Melksham Chamber of Commerce and Industry
Lisa and Graham are on the executive committee, and Chamber of Commerce meetings are held at Well House Manor

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Presidents Report to Melksham Chamber of Commerce, 24.5.2011

Firstly, please register my apologies for missing the AGM of the Melksham Chamber of Commerce; a longstanding committment to spend this week out of the country means I'm not going to be there in person - but at least I'm with you in mind and spirit. I've now served two years as President of the Chamber; for many Chambers of Commerce in Wessex, that's the regular term for an individual to hold this office. Whilst I would be honoured to continue, it's not something I expect or crave, and I would encourage a bright fresh face. Indeed my absence from this meeting, and other events in Melksham this week and in July, yet again illustrates the limited nature of what I can do and why a new President would be a good idea. I'm delighted to report that the Wessex Association of Chambers of Commerce has, over the last year, taken a detailed look at how newly elected presidents can be helped get quickly up to speed with the various aspects of the role, so a new incoming person will have the tools to make his / her learning curve far more effective than I was at startup. And of course I'll offer help / assistance / support to the best of my ability, if requested.

The last couple of years have seen a lot of changes in Melksham, to the business environment, and so to businesses in Melksham. The town itself has grown, and continues to grow - and that growth allows the town to support businesses and services which a smaller town could not support. But that also brings challenges where other service are stretched, and indeed where enhancements to those services and businesses may be justified.

On retail

And so we have seen - just yesterday - the opening of the new Asda supermarket on a brownfield site previously occupied by Countrywide Farmers, who are however also alive and flourishing in newly rennovated facilities in the next plot, making use of the redundant grain silos.

The retention of CountryWide Farmers in Melksham, in their new facility opened last November - was a "no brainer" to the Chamber of Commerce. A vote on our website, where we went out of our way to encourage inputs from other retail businesses, was unequivocal - 70 in favour, and 2 against. An outsider would have thought that the planning authority too would have wanted to retain CountryWide within their existing curtilage, safeguard their business and the jobs of around 35 people in Melksham, but it turned out to be a major fight to have this move across the site approved by Wiltshire Council, with the suggestion that the business be moved to Trowbridge or Chippenham recommended by officers who don't even live in the county themselves. Melksham Chamber of Commerce, and Melksham as a whole, welcomes CountryWide's new incarnation with open arms.

The support for the coming of Asda has also been very strong, but not quite so overwhelming as the support for Countrywide. Many Melksham residents have - for the past few years - driven to Trowbridge or Chippenham to do their major grocery shopping, and although the new store is expected to be predominantly accessed by people arriving in private motor cars, it's a positive step for the "green agenda" in that driving distances - and thus the Co2 emissions and fuel usage - will show a net reduction. And its undeniable that more retail business will be transacted within Melksham. However, retail business at a big supermarket results in a lesser respend in the community that is the case with a High Street shop, and within the past few months at least one town centre business has ceased trading, citing competition (on the sale of non-food product) with the existing supermarkets as the headline reason. Flipping the coin yet again, people who used to shop in Trowbridge and Chippenham but who come across to Asda will - surely - look to go into Melksham town centre rather than one of the other town centres for their other purchases, thus redressing the balance. And Asda are providing a bus service for the first three years to help with this integration.

The decision that the Chamber of Commerce took on whether to support the Asda bid was an interesting one to make. The Chamber exists to support its members, then other businesses in the town, and then the town as a whole. But it shouldn't let itself be a sop to propping up businesses that need to look at their own practises and changing markets in a protectionist manner. It should encourage business in a positive way - by networking, assistance with advise (including constructive criticism) and tutoring and training. And with only a tiny percentage of Chamber members being existing retailers, the Chamber much look at the positive way forward for all the other businesses too, and their staff, when it comes to deciding how and whether a new development is something that the Chamber should oppose, support, or fence-sit on. But ... however we feel about any development (and we were positive about Asda), once the planning autorities have given in a clear green light the Chamber should offer its support as a whole - welcome the company if they wish to join, and help them have a long and prosperous association with the town.

Sainsburys are also enlarging their store as I write, and that expansion has also been controversial, through for other reasons in relation to some specific planning issues, followed by the felling of large numbers of trees and associated activities which many in the town felt were unneccessary. They certainly didn't appear to have been handled cleverly by the folks on behalf of Sainsbury's, but that was an issue that the Chamber hasn't been deeply involve in.

Plans are currently afoot for a doctor's surgery and pharmacy in the next building to Leekes. With three doctors' surgeries in the town, all clustered in "The Spa" ward, there seems logistical sense in one moving up to the North Ward. And then there's a logic in having a dispensary there so that patients can collect their medicines at the same time / next door. But we understand that the plans now go further, extending to an outlet centre within the big warehouse building beside Leekes, and with a first floor walkway into Leekes store itself. These plans are in their quite early stages, but it will be an interest job for next year's President to act as a figurehead and guide for the Chamber through the decision and where support is thrown. I'm very conscious that (a) The Chamber was rather badly split, many years ago, over a similar scheme and (b) The Chamber's position is becoming increasingly important, bearing in mind the inputs on CountryWide, Asda, and also on matters which may have actually swung the decisions.

On community services

Christie Miller Sports Centre leaks. And it's old. It will cost a fortune to keep going and won't be a legacy to be proud of for our children. It's in the midst of an industrial area, and has no public transport at all passing by.

There are lots of other Wiltshire Council services in Melksham too - many in time expired buildings, each individually reception staffed, and the obvious question is "why not combine them". Reduced staffing costs per service would save money and allow extended hours. 4 walls are cheaper to maintain that 32 (if you look at 8 buidings), services on a single site allow people to use multiple services if they wish, services with different busy times can mean more efficient use of parking apsces, public transport can be shared. All make sense, doesn't it? Yes, it does - but not necessarily if the only site you've come up with is away from the place where some of the service are currently provided to less mobile people.

And so we're looking at the Melksham Campus proposal. After bitter discussions, information which was insufficient to inform, and where it was provided was so late that it wasn't in people's hands until after their last opportunity to put their case formally, the Area Board recommended that a single site campus be provided, in line with Wiltshire Council policy, and the headline was "at Woolmore Farm" - i.e. out of town, a long way from some existing services, and for this reason not to the liking of the majority or people who raised their voiced to express an opinion.

Fortunatley, an unhighlighted clause in the board's proposal adds "or on other land if we can find it" or words to that effect, and they've placed adverts in the press and online to look for land. The Chamber of Commerce highlighted this route at a meeting on 26th April, and none of the unscientifically selected group of around 50 people who attended last month's Chamber meeting were against the idea of a single site town centre alternative in preference to the Woolmore Farm site (there was one recorder abstention).

An approach by the Chamber of Commerce to certain land owners in the town has revealed the existance of several sites that merit further investigation, and at least one land owner is in touch with Wiltshire Council. The Chamber of Commerce also spoke at Melksham Town's special meeting earlier this month, calling for an amendment to the town poll motion making it clear that the a "Yes" vote would be supportive of a single town centre site. With these two approaches, I believe that a single site, town centre campus that meets everyone's objectives is possible, and the Chamber of Commerce has indicated its further desire to actively support the project via the Shadow Operations Board. It is time to put difference behind us in a common cause for something Melksham can be proud of, and to step beyond the very real hurt that was caused to people on both sides of the discussion by needless secrecy, threats that some described to me as "blackmail", and rubbishing of valid statistical results for political purposes. I'm a statistician - the consultation had some flaws forced on it, but much that was valid too.

On taking the town forward

Noone likes roadworks in front of their business, with jackhammers turning a quite premises into an unbearable one.
Noone likes to see empty shops
Noone like to have to pay to park where previously it was free.

But without maintainance work and tired old pavements being replaced, without shops which traded in products which are no longer so sought moving out to allow new products and enterpreneurs in, and without parking being funded somehow, Melksham would be stuck in the past. And ask people if they want Melksham to stagnate or move forward, they'll choose "move forward".

But - alas - the roadworks seem to have / been taking an interminable time, disrupting businesses. The number of empty shops has been questioned (and is actually far lower than in most other Wiltshire towns - I would describe one or two as "dire"). And car parking has turned out to be the predicted poisoned challice for the brave county councillor who took the decision on his shoulders.

The car parking raised a storm all across Wiltshire. Petitions, threats of pulling out of council co-operation, and much more. And yet a Chamber of Commerce meeting, for which I posted an invite through all retailer's letter boxes one morning, was notable for its scan support. We got one extra person to come along. And that suggests to me that the principle of paying to park isn't really such a bad one - heck, 0.40p Melksham, 3.10p Bath, it's not going to break the bank. And when you think of it, you're paying for parking when you visit a supermarket anyway - it's just that the payment is taken from the profit margin on the goods rather than being separated out.

However, the matter was raised again at our last meeting, and a scheme from a neighbouring town where the shopkeepers can repay the first hour of parking was explained to us. Under such a scheme, car parking tickets are printed in two halves, and shoppers who spend move than a certain amount with an intown shop can get their first hour of parking refunded by the shopkeeper; in that other town. The cost of the refund can then be borne by the trader (40p on a 10 pound minimum spend may be excellent marketing), or by the town or the Chamber of Commerce, or by some formula linking them, and the scheme might be open to all traders or - if the Chamber is subsidising it - purely to established Chamber members.

It was agreed that we would investigate further, and bearing in mind the tickets already being in 2 pieces, the officers of the Chamber discussed an easy to set up, low maintenance scheme that had the Chamber providing the marketing for a scheme that any trader could take part in, with any traders who wished to take part able to join the scheme and meeting the cost of the refunds. We wrote to Wiltshire Council to check that they had no objections (and perhaps would even allow us to state their approval) and planned to launch last weekend. However, there was a delay longer than initially indicated in their reply, and that gave us the news that the ticket machines are all going to be changed in June 2011. The new ticket machines will be 2 piece again, but it was suggested that the scheme's details should be printed on the tickets which would need to be printed by the Council's preferred supplier.

I called my contact at the Council when I heard this news, as it was unclear to me as to whether they were asking for someone to meet the cost, or any extra cost, of ticket printing. My contact described this as a "very good question", didn't know the answer, and told me that I would need to raise the issue with councillor Dick Tonge as it would be a political decision. Bearing in mind the forthcoming AGM / new committee of the Chamber within a very few days, I'm referring this on to the new committee after the AGM should they still wish to persue the possibility of the scheme. It's certainly got a lot more red tape, and potentially commitment/liability by the organisers and members if it fails to take off - we could end up with a lot of tickets printed at great expense by a sponsor to be thrown out - not a decision to be taken lightly by an outgoing President!

The Chamber

Meetings have risen from every 2 months to every month - such is the weight of topics on the agenda, and there's also a wide variety of other activities too - at least doubleing the number of Chamber Events. Some of these events are in associations with other Chambers of Commerce through the Wessex Association of Chambers, such as the Business Networking show that took place in Devizes earlier this month - an event that allowed business to business networking, with many of the largest companies in the county present and meeting with smaller, specialised companies - and voluntary sector and government too.

Last month saw the the new business competition - in which a business in Melksham that was set up within the last year wins a prize of 1000 pounds, and a chance to win the same amount again in the Wiltshire final. We had a very strong field in Melksham - although I wasn't a judge, I met everyone "front of house" before they met that panel, and I was very impressed by the quality of the entrants. Every one's a winner from a competition such as this as such competitions really make people think about their businesses and the business model ... and strengthen the business. The selected winner, then - Steve Weekes of TexWorks - deserves double congratulations.

Next month - June - sees a breakfast talk by the local representative of the Bank of England, to be held at the King's Arms, and July sees "Spot the Oddity" to encourage people to visit their High Street and look in shop windows, and July and August bring a trial train service on Sunday mornings that give people the opportunity of days out (and at good prices too) in Weymouth, in London, and in other places. And they say that the summer months are "Lazy" - not for the Chamber of Commerce they're not!

In order to take things forward, you have to try new ideas, and not all new ideas work. The town map, showing 200 businessed that welcome customers without appointments, was well trumpeted and was a labour of love by Lisa Ellis in research and production. However, businesses change rapidly and it slips out of date, and the circulation was disappointing; it's sad to see a poster with curled edges representing the town in an out-of-town department store - frankly it does more harm than good to the town's image, and the map has been discontinued. Similarly, an attempt to start a discussion forum on the Chamber's web site didn't reach a critical mass of postings, and has been allowed to lapse.

But some ideas work, and work well ... and in other aspects we can learn from the ideas that didn't quite make it. I'm encouraging member and everyone else too to post on Melksham People - http://www.melkshampeople.co.uk/home - where there's a critical mass, and an administrator who's role it is to to the management and "seeding" that stretches a chamber going it alone. We have a twitter account - if you follow @melksham , you'll see updates from timeto time and the number of followers has grown rapidly over the past few months. And the Chamber website is updated from time to time too, telling you what's been going on and listing upcoming events too.

As well as growing in activities, the Chamber has been growing it shouting for and about Melksham, its businesses and itself, and I'm delighed that Samantha Geddes recently accepted the role of Honorary Press Officer. We've hidden the pride in our town, and the work done by the chamber, under a bush for far too long, and we're now in a position to shout all thos positive stories for the common good.

There's still much to be done too. The Chamber of Commerce remains an organsition that people don't think of joining or feel may not be for them, and we need to encourage more membership. That will give us strength to support businesses and the bsuiness of the town all the more. And the finances go hand in glove with membership numbers - we don't have the funds to do many of the things, often quite cheap things, we would like to do. Member benefits sorely need revisiting too ... "refer to new committee" I think - they languish on an obscure page on the Wessex Association web site, showing passed expiry dates when in fact most are still very much available if you ask.

It's always had to know where to draw the line in highlighting individual chamber members for what they do, but I really must record a vote of thanks to Ann Marie Escott for her sterling work and commitment as our secretary, and to Colin Harrison as both honorary Chair and honorary Treasurer. Without the support of both of them, my time as President would not have been anything like as effective or enjoyable.

Looking forward

Talk to the "man in the street" about what he'll be doing in 2015 and he'll say "too far ahead". But that shouldn't be too far ahead for a business, and indeed businesses and the county which provides the structure for businesses can - and is - look forward further. We're talking 2026, and strategic plans - with a strong dose of localism under the new government. Even before the act of parliament has been passed and ratified, we ought to be looking forward. This is a real challenge for the Chamber ... where many businesses have far more concerned to survive the recession that to look far into the future.

But here are some aspects for Melksham to consider.

* The Wilts and Berks Canal - coming to the town, most people hope, in a couple of years and continuing through as part of a canal "ring" a few years thereafter.

* "The Campus" - mentioned earlier, and very much something we should be working with for the future.

* The ongoing green agenda - with fuel prices rising meaning that more efficient heating and transport is the way for the future, whether of not you belive in global warming.

* Access to the town, over congested roads depresses the economy of the town and could do so even more. 94% of businesses across Wiltshire stated that an improve TransWilts rail service (which would serve Melksham) would have a significant benefit on the accessibility and competitiveness of their businesses - I can certainly confirm it would have a huge impact on my own employer.

The census was taken a couple of months back, and as the results are published they should be used to tune future planning. The Community Area Partnership is a valuable tool for gathering and channeling community sentiment, and working with other organisations such as town and parish councils, public transport operators, and so on can do so much good for the future planning. The general election about a year ago brought Melksham into a far more logical constituency, and I have been very impressed by Duncan Hames - our new member of Parliament; I don't know how he manages to pop up in so many places, and with a true grasp of subjects being discussed and coherent and well argued views on them too.

In summary - it's been a very busy and successful year for the Chamber of Commerce, which has become a very more prominent campaigner for the positive future of its members and the town. But there is much more to be done, and I look forward to seeing that happen however little or much I'm personally involved. And - personally - a big "Thank you" to everyone who has supported me in the two years that I've been President.

--Graham


(written 2011-05-24, updated 2011-05-23)

 
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  [1880] Melksham Chamber of Commerce, or the FSB - (2008-11-12)
  [1792] All the pieces fall into place - hotel and courses - (2008-09-10)
  [1748] Hotel room prices - Melksham, Wiltshire - (2008-08-11)
  [1642] Summer! - (2008-05-15)
  [1633] Changing a screen saver from a web page (PHP, Perl, OSX) - (2008-05-06)
  [1507] Comments on proposed Asda Superstore for Melksham - (2008-01-14)
  [1504] Flooding by Asda-s proposed new supermarket - (2008-01-12)
  [1476] Shopping for Christmas and looking forward - (2007-12-17)
  [1432] Wiltshire County Council - Budget Consultation - (2007-11-15)
  [1429] Remembrance day - inside a church and inside the day - (2007-11-11)
  [1250] Business speed networking - a place tonight! - (2007-06-28)
  [1223] Asda opening large new store in Melksham - (2007-06-08)
  [717] A customer service company - (2006-05-11)


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Wildlife and other pictures from holiday
Presidents Report to Melksham Chamber of Commerce, 24.5.2011
Quiet Monday in
A long day, a long journey, and families and similarities the world over
Dog, hotel, Melksham, Wiltshire?
Strawberry Cream Teas, Coffee straight from the Bean and freshly squeezed orange juice - Melksham, every afternoon
It's not just about the jam in the sandwich
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This is a page archived from The Horse's Mouth at http://www.wellho.net/horse/ - the diary and writings of Graham Ellis. Every attempt was made to provide current information at the time the page was written, but things do move forward in our business - new software releases, price changes, new techniques. Please check back via our main site for current courses, prices, versions, etc - any mention of a price in "The Horse's Mouth" cannot be taken as an offer to supply at that price.

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