Marlborough is a not high spending town council and is not guilty of persistent allegations that it is incompetent, reckless and even dishonest.
Its annual budget of £400,000, planned to stay in surplus, is among the lowest of market towns in Wiltshire, ended the last financial year £52,672 in the red compared with a loss of £125,555 a decade ago and other substantial losses until 2009.
And the council’s proposals to use low interest rate public loans to carry out further improvements to the town hall – aimed at raising its income level – is the same policy as that adopted by other town councils in the county.
“I think some members were quite shocked by the implied allegation that appeared to accuse this council of financial incompetence, reckless spending and even dishonesty at the annual meeting,” finance committee chairman and former mayor Councillor Andrew Ross (pictured) told last night’s town council meeting.
“Even more disturbing is that one of our councillors, Mrs Marian Hannaford-Dobson, is writing in the press challenging the financial governance of this council and raising concerns that really have little basis in fact.”
And he added that the council currently maintained reserves of £284,000.
Mr Ross was interrupted by Mrs Hannaford-Dobson, a Conservative member, who jumped up protesting that he was “being very rude and insulting” and repeatedly asking him to withdraw his remarks.
And her husband, Councillor Stewart Dobson, complained that councillors were not present to hear a lecture that made petty points and raised insulting issues but to hear details of a new and improved presentation of the council’s accounts.
“This (points scoring) is not the purpose of the item on the agenda,” he insisted.
But they were both slapped down by Councillor Edwina Fogg, the deputy mayor who was in the chair, and told to wait until question time to raise any matters they disagreed with.
And later in the meeting, Mrs Fogg said that the town’s precept for council tax payers was neutral last year and in the current year was below inflation.
“We are a high income generating council, attracting funds and donations of £250,000,” she declared, among them £75,000 for the town’s skate park, £50,000 to repair the steps and decorate the frontage of the town hall and £18,000 for disabled access to the Town Hall.
The row erupted following angry scenes at the council’s annual parish meeting earlier in the year when some members of the public challenged the council’s spending record and its proposals for further renovations to the town.
In the current issue of the Gazette & Herald, Mrs Hannaford-Dobson writes: “Marlborough town council is a high spending council with even larger plans to spend mega money later in the year.”
“Sadly councillors who dared to voice concerns over the £1.2 million projected spend and massive borrowing for the town that this expenditure would require, were swiftly removed from the committees.”
She complained that just a third of the councillors controlled the budget, and added: After all this is public money, yours and mine, and it is always easy to spend other people’s money.”
But those accounts were accepted by the 16-strong council and Mr Ross, a retired chartered accountant, has now produced easily understandable accounts. They reveal that last year’s overspend was on buying the Stonebridge Meadow in partnership deal with ARK plus equipment for the Salisbury Road play park, reducing the council’s reserves by £52,000.
The town council’s current budget –- each individual committee is responsible for its own budgeted spending -- is to end the year with a surplus of £7,950, the improvements to the town hall, which generates an income of £25,400, to be carried out over several years.
“Clearly it can be seen that council spending is not being controlled by one third of the council as Mrs Hannaford-Dobson alleged in the Gazette and Herald this week,” insisted Mr Ross.
“Council spending decision are not made behind closed doors. There are no secret cabals. All spending is determined by 16 members with the public present.”
A petition presented to Wiltshire Council by Nick Fogg, one of Marlborough’s councillors, has saved the former No 76 bus service from Marlborough to Bath.
The route was under the chop by the council. “But the Bath bus has been saved,” Mr Fogg told Marlborough town council. “It is a very good route and people can still enjoy it, but not with quite the same frequency as before.”
Duncan Hames, LibDem MP for Chippenham, has told Marlborough News Online that the LibDems are working hard to write into the Health Bill a cap on the amount of private work carried out in NHS hospital trusts. If this demand does not crystalise during this week’s debate in the Commons, they will pursue it in the Lords.
Hames told Marlborough News Online: “The area about which most people have written to me is ensuring some kind of cap on the amount of private health care within NHS hospital trusts. We’re seeking to have some safeguards to achieve that cap. We shall be interested to see what attention is given to that [in the Commons debate.]”
He emphasised that LibDem MPs and Peers were working closely together on the Bill and would be pressing their case for a cap when the Bill reaches the Lords. However he is clear that LibDem MPs will be voting for the Bill:
“We got a lot of changes to the Bill over the summer. We need to support the government amendments to achieve the third reading.” The vote on the third reading is today (September 7).
We wanted to ask Mr Hames for his views on the Bill because the new Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG – replacing the Primary Care Trust or PCT) covering the Marlborough area stretches from Ramsbury to Corsham and so includes much of his Chippenham constituency. And, of course, the LibDems have been instrumental in changing the Bill.
One of the LibDems' main beefs about the NHS has been its lack of democratic accountability and they were successful in getting into the coalition agreement their policy of having elected members on PCTs. That was in May 2010. By July 2010, when Mr Lansley’s White paper came out, the abolition of the PCTs was set in stone and any shred of democratic legitimacy lost.
Duncan Hames believes that democratic accountability will now come via the new Health and Wellbeing Boards (HWB) which will be based with local authorities - in our case Wiltshire Council. The boards’ role has been strengthened following the re-think on the Bill.
“The form of democratic accountability is through elected members on the HWBs. … They will oversee strategy, making critical decisions in setting out what we’re going to provide for the people of Wiltshire.” The elected members will be councillors and Mr Hames says that the greater role given to councils in the provision of health services “is long overdue.”
These boards will have the right to refer back any local commissioning plans that are not in line with the HWB strategy. This has put another layer of oversight onto the CCGs. Are doctors happy with this? “Commissioning services within a budget is never easy, it’s a hefty challenge. But since the pause, it’s a good thing that clinicians are right at the forefront and the groups are now more broadly based.”
After the ‘pause and re-think’ process, the government decided HWBs should have more members of the public on them. But it seems that the boards’ only elected members will still be councillors.
Other members will be local authority officers, clinicians from the CCGs and patient representatives – the latter will be from the new Local HealthWatch organisations which are to be run and funded (with non-ring-fenced funding) by local councils. It is not yet clear how these HWBs will access the sort of expertise and detailed knowledge of local health care needs currently available in the PCTs.
Duncan Hames was successful when the Bill was first considered in ensuring that the new commissioning groups – now run mainly by doctors – would be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Will the increasing number of private, commercial firms working for the NHS have the same sort of transparency – and transparency was one of the key elements promised in the White Paper?
It has been alleged by critics of Mr Lansley’s restructuring that commercial confidentiality and competition rules will override transparency. Mr Hames told Marlborough News Online that as these private providers would be operating “with money coming from the NHS budget we can expect the NHS to demand high standards of transparency.”
Is Mr Hames optimistic that the promised savings on NHS bureaucracy will be achieved? “I am. The NHS is not having its budget cut: whilst there is a tighter financial regime, there is scope in an organisation of that size to make further efficiency savings. We are not allowing that to interfere with local democratic accountability.”
Only 18 out of 180 businesses in Marlborough bothered to complete a simple questionnaire hand delivered to their shops and offices in a bid to boost trade in the upmarket town.
A majority of them reacted negatively, rejecting any desire to play a positive role in the future of the town’s economy when asked the question, “What’s your vision for Marlborough’s future?”
Now Paul Shimell, newly-elected president of Marlborough Chamber of Commerce, who issued the survey, has accused traders of “hiding behind their retail doors.”
He told Marlborough News Online: “It’s almost as if the town has a death wish. We are currently suffering from the worst recession in 40 years with businesses across the country failing and shops covered with 70 per cent off sale notices.”
“Yet here in Marlborough businesses seem to think they are immune, that it is going to pass them by like Hurricane Irene and that no action needs to be taken.”
He sought the views of businesses on imminent problems such as helping to fund the High Street lights this Christmas –- there is a danger they won’t happen at all -- the effects of the closure of Marlborough’s tourist information centre and the possible conversion of the Ivy House Hotel into a students’ hostel.
Mr Shimell, the franchise-holder of Specsavers, launched successfully in Marlborough 18 months ago, told traders he is seeking ways in which “working together we can promote Marlborough and attract people to the town, and help grow our businesses.”
His message to businesses declared: “We need to take action to keep Marlborough vibrant, a great attraction for tourists, an essential shopping centre and service point for its residents. “But first I need to know what you think.”
Following the poor response – the questionnaire was hand delivered by two volunteer employees of Waitrose, Marlborough’s biggest business – Mr Shimell is looking at alternative ways of promoting Marlborough.
He is in discussion too with members of Marlborough town council, who are equally alarmed by the refusal of traders even to provide details of their phone numbers and email addresses by which they can be regularly contacted.
“We shall not give up,” he said. “I come from Wootton Bassett, where the amazing community spirit has earned it a royal accolade, and I have been to Hungerford, where the traders work remarkably well together to make the town prosper.
We shall build on the contact with the 18 positive responses. Slowly but surely, we shall attempt to make Marlborough’s businesses understand that the days of automatic affluence are over.
“We all need to act together if Marlborough is to survive the worst aspects of the commercial storm ahead.”
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NHS Wiltshire and Wiltshire Council have worked together to provide specialised exercise classes at leisure centres around the county for people who have survived a stroke. The first class starts in Trowbridge this month and classes will begin in Marlborough in January 2012.
People who’ve had a stroke need to take exercise to counter reduced body strength, mobility and fitness. It will also help improve mood changes and social isolation brought on by their stroke.
Ten exercise professionals from Wiltshire leisure services – as well as two physios from Wiltshire community health services – completed the specialist instructor training course.
Pictured left are three of Wiltshire’s ‘exercise after stroke’ instructors – (l to r) Paul Needham, Trish Cowie and Richard Latham.
Welcoming this joint development, Councillor Stuart Wheeler, cabinet member for leisure, sport and culture, said: “This project will considerably improve the quality of life of those people who have suffered a stroke, by providing specific exercises and support that will enable to retain as much independence as possible.”
The exercise after stroke service is part of a range of improvements to stroke services in Wiltshire. These have included better ambulance response to stroke calls, direct admission to stroke units in hospitals, a county-wide ‘clot busting’ (more officially ‘thombolysis’) service and special clinics for those who have had ‘mini-strokes’.
A major review of stroke care by the national Care Quality Commission placed NHS Wiltshire in the category of best performing Primary Care Trusts – ranking the PCT twentieth out of 151 PCTs for the stroke services it delivers.
Gamekeeper Malcolm Hughes, 61, who could have killed two pilots when he drove his Land Rover straight at a low-flying Army Air Corps helicopter, has avoided going to prison.
Hughes, of Raffin Lane, Pewsey, who pleaded not guilty to acting in a manner likely to endanger aircraft during a trial in July, has been given a five-month jail sentence suspended for a year at Swindon Crown Court.
He was also ordered to carry out 120 hours' unpaid community work and pay £1,000 prosecution costs after explaining that he was trying to identify the helicopter when he saw it flying over farmland at Wootton Rivers in December, 2009.
Passing sentence, Judge Douglas Field pointed out that Hughes had risked the lives of the pilot and a trainee on board the Squirrel machine, as well as his own.
"Having seen this helicopter you entered the field where it was situated in your Land Rover and you drove at the helicopter,” he added. "I am quite satisfied you didn't drive at it with the intention of hitting the helicopter. I am prepared to accept your motive was to get its details so the flight could be properly reported."
Unless a compromise route can be reached, then a proposal by Wiltshire Council to create a controversial footpath through the gardens of properties in Manton High Street should be decided by a planning inquiry.
This was Marlborough town council’s stance when asked on Monday for its views on the scheme outlined by Barbara Burke, the council’s senior Rights of Way officer, for the route of foothpath 39 before it reaches the grounds of Manton Mill.
Councillors declared that a scheme that did not put the gardens of up to a dozen properties in the High Street “into jeopardy” was essential.
They hoped that a compromise could be reached that was not disruptive and that “goodwill and commonsense should prevail”.
“There is an element of bureaucracy here,” said Councillor Nick Fogg, who is also a member of Wiltshire Council. “We need to find a solution, but there is a problem of procedure. I favour a compromise solution that does not impinge on residents’ gardens.”
Councillor Peggy Dow, also a member of the Wiltshire authority, said: “Can we pleasure ensure that this issue goes to a planning inspector to decide.”
But the property owners, four of whom living nearby have not been consulted, claim that a map of 1792 shows the ancient footpath on a bank outside of their garden boundaries.
They point out that that neither the old Kennet District Council nor the new Wiltshire unity authority revealed the ancient footpath on solicitors’ searches made when they originally bought their homes.
But in letters to them Barbara Burke insists: “I am aware that members of the public have been walking a route through the field but this is not the legal line of the path as shown on the definitive map. It is precisely this anomaly that is making the council seek a workable solution.
“Issues regarding the route of this right of way and other routes the public have used within the field have arisen several times over a number of years and it is for that reason that the council is seeking to establish a route which is convenient for users and landowners affected by it.”
One resident whose family has lived for 60 years on the site refutes the claim and declares that there is no evidence at all to show that the original footpath went through back gardens. Another points out that the Land Registry map received when the property was bought showed no existing footpath through the garden.
Solicitors who made searches for house purchasers were also not told of the existence of any such footpath. And a third resident has already complained to local Tory MP Claire Perry about the footpath proposal.
The greenfield site through which a footpath runs to the banks of the River Kennet was sold in 2007 to Tim Clarke, the owner of Manton Mill, by Marlborough Tory town councillor Stewart Dobson, who declared an “historical interest” when the proposed footpath was discussed.
Residents fear the field is being divested of its original footpath so that unwanted development can take place.
They are contemplating collective opposition by forming an action group to fight the loss of garden land and are also considering making a formal complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman.
A final chance is being given to Zubair Dean, owner of Marlborough’s Bridge Garage in London Road, to restore the currently condemned grade II listed building adjoining the site or face legal action.
Wiltshire Council has answered a plea from Marlborough town council for action to be taken to make the former housing accommodation on the site habitable again, and also to repair the adjoining former Antiques Emporium, which is not listed.
“As the site is obviously neglected repairs and maintenance wise, I will be writing to the owner to inform him of his obligation to maintain the listed building, as it is of national importance,” senior conservation officer Pippa Card says in a letter to town clerk Liam Costello.
“It is, quite obviously, within his financial interests to maintain the site and the buildings to avoid depreciation in their value. I hope this will prompt the owner into some form of action, as was suggested last year when he had spoken to a builder about various repairs.”
And she adds: “If the possibility of further action does arise, then the council will need to prove that it has attempted to seek repairs to the buildings before other options can be considered legally.”
Back in April, Wiltshire placed an emergency prohibition order on dilapidated No 111 London Road, which adjoins the Bridge Garage, whose high prices for petrol and diesel have been claimed to be the highest in the county.
This prevented the listed property from being used for housing, council officers boarding them up so that they cannot be entered. A notice posted on the door pointed out that the order could be appealed before a tribunal within 28 days, as from April 19.
The premises have since been monitored by the council’s planning and building control departments but, following the latest letter from Mr Costello, Wiltshire is now considering what step to take next.
Pippa Card points out that Mr Dean is aware “and hopefully concerned” about the condition of the buildings, although no visible repairs appear to have been initiated so far.
Wiltshire Council meanwhile has limited funds to pursue the control of listed buildings, which is why she is writing to Mr Dean before asking the council to consider other remedies to ensure the restoration of the property.
Beware! This Saturday is Community Speed Watch day throughout Wiltshire when volunteers will be taking to the streets to carry out 'on the spot' checks on those going too fast.
The Speed Awareness For Everyone event aims to give a visible presence on roads throughout the county to encourage motorists to think about road safety.
Those carrying out the checks will include a mixture of Community Speed Watch volunteers, police officers from both neighbourhood policing teams and the roads policing unit, plus council staff.
Motorists travelling above the limit will be dealt with in a number of ways. They will be sent a warning letter, stopped and given words of advice or be given a fixed penalty notice which will mean a fine and points on their licence.
Community Speed Watch co-ordinator Elizabeth Ngero told Marlborough News Online: “It is important that motorists appreciate that their vehicle does not stop as soon as they see a hazard. The faster they are travelling the longer it will take to stop and avoid a potential accident.”
“We have a total of 50 volunteer groups from different parishes throughout Wiltshire that have been taking part in Community Speed Watch and 55 groups that are trained to go out. We hope this day of action will help educate drivers and make them think of the potential consequences that are associated with excess speed.”
Lord Crisp, a former chief executive of the NHS (2000-2006) and now a crossbencher in the House of Lords, has recently identified the excessive number of hospitals in England as an urgent issue – saying that hospitals will have to be closed. He believes there will have to be more money spent on treating patients, especially older ones, at home.
And, as the government’s Health and Social Care Bill is debated in Parliament, others have made similar warnings about the need for hospital closures – either to help meet the £20 billion of savings the NHS has to make or as a direct result of the changes to commissioning in the government’s health service reorganisation.
How might this affect the Marlborough area? In an interview with Marlborough News Online, Lord Crisp emphasised that deciding whether a hospital should be closed “is a local issue and it depends on what sort of mix of services you have in your area. In any case, there’s no one size fits all solution.”
“Sometimes NHS planning – as with some other policy areas – is too focused on London” which has thirty major hospitals. And often the oversupply of hospital beds can be resolved by amalgamations and changes to the balance of services.
One of the main needs with an ageing population is to see “How much you can keep people at home and treat them there.” And this must involve changing how the budget is spent – too much spent on major hospitals can mean too little spent on mobile services treating people in their homes.
As Lord Crisp made clear: older people need to be kept out of hospital where they can quickly lose functions and then, once no longer sick, need residential care.
Although he does not know in detail about Wiltshire’s balance of services, it is clear from all he told Marlborough News Online that Lord Crisp would approve of the GWH managing Wiltshire’s community health services with its successful ‘neighbourhood team’ programme which does treat people in their homes.
On the broader issues of the coalition government’s Health and Social Care Bill which is being debated in the House of Commons this week, Lord Crisp said that ‘one of the big sticking points’ was the decision to do away with the Health Secretary’s duty to provide a health service to all.
Although Lord Crisp has in the past called for greater separation between the health service and the secretary of state, “Doing away with the ‘duty to provide’ is not the same thing at all.”
He is worried “the whole thing will degenerate into an insurance contract as opposed to the present social contract – it’ll be more of a commercial contract. And we don’t want to be looking at the small print of an insurance policy all the time. There needs to be someone in the cabinet to ensure a health service is provided for all.”
One of the major problems Lord Crisp sees with the government’s Bill is the potential conflict of interest for doctors when they are directly involved in both commissioning and providing services. “More than that, there’ll be a public perception of a potential conflict of interest – you don’t just have to be clean, you have to look as though you’re clean.”
How will the Bill fare in Parliament? “It depends on the LibDems.” Lord Crisp thinks the political deal has been done and it will pass the Commons. The most likely outcome is that the Lords will press some ‘significant amendments’.
[This month Lord Crisp has published 24 Hours to Save the NHS – the Chief Executive’s account of reform 2000 to 2006 (OUP)]