Melksham Chamber of Commerce and Industry
Lisa and Graham served on the executive committee of the Chamber of Commerce from 2000 to 2017

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Wiltshire County Council - Budget Consultation

Last night, I attended a Wiltshire County Council Budget Consultation meeting hosted by the Wessex Association of Chambers of Commerce.

The meeting was billed as "an opportunity to meet the leader of Wiltshire Council [Jane Scott], the Chief Executive [Keith Robinson] and the county's chief financial officer. You will hear about the council's plans and have an opportunity to say what you think should be priorities for the council."

Sadly, Jane Scott who was the only one of the group who is an elected representative pulled out and there wasn't an alternative cabinet member there, so we were left with the paid employees of the county - a great shame, as they were very very much in a "we will tell you how it is" mode. Truly, there was an opportunity to state the case of what we thought should be given more prominence, but judging by the way old hands at this annual meeting were commenting ("we have brought this up for each of the past two years and yet you still come along to the meeting not properly prepared to talk about it properly / no further forward than last year") that's the limit - a chance to say what we think the priorities should be, but it will go no further than that.

What were the big subjects from the floor?

Firstly, there was waste disposal, and in particular business recycling where the system is set up in such a way that it makes it very hard indeed for small businesses to get things like cardboard into the recycling path. The county's officers were telling us that they can't help because of refuse limits / landfill taxes etc, but I remain puzzled as to how they think landfill tax is a problem on material that is for recycling.

Secondly, there's a business rate precept coming in in a year or two's time, the idea being that the local council can charge their own extra to get some money to help develop business. However, the extra money is not ring-fenced in any way and there's a concern that it will form a useful slush fund - perhaps it could help fill the county's shortfall in its pension fund (15% underfunded) or help fund the SAP system they're about to buy / implement across the new Unitary authority?

Thirdly, Transport. And, no, I was not the first one to raise this! Major concerns at Corsham as to the access to major new employment areas. Major concerns about removal of X4 / X5 bus services, and concerning the virtual elimination of bus services to Mere. And, yes, I did ask about practical services to and from Melksham, and linking Chippenham to Trowbridge and Salisbury for those who don't have cars or who (more and more) prefer the greener alternative but don't have the time to spend on the remaining buses.

The (proposed?) budget for public transport for the next year is 17 million pounds. According to Sandra Schofield, the chief financial officer, that amount is a political decision. The lion's share of that budget is for getting school children to and from school; most of the rest is bus projects / support. The rail support budget is zero. "You know that already" says Dr Robinson rather testily; actually, I didn't - I know it was zero this year.

"No doubt I will read about this on your blog" said Dr Robinson. Dr R, I'm delighted that you're reading this and perhaps taking note and being aware of what's being said. It's one of the good signs from last night as it shows a degree of local input being noticed.

And it was good to listen to some of the background behind the county's 620 million pounds per year spend / 100 million per annum wage bill and to know a little more as to where it goes. To realise that it costs 53000 per annum for each school place for a child with learning disabilities, and how modern medicine is increasing the numbers of such children year on year; the budget rises from covering somewhat under 300 last year to 314 this.

I took the opportunity to pick up copies of the annual report and corporate plan which I'll be reading through in more detail; although there are limits as to what the council can and can't do, there are some areas / things that I wasn't aware of, and I suspect that the typical resident whom they serve doesn't realise either. It may be that such things are properly delegated by the residents to the council ... or it could be that the council is acting in spite of what the residents want in some situations. Certainly from my own (transport) experience, and listening to the others in the audience last night, there's a question to be answered there.

Please, WC, a movement of the transport budget towards encouraging an integrated system that lets people travel practically if they have no car or no desire to use a car. It's not really a big deal - just an adaption to meet changing needs and times. Petrol is a pound a liter now, and I've seen suggestions it may double in the not too distant future. In these new circumstances, pulling back just a few or those millions from road building and getting people traveling quicker and greener instead makes such huge sense.

"We want to invest to save" said Sandra Schofield. Yes, please.
(written 2007-11-15)

 
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