Graham Ellis - Regular updates - my diary
Should Melksham borrow a million?
Would YOU borrow a million pounds, to be repayed over twenty years? That's what's being recommended by The Mayor to the Town Council, to be put to the vote next Monday (13th December 2021) at the 7 p.m. meeting at Town Hall. Sorry - still no remote access as the fiasco of the AV system continues.
Would you borrow a million pounds over 20 years? I would - IF I had something to show for it afterwards and for all the interest paid during that period. And I would IF I had the mandate of the people who would be paying that extra money back through that time.
Sadly, I don't think those conditions are met:
1. I'm not convinced that in 2042 play areas, toilets, and "a sophisticated CCTV system" bought in 2022 will retain much - if any - residual value.
2. I'm not convinced that you, the electorate of Melksham, have given your councillors a mandate to borrow money on their account. It was certainly not in my manifesto / something I suggested or talked about. It wasn't suggested as far as I can tell by any other winning candidate either, and I have spoken with several right across the spectrum and reviewed election videos in vain looking for any hint of the idea.
3. I'm not actually convinced that the loan board (the only place a town / parish is allowed to go) would approve our application for the same reasons I am concerned
To check my logic, I have been in touch with councillors elsewhere in the UK who I know through the public transport work I do, and have learned of experiences. However, they tell me without exception that it was easy(ier) for them because of a supporting local poll, and because they had bricks and mortar at the end of it. Loans referred to are much smaller than the Melksham proposal, and none has any experience of borrowing without a clear public mandate and for less long-lived investment.
Without any councillors having a mandate from the people who would have to pay, and without residual value, I cannot recommend that we borrow. It would be a very convenient way of doing a lot quickly - help us hold the rates, probably get re-elected next time around as we spent beyond our means and saddled the councils in the next decade with debt. Having said which, the interest rate as I have been told is a good one and fixed, and with a mandate (not personally but to the council as a whole) and with resource at the end, I would offer my support. There's even an argument to suggest that if we think the interest rate is going to be below the inflation rate, we could save money by borrowing. I would be happy to answer questions on numbers.
So - if we are not going to borrow to do impressive things, where does that leave us? Two other suggestions were put forward - a "do nothing, don't increase the precept" (1) option and a "do most of it anyway and get the money from the council tax payers" (2) one. Another option would be to put up the precent in line with inflation and to undertake a number of the projects, but spread out over a number of years (4). That would probably lessen our chances of getting re-elected next time, but feels right to me - it doesn't smell of mortgaging our votes with the next generation having to repay Option (3). And it leaves us with a clean slate if - in due course - we DO want to invest in bricks and mortar with the support of our electorate.
Whichever route we take on next year's budget, it will be the first year for this set of councillors to be in command of both the amount of money we have, and how we spend it.
Published Friday, 10th December 2021
Back in Melksham, but not at tonight's meeting24 hours late back from what I've described as our main 2020 holiday, having been stuck at sea on a ship unable to berth in Southampton until Storm Arwen subsided. And now back, but with a "lurgy" that I don't want to pass on - nothing serious, I don't think, but I am bowing out of meetings in person for the next couple of days. That includes the Economic Development and Planning meeting this evening.
Bearing in mind that one or two subjects I will be involved in will be raised, I have asked if an audio feed could be made available to me, but have been informed "Unfortunately, there is no alternative method to enable you to access the meeting from home". Very sad, as meetings were successfully held that way in May, but the new system launched in August is still not working even though it's nearly December, and I regularly take part in and even run "hybrid" meetings. However, the safety of my fellow councillors, council staff, and any members of the press and public who attend this evening trumps my desire to attend, and my 100% record falls. A proxy will attend on my behalf (thank you ;-) ) and I am confident of her common sense on the agenda items. What comes up in "public participation" is - in theory - anyone's guess. Usually nothing, but I suspect that subject of public footpath MELK29 and the section 56 order that the council maintain it to the extent that it can be accesses may be raised.
On this (or indeed any other town council matters) please do get in touch - online and on the phone, I cannot pass on the lurgy.
I should be well back in full circulation long before the next council meeting on 13th December, at which the 2022/3 budget will be set. This year, we have been working to the budget set by the previous council - for next year, your current council will be able to both set and then follow their own budget. I have taken a look through the Together for Melksham web site, claiming eight councillors, but not really found any definitive election promises made. Melksham's Conservative Town councillors - five of them - haven't published any policy or proposals I can see either. Many things in the budget are going to be pretty much agreed and there will be little dispute over expenditure; there will be a few items that may raise some interesting discussions and I'm somewhat disappointed that so little information is around from the councillor's teams as to their plans for raising money from you and how they will spend it.
Published Monday, 29th November 2021
I do not leakIt's been brought to my attention (I'm on holiday with limited access) that the Melksham Independent News is carrying a piece about the online council meetings, or to be more accurate the lack of them. Apparently they have been passed a copy of the papers from the secret session that the council held a couple of weeks back on this topic, and my correspondent has asked if it was me who leaked the papers. NO - IT WAS NOT.
I voted against that section of the meeting being held behind closed doors, and indeed requested a recorded vote on the secrecy. So I am a natural one to be looked at. Please may I re-assure you. It was not me. I do not betray confidences, which these papers were, even if I believe that things should be in public. Further, I do not make unattributable comment - I put my name to my actions, always have. Please look at my track record.
I am not going to speculate where the MIN got the papers from. Not me. Perhaps someone else wanted them out even though they have not gone public with that and felt safe doing so, knowing that eyes would turn to me. Yuk! Not my style.
I do look forward to a day that you'll be able to watch, and take part in public participation, in Melksham Town Council meetings, without having to turn out of an evening. And I remain gobsmacked that it has taken so long to get things working to allow it - I routinely run public meetings (from Melksham, and Didcot, and Trowbridge) and have had up to 100 attendees, equally split between those in the room and those at home. It is not rocket science!
Published Friday, 19th November 2021
Melk039 - letter to residentThis may appear out of context ... I have asked for and await permission to publish the letter I am replying to, at which point it will become cleared to the general reader.
I am talking about the public footpath parallel to (and to the rear) of homes in Kenilworth Road and West End, which has become impassable over the years but remains a public footpath. A legal notice has been served on the council to keep the path clear/open so that residents can access their rear fences, others do not want that access restored as the feel it creates a security risk and would harm wildlife that has taken residence.
Dear ["resident spokesperson"],
I am indeed aware of this footpath and somewhat informed of the situation. And, yes, I live on Spa Road which is closer than any other councillor to you.
I am presently away on vacation - (literally) at sea and in touch only by email and very limited web browsing - hence unable to speak in person though I would prefer to do so rather than writing long. It's a long-planned holiday during a gap in council meetings.
I need to clarify something. There are two local councils - there’s Melksham Town Council which covers the centre of the urban area out to the A350, and there’s Wiltshire (Unitary) Council which covers the whole county. In the matter of public highways and byways, the authority concerned is the Unitary Council and the Town Council has no authority - only an ability to suggest and persuade. In the South ward, your Town Councillors (with no more than an advisory role, and unpaid volunteers) are myself, Colin Goodhind (who also lives in the ward), Jon Hubbard and Jacqui Crundell. Your unitary councillor is Jon Hubbard (the same person as on the Town Council).
Jon Hubbard has been involved with this issue for much longer than I have been on the council, and has been planning to hold a resident’s meeting for quite some time - also long before I was elected to the town council. It hasn’t happened and a resident has indeed served notice on the unitary council that requires them to meet their legal obligation to keep the path open; it has not been legally abandoned and should they fail to clear it they could be taken to court. That is why they are acting now. You should note that Jon although your representative on the unitary council has no dictatorial power there even in his own ward, and cannot instruct a different course of action.
I would be very interested to learn who it was from the Town Council who promised no action until after a public meeting, as there just might be some sort of legal standing (s)he is aware of that I and others are not.
The matter was raised by a member of the public prior to last week's economic development and planning town council meeting in the public participation section where all are welcome to raise issues. Jon Hubbard explained why the public meeting has not taken place, and noted that a "Highways Act" order would take things forward. The next such meeting is on Monday 29th November, starting at 19:00 in the Town Hall. But please note that you cannot expect resolution there; the Town Council has no powers on this, and is not able to prepare ahead of time as its officers and councillors don't know what will be brought up unless talking to an agenda item, which most public participation does.
As a final outcome, I think there is broad agreement between all residents that they do not want the public using the path, even though it has been a public way from the opening of the Wilts and Berks Canal over 200 years ago. I can’t be sure of that, of course, as the public meeting hasn’t happened - not even online during the period up until the end of May when such things were temporarily legal for decision making council meetings. Assuming that I’m correct in that thought, the questions arise "should it be closed purely on residents wishes or does it have wider use and history and should be retained?", “what do we do if it’s not to be a public right of way”, “how do we satisfy everyone with the decision”, “how do we get there / what to do in the meantime” and “who’s going to pay for the changes and any future upkeep if not the Unitary Council”.
So - where do we go? The ultimate outcome should, my personal view, be that the path may no longer be a public right of way. Whilst it's of historic interest, it leads nowhere and serves no purpose any longer; the chance of it being re-opened through to Spa Road is minimal, I understand. I believe that other Town Councillors share that view, unusual though it is to support the elimination of a right of way.
So what should it be, then?
Should people's gardens be allowed to expand into the space? And if some do without control is that going to damage the wildlife you're looking to preserve anyway, and / or create inaccessible pockets of land which are inaccessible and so unmaintainable?
Should some sort of private garden / walkway / nature reserve be set up? Owned and maintained by whom? All the residents?
But those ultimate outcomes do not answer the short term. I find myself wondering just how much clearance work is needed to reach a legally "open" position. One of the obligations on all councils is a safety one, and that includes (as I understand it) checking that its actions don't create something which creates a risk, and you could argue that full clearance of the path without associated security elements would do so.
This path has been in the "too difficult" bucket for too long (see http://grahamellis.uk/blog314.html - written a week ago). I don't see any outcome that's going to satisfy everyone - I don't see a rabbit being pulled out of a hat if there is, at long last, a meeting. But I suspect it's something where limited cutting back in December might - just might - give the residents and Wiltshire Council the opportunity to plan and implement for the future, with a new sense of urgency based on the situation we are in at the moment and the concern it brings.
You are welcome to share this response - it's an open letter and I will be sharing it too. May I also share your letter to me, noting that it's written as a "representative of the community" rather than in a purely personal capacity?
Melksham Town Council, South Ward
Blog at http://grahamellis.uk/perm.html
Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Graham4Melksham/
I only visit other social media occasionally.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Phone: 01225 708225 / 0797 4 925 928
Home: 48 Spa Road, Melksham, SN12 7NY
Stop Press - permission received
But on re-reading it, I probably need to redact some elements ... in the interest of fairness to all sides and some unconfirmed statements.
Published Wednesday, 17th November 2021
Melksham Town Council budget 2022/23Melksham Town Council budget 2022/23
What should Melksham Town Council do next year? What should it cost? How do we raise the money? In the next few weeks, we have to decide on the outline, and the mayor has called an informal meeting of all councillors for this evening. It won't be minuted, it won't be open to the public - it's for ideas and kites to be flow and tried out. Such pre-meetings are common in Wiltshire Council, and I suspect in the two groups on the Town Council, but this is the first I have been invited too. I wonder if the mayor knew I would be away when, early last week, he set the date. Anyway - I can't be there tonight - first council meeting I will have missed since elected. I would like to thank the Town Clerk for giving me a briefing last Friday. It allows me to take something of look, make inputs further into the process, and explain just what goes on.
Your council tax - on a Band D property (mid-range and the one usually quoted for comparisons this year has been just under £2100 - that includes unitary (County), police and fire elements as well as about £150 for Melksham Town. Unitary, police and fire elements may change for next year - probably somewhat upward - and are subject to separate consultation. I am looking at that £150.00
Three options have been suggested and are to be discussed tonight:
1. "Stand Still" - no project - £156.22
2. Raising precent to cover 3 possible projects - £182.02
3. Borrowing money to cover 7 possible projects - £164.78
Early days in this - the secrecy of the meeting is to allow councillors to explore views and thoughts away from public glare so they can understand - many of use are new. By posting this, I am waiving my right to anonymity on my initial vies and would caution reader that as I learn more, these views may change - based too on what I hear back from readers and residents on.
The three possible projects listed in option 2 are:
** Refurbishment and overhaul of town's play areas
** Reopen and refurbish all of Melksham's public toilets
** Town-wide CCTV and control room including KGV Car park
The seven possible project in option 3 are the three above, plus:
* Amenities Depot at KGV
* 20 is plenty campaign for the whole town
* Extension to / provision of public toilets at the Cricketer's Cafe
* Climate change improvements to council owned facilities
It should be noted that option 3 - borrowing money from the public works load board - puts up the council tax from the £156 not only for this year, but for years into the future too. I'm new at this game and will leave it for others to tell me how many years, whether it's a loan that is repaid over time or comes up for repayment all in a go by the next (!) council, and whether the interest rate is fixed or variable.
I had some further thoughts.
1. We are looking to move towards Zero Carbon and cleaner air, sustainability, in coming years. And I look at three more potential projects
* Labelling all bus stops in the town with service details
* Turning Melksham into an Air Quality Management Town (see pic - Marlow)
A notional climate change levy of 1p per resident per week (2.3p / day on band D) would add £8.50 per annum per household - around £50,000 in the year) to pay for the setup and maintenance of this.
2. Does any of the existing expenditure encourage activities which are not carbon friendly - there's budget for the car park redemption scheme, and a hope expressed that much more will be spent on that next year. Really? There's a balance here, but would funding be better directed to more sustainable matter? Shops remain welcome to refund, but should that attract a council subsidy?
3. Much of the main budget is pretty clear and offer no controversy, but are there elements there which should be reviewed? Staffing costs are always the lion's share of something like this, and it would be good to see where the dividend from reducing our team size has folded in. For sure, there are optional tasks like professional / expertise support for councillor which are now in very short supply indeed, meaning discussions and outcomes are far less informed than they used to be, and perhaps the worse for it.
Published Monday, 15th November 2021
Campus Pictures - 12.11.21Thank You to the Campus team for showing five Town Councillors around the under-construction campus on 12th November 2021. You may spot Councillors Price, Rabey, Oatley and Aves in these pictures; I was there too - behind the camera though. A further group included members of the Melksham Town staff, and Melksham Without Parish Councillors visited too. I hope that one or two of your Consevative Councillors have found an opportunity at another time to see the progress at the Campus.
Published Saturday, 13th November 2021
Cycle and public footpaths - Melksham SouthLooking at Heather Avenue to Dorset Crescent, and Hardie Walk (south of Spa Road).
Almost all travel corridors have their "pinch points", and too many pinch points make a corridor less practical to use. Sustrans are busy removing physical barriers from the cycle paths - making it easier to cycle through; I came across a post yesterday (at https://www.facebook.com/Sustrans/posts/10157971927181315 ) describing the process. So it's ironic that Melksham Town Council voted last night to fund the installation of a bollard in the path between Dorset Crescent and Heather Avenue, with the purpose of preventing cars going through there, and of slowing down other vehicles passing through.
There's a balance to be struck here, and as a cyclist a single bollard in the middle of the path may make some sense. Cycles, mobility scooters, pushchairs, etc, will be able to pass on either side, and the path shouldn't be one where cycles would be passing through quickly anyway. The path IS an important one (and should be better waymarked and busier) as it offers a safe, off-road route from Bowerhill to the Town Centre. Far safer than cycling up Spa Road which is a bit of an accident blackspot with junctions, blind brows and foot traffic, mobility chairs, cars, vans and buses all there as well as cycles all in the mix.
Options should and were considered last night, and rather than £250 for a bollard the mayor proposed £500 for two bollards, one offset a third from the left of the path and the other offset a third from the right, making a chicane to help slow passage of cycles further. Good to discuss ideas, but I'm not keen on this one. Cycles, prams, etc would no longer be able to pass each other along the way, and the pair of obstructions separate by a few yards could be forming the very sort of restriction that Sustrans are looking to resolve. Sadly, my hand raised to speak was passed over (again - it was a pattern of the evening that I thought had been moved on from) and a vote went through to look to the professionals at Wiltshire Council to consider both options. Should they come back with an obstructive recommendation, there will be another opportunity to vote and - who knows - my concerns may have turned out to be frivolous.
I am very much in favour of footpaths and cycle ways between our various areas - a porous town which makes walking and riding around practical, rather than pushing people to driving cars all around the houses to get between points that are physically close. That does, perhaps, cause security issues at times for the police but it's something they need to work with and our infrastructure needs designing around daily climate friendly life with consideration for, but not overruled by, concerns over the behaviour of a minority.
One of the footpaths between area is Hardie Walk. Sadly, the start of the section from Spa Road south through Spa Court was lost when Spa Court was built, leaving a go-nowhere public path between the backs of the houses on the west of Kenilworth Gardens and the east of West End. I would love to see it re-opened as a walk through. But that (I think) is impossible. And it leaves the go-nowhere path as something of a problem. I understand that historically this cul-de-sac path was a bit of a magnet for antisocial and criminal behaviour, but that has died down because the path is now so overgrown it is impassable ... and impassable for residents to maintain their back fences too. Indeed, some of them are concerned that trees and bushes on the pathway may cause damage in their gardens, such as branches falling off unmaintained growth.
Exceptionally, the solution for this part of Hardie Walk may be permanent closure if it is impossible to get it back through Spa Court. Not too far away, an alternative route from Waverley Gardens to Spa Road exists along West End and across to the back of King's Street Car Park. Who would look after the land released? Back gardens could be expanded but who's going to pay and would it be consistently accepted? In the short term, how do safety issues get dealt with? One of the residents who has been at the forefront of the issue came to the public section of the Town Council meeting and there was a good interaction involving him and the mayor, who is also his Wiltshire Councillor. It's really a Wiltshire Council issue (their path, their responsibility). Not an easy one, but not really one that should have been allowed to fester on the "too difficult" pile for as long as it has, with opportunities taken to return it to that pile where residents look to move it forward.
Aside - it was really good on Monday to have members of the public at the Economic Development and Planning Committee meeting. The forum of public participation is there at the start of every official meeting, and I would encourage any resident who would like to raise an issue to come along and do so. The continuing lack of remote access at a time of continuing concern at Coronavirus is shameful, and as observers may have noted this situation was discussed in a session of full council from which press and public was excluded on 25th October. I am not at liberty to tell you what happened in secret ... though it's recorded that I and one other councillor voted against that secrecy.
Illustratation - Hardie Walk public footpath straight ahead, and impassable, as at 10th September 2021
Published Wednesday, 10th November 2021
Train service cuts push people back to drivingClimate change effects us all. We can all help - cutting carbon emissions by two thirds by taking the train. But trains are under threat.
Do you travel from any of the places named in green to any of the places name in brown? If so, you have through trains (and they are well used). But the Department for Transport has decided to CULL them next month(*) - 7 trains each way withdrawn between Salisbury and Warminster - and you'll have to change at Salisbury to make the through journey. That is hardly going to encourage train use, especially when it will usually involve a wait of around 50 minutes at Salisbury or a second change at Basingstoke. Please sign my petition at https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/598397
* - Just one through train per day will remain from London (Waterloo) to Warminster and Westbury, at 07:50. It will not continue towards Bristol from Westbury. See http://www.passenger.chat/index.html for links to further data.
I am posting this "original" thread on my Melksham Town Councillor page (I'm an independent here). As we look ahead, we are looking at moving to Carbon Zero, helped by a public transport network that links buses and trains and offers an encouragement to make their total journeys using shared transport - buses and trains. In Melksham (South) - my ward - you can take the x34 bus from The Bear, the Market Place, King Street (near the Conigre / West End)and Semington Road (near Hazelwood Road and Longford Road) to Trinity Church in Trowbridge, which is just across the road from Trowbridge Station, to catch these direct trains to London. This story is replicated all across Wiltshire and from Somerset too - into Bradford-on-Avon, Trowbridge, Westbury and Warminster stations (with, perhaps, the exception that not all buses go quite so close to the stations).
Even if you have NOT been a user of this rail service, many have. And its removal at the current time - without consultation or adequate alternative - is perverse, anti-green, and bad for the economy of the towns and areas that lose their through train service from London. So - please sign my petition. I am NOT a regular petitioner - this is my first for over fifteen years - but this one is important not only for the individual case, but also for the principle and precedent that it sets.
Published Thursday, 4th November 2021
Branding, dogs and cyclesAnd in other news from the Town Council on Monday (25.10.2021)
... the old (smaller) dog exercise area in King George V Park will remain open and available while nothing else planned for the area. For nervous dogs, etc, a good idea that makes sense just like a learner pool in a swimming centre makes sense, especially if it's already there.
... cycle pumps / tool stations will be installed beside the Town Hall and in KTV Park; bicycle stands (something to lock your cycle to) will be provided near the spalsh pad in the park. Target date - well in place by next spring.
... new branding and a logo will start to appear on Town Council outputs and be available to organisations supported by The Council to use. The Town Crest remains for official papers, etc, and there is not to be a rebranding execise, with the new look arriving as and when new outputs are generated. I have asked that guidance protocols (when and where bodies can use the new look) are produced, and that high quality images be made clearly available ("original artwork") for thos who will be using them. My illustration accompanying this posting may well be updated to conform once guidance is in place.
Published Wednesday, 27th October 2021
Zoom council meetings
|17. Confidential Session|
Members are requested to make the following resolution in accordance with the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960.
In view of the sensitive nature of the business to be transacted, it is advisable in the public interest that the public and press be excluded, and they are instructed to withdraw.
17.1 Hybrid Council Session
To agree next steps and actions.
Now - "Hybrid council sessions" are where we meet in the Council Chamber but can also be seen, and take inputs as appropriate, online. They're what was done when we were in the Assembly Hall shortly after the election, and attempted with the new system that fell over so spectacularly on 9th August and has not been functional there since.
In my view, these sessions are important. They give members of the public the chance to see the council at work and were popular when we ran them. They are a help in open and transparent democracy, and should be encouraged, especially during Coronavirus and with the rapid spread of a new varient.
So I spoke against the resolution to discuss in private the future of our meetings being open to the public remotely. For sure, there are some "commercial in confidence" aspects, but the general way forward - next steps - should not be hidden under a cloak of secrecy.
In a vote (recorded how each of us voted at my request), 9 councillors voted to go into secret session, 2 including myself votes against. The other 4 councillors were not present.
And so, after that vote we went secret. I can't tell you what happened ...
We're talking about the sort of meetings that I ran in Didcot on 16th October, and Trowbridge on 20th October, that latter with about 40 people in the room several screenfuls (50?) online. Rather surprising the council hasn't found a way to make them work
Published Tuesday, 26th October 2021