February 24, 2017
Revisiting - should I stand for Melksham Without Parish Council in May?
I have stated in the past that I wouldn't stand for town (Melksham), parish (Melksham Without) or County (Wiltshire) election as a councillor, and given my reasons if anyone cared to look at them. However, times and logic changes, reasons become more or less important, and over the past few weeks I've been reviewing my decision. The area that I live in - Melksham Spa - is being separated from the Bowerhill ward of Melksham Without and will be part of a much smaller new ward - Blackmore - from the May 2017 local elections. The ward will include Melksham Spa, Sandridge and Woodrow - two councillors respreseting about 430 people spread over a wide area, with significant planning applications in various stages of progress as Melksham grows. Directly across the road from where I live, there are further plans to build hundreds of houses, but the new boundary runs down the middle of the road so although they're very close indeed to us, they won't be the direct concern of "my" councillor or myself should I stand and be elected.
In the past, life has been far too busy to take on too much more - however, our team at Well House Manor is now hugely experienced, and management time needs are much reduced as their skills grow. Similarly, with the TransWilts rail stuff we're over the peak of getting a service up and running - volunteer and community input is critical in its continuation, but not in such volume. IT training is such that I'm looking to reduce my level of work by around 50% from where it was 2 years ago, fading out old subjects. On site courses are no longer driven to, but rather I travel by public transport - so there's a further reduction of wasted time there as I can now work (or sleep) on the move. So the old objection of "I don't have the time" becomes less relevant.
I know what I know, and I know that there are a lot of things I don't know about. In other words, there's a lot of things a councillor should know about to be involved with. On topics like planning (both short term and neighbourhood plan) I know know a lot more that I did, and the old objection becomes less relevant. However, with a switch from a 10 councillor to a 2 councillor ward, there's a need for each of the remaining councillors to be more generalist and I know little about running play areas and other council provisions, supporting the multitude of local groups (I'm a member of one or two but that's it) and so that makes my fit far less comfortable in the two member area than a ten member area.
I know the road across from where I live, the fields up to Bowerhill that will become housing and the village of Bowerhill which I can also see from my front window. I know less about the Rugby and Football clubs that are a little further away out the back (and in Blackmore) and even less about Redstocks and Sandridge. Woodrow is right round the other side of town. So the area that I live in is not one that I know well enough / know the people well enough to truley represent - a reason against standing, even though it might have been sensible for me to stand had we still been a part of Bowerhill.
I attended the planning meeting on Tuesday to get an idea of what went on / in the ward. I was very disappointed by both the lack of proper answers provided by the proposer of the digester scheme, and the very negative approach of the audience. For sure, safety's important, but looking back to a historic accident from which lessons were learned, and which lead to new regulation, and still using this as an excuse "against" seems a poor approach from residents. It would be far more effective to look at traffic regulation overall with regard to the dangerous roads at both Sandridge and Woodrow than to concentrate effort on those few extra vehicles proposed, and it would be far better to include requests for community benefit such as CIL and section 106 in planning inputs rather than simply opposing. My view is that both Woodrow and Sanrdidge could be hugely improved by removing "rat run" traffic as indeed is suggested in the draft neighbourhood plan and by Wiltshire Council's longer goal of a new river crossing, and then, yes, let the local car traffic in Woodrow grow somewhat with people just starting out and ending their journeys, replacing a proportion of the through traffic - but less and slower traffic over all. Alas, the people at the meeting seemed intent on seeing all the problems that might arise, with no view as to "how can we use this to everyone's benefit" - and I really don't fancy putting myself forward to be a representative of such a negative approach which in the end will mean the people are just steam-rollered with minimal input because they didn't give any constructive criticism to help.
I have a huge sympathy for the Melksham Without Parish Councillors who were looking at those big planning issues, then a number of smaller ones where the applicant hadn't even bothered to turn up (and the room had emptied), but I really don't fancy a role whee I'm going to be shouted down and insulted at one stage, then expected to work for the community without even the thanks of the people for whom I might be pressing the case at the next. So on those grounds, I feel I should not be putting myself forward.
I have downloaded the election pack - how to stand, etc. And it makes interesting reading. And there's plenty of red tape. Apparently, if I want to stand nomination papers need to be hand delivered (in a change to the system they cannot be posted) ... to an address in Chippenham, Trowbridge, Salisbury or Devizes ... in the middle of the working day on a Monday to Friday. For someone who's considering doing this unpaid work in his spare time, and holding down a job in Melksham, this looks like it's a test of resolve - making sure that the candidates are serious by having them take half a day off work, and travel a round trip of over 10 miles to lodge their interest.
Inputs from Wiltshire Council, with whom the parish does much liaison, seem negative and blocking on so many other issues too. Simple requests for the evening bus to stop at the top of the station approach, and for a fence panel to be taken down between two pieces of public land to improve access, seem to be being kicked into the long grass by officers keener to justify their own jobs than to achieve pragmatic progress for the residents. And the opening of major new sports facilities in the Blackmore Ward (which you'll recall is sparsely populated) is matched by the removal of the bus services that would get residents of Melksham Town and from further afield to those facilities at their busiest time - Saturday afternoon. If it wasn't so serious, I could laugh about this.
One option to getting sensible things done is to join the system and push for improvements from within. The other approach, and the one I've taken in the past is to work from outside the system where I can ask questions, make suggestions, take the unpopular view at times but (as I think I've proven) occasionally help to make a difference. My nature, my lack of knowledge of Blackmore and of many topics, and my disagreement with the approach taken by many I would need to represent suggests to me that my approach at the 2017 parish election should remain the same as at previous opportunities to stand - to offer support and help to others with whom I agree, but not to stand myself.
February 22, 2017
Thoughts on the new Blackmore Ward of Melksham Without Parish
Things they are a'changin with regards to local representation of residents of The Spa, Sandridge, and Woodrow at Melksham Without Parish Council. Until now, they've been included in the same election ward as Beanacre, Bowerhill and Berryfield, and the ward has also included a significant proportion of the new development area to the east of Melksham. That's made it a big ward, represented by 10 local councillors all of whom have been able to specialise in certain aspects.
From May, the east of Melksham electorate inside the eastern relief road transfers to Melksham Town, Berryfield, Beanacre and Bowerhill all move into different wards, and the new ward of "Blackmore" is formed. It will have just two local councillors rather than 10, who will need to be far more generalist than is required of current councillors, where us residents can choose to go the ten different people depending on what we want to raise.
Blackmore Ward will have a very low population density indeed - what might be classified as a truley rural ward. However, it will be far from being a quiet backwater, with the new Oakfields Rugby and Football club grounds, Melksham Oak School. Outline planning permission for 450 new homes east of The Spa is already approved, and there are further significant residential planning applications in off Woodrow Road and off the Spa. The proposal for an Anaerobic Digester on land at Snarleton Farm is also in the ward, and it would be little surprise to find other development proposals made too as there are a number of SHLAA (Strategic housing land availability assessment) sites.
There are going to be tensions in Blackmore Ward over the next four years. On 21st February, I attended the meeting of Melksham Without Parish's planning committee - at which they decide their local inputs to planning applications presented. These inputs go forward to Wiltshire Unitary council and form one element in their planning decisions, which can (in turn) be appealed by the applicant should they wish (and have the resource) to appeal. So inputs to the parish council's planning committee from the public - which I was watching last night - are a pretty blunt instrument.
Most of us love where we live. We choose to live there because of the sweet smell of the countryside, the little country lanes, the views, yet the proximity of towns and facilities. We understand the need to provide more housing across the UK, to make better use of the planet's resources, and to develop new businesses and improve the economy for the future. However, we often ask for those developments to be made "not in my back yard". And that's a problem if everyone takes that view. It's also a problem if we put so much effort into opposing individual developments that we don't make inputs which will offer significant advantages to us in terms of how they are implemented if they go ahead. There's a further problem too if we don't step back and look at the overall picture.
The solution to traffic overload on Woodrow Road may not be to resist more loacl traffic. It may be to route through traffic away along an improved New Road, and in due course to a link from the Woodrow / New Road corner over to the A350 north of Beanacre. Even at the first phase of that, the drop in traffic through the Forest would be significant, and at the second phase "heavies" to and from the digester, should it be built, won't be sent (if the meeting gets its way) up Sandridge Hill into the neighbouring community area who may not have noticed what's being suggested, so may not object.
In my view, we can help our community best in planning for the future by:
* Offering best local advise to people making planning applications
* Looking to maximise benefits to the local community by section 106, CIL and other grants
* Taking a wider look at future development rather than application by application
* Suggesting positive, practical alternatives when making criticisms
* Doing our homework before engaging
Last night's meeting was fascinating in seeing how seriously and well the current councillors to their voluntary job. It also showed what a barrage of emotionally charged inputs they can receive, some of which are misdirected - don't shoot the messenger, who may actually agree with you. And it showed just how easy it is to look at the immediacy of changes proposed that the bigger picture and the request for local benefit via CIL or S106 or additions can be overlooked.
Having just moved housing developments that were on the town's edge and logically in the town out of the parrish, it looks like the next four years in Blackmore will see further such developments in the parish that would be logically part of the town. It will see the two councillors moving from a sparse countryide electorate in 2017 to a majority of suburban newomers by 2021, and it will be there job over the four years to welcome those people and engage them both with the Melksham Without comunity and with the town of who's urban area they'll be a part.