, Sue. It can be lonely, and it can feel pressured as we (I am an independent too) face the enthusiasm and drive of other councillors to promote their views and objectives. I was told by one of the sharper group members to "Check my Moral Compass" over a suggestion I made - I did, and I found myself clean, indeed far more so than I feel some are. Others might like to ask themselves the same question. The grapevine (yes, indepedents do talk and partner with other councillors) says I have been described as "dangerous" - hmmm, proud of that too if there's a danger that I may make one or two of my fellow councillors stop and think, or sway the occasional vote in a direction I feel right for the town, and as informed and guided by views I hear on the street. And, yes, on occasions that means being a lone voice.
Graphic - the changing composition of Melksham Town Council from election '21 to date.
Blue - Conservative
Maroon - Together for Melksham
Yellow - LibDem
Green - Independent
Grey - seat vacant

There are 15 seats. As on your voting paper in 2021:
8 - "Together for Melksham"
5 - "Conservative"
1 - "Lib Dem"
1 - "Independent"

And as we go into the 2023/24 Council year:
6 - "Conservative"
5 - "Together for Melksham"
2 - "Independent"
1 - "Lib Dem"
1 seat vacant



Published Thursday, 11th May 2023

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
-

Thank you for voting Graham Ellis onto Melksham Town Council

Jump to top of page