Wiltshire Council’s decision to close down Marlborough’s public library based Tourist Information Centre has been described as “woefully short sighted” and a disservice to the town’s council tax papers.
According to questions raised with Wiltshire by Marlborough News Online, the town is the only one in the whole county to lose its tourism centre, though fears remain that Avebury is due to follow.
And this is despite a cut of only £58,276 in Wiltshire’s current tourism budget of £750,000, of which £500,000 goes in a direct grant to VisitWiltshire Ltd., whose comprehensive website lists only one available hotel in Marlborough.
And the website, for instance, provides no specific dates for the forthcoming Marlborough International Jazz Festival, due in July, while offering detailed information about major events in towns such as Salisbury, where the Visit Wiltshire tourism partnership is based.
South West Tourism estimates the value of tourism in the county. Wiltshire has told Marlborough News Online that the latest 2009 data reveals an annual figure of £583.4 million compared with £523.1 million in the previous year.
“When you consider those figures, Wiltshire’s funding of tourism and tourist information centres and its continued cost cutting is woefully short-sighted,” protested Marlborough town councillor Richard Pitts.
“I fear there is no clear link between VisitWiltshire and Marlborough. We simply don’t know how much of the council tax payers’ funding in our area will really come back to us in terms of increased visitor numbers.
“We will now investigate how that money is being spent, and, if we can, direct what we want to happen to boost tourism locally.”
“However,” he added, “there is a feeling among many of my fellow councillors and colleagues that we, as a community dependent on tourism, will now have to take charge of our own destiny.
“We simply cannot rely on Wiltshire Council and VisitWiltshire to bring the tourists into the Marlborough area. And if we do this in partnership with bodies like the Chamber of Commerce and the Marlborough Area Development Trust, we will at least be able to shape an information and tourism service that really attracts visits and, importantly, attracts them to stay for longer periods.”
The town council’s Finance and General Purposes Committee, which Councillor Pitts chairs, will discuss the current dire situation on Monday night.
It basically stems from the former Kennet District Council’s decision to close down the system-built tourist information facility that used to exist in the Marlborough Waitrose car park.
“I fought long, hard and ultimately unsuccessful to prevent this,” revealed Wiltshire councillor Nick Fogg , also a Marlborough town councillor and founder of Marlborough’s Jazz Festival.
“The highly unsatisfactory compromise was to put the tourist information centre in the library. This didn’t work because the centre opened only during library hours so, for example, it was closed on Bank Holidays when tourists come to town.”
The town council was offered the opportunity of taking over the facilities on the basis that Wiltshire would continue to pay staff salaries for the next six months.
“Then it would have been up to the town council to cover the costs, which was clearly not tenable, both on grounds of costs and in view of the further reduction of library hours,” Councillor Fogg pointed out.
Activist Val Compton, who has been preparing plans for a combined new Marlborough information centre and tourism service, has also hit out at Wiltshire’s actions.
“The attitude of the council toward tourism in Marlborough is cynical at best and sinister at worst,” she told Marlborough News Online.
“Attract the tourists to Marlborough through a website, then when they arrive with high expectations of spending some time and enjoying the Marlborough area, they look for the local TIC.”
“Local people, who are used to it being in the library where the signs still point, may well direct the tourists there. On arrival, if they need some service, they will be told by library staff to go to Avebury or Devizes. That is what staff have been told to say.”
She adds: “But it gets worse -- if they wish to purchase any books or leaflet including the Accommodation Book from Visit Wiltshire – they will be able to do that but the library service are resistant to allowing any new set up stock and sell those books.”
“So Wiltshire still want the revenue. In fact -- we might as well have a big sign telling tourists not to bother coming in to Marlborough because although we would welcome their hard cash - and indeed are dependent on it -- there is NO service for them here.”
“It is not just shooting ourselves in one foot but two.”
A plea by Wiltshire Council for volunteers to help run its public libraries hit by funding cuts has produced a response from 446 people so far, but what they will actually do has yet to be defined.
“It is essentially front of house work,” a council spokesman told Marlborough News Online. “The council has been working with Volunteer Centre Wiltshire to help keep 10 of the county’s smallest libraries open, and to help extend the opening hours at other libraries using community volunteers.”
Volunteers have been sought from across the county, in particular for the smaller libraries in villages such as Ramsbury, where volunteers are in action and in Aldbourne.
“The library service already has considerable experience working with volunteers,” adds the council spokesman. “More than 270 currently support the service in a variety of was, including assisting with the Summer Reading Challenge, and with the home deliver service for housebound residents.”
Meanwhile, new easy to use self-service machines are to be installed in all Wiltshire Council libraries during the next two months, which will produce a staff saving of £300,000 a year.
“We have had an overwhelming response following our requests for local volunteers, and I would personally like to thank the hundreds of people who have come forward,” said deputy council leader John Thomson.
Plans to replace Marlborough’s library-based tourist information centre, closed last week following the withdrawal of Wiltshire Council funding, have also been stalled.
An emergency meeting was held last week by a working party of four town councillors to look at tourist information in Marlborough and to consider new possibilities as well.
And at the request of activist Val Compton, the councillors also reviewed potential outside funding for a new tourist centre, named available sites including the town hall itself and St Peter’s Church.
That move followed the unqualified support given to town councillors Richard Pitts and Guy Loosmore (see pic) at a meeting of the Marlborough Chamber of Commerce’s executive, which backed the urgent need for a local tourism plan to be developed.
The aim now is to set up a general Marlborough Information and Tourist Centre, which would also provide residents with details of local events and organisations, an objective seen as all part of a general desire to make information more easily accessible to a wider range of residents.
But the question of generating much-needed income to help bolster the funding of any tourist centre has brought the search for outside aid to a temporary halt -- because of a potential clash of interests between more than one project.
Val Compton, along with Rob Chiodi and Christina Ramsden, have been working on new ideas for the past fortnight. “We have proposals and statistics ready to be handed on to whoever will take the project forward,” Mrs Compton told Marlborough News Online.
Further input from local businesses is expected at the Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting, to be held in the revamped town hall on June 16. “I would like to encourage as many businesses as possible to attend,” Councillor Pitts told Marlborough News Online.
Real rewards are to be given to community volunteers in Wiltshire as part of a ground-breaking scheme the county has been asked to pilot by the government.
The county is one of only three areas in England that will trial the scheme, the aim of which is to attract more volunteers by awarding them with “time credits” -- one credit for every one hour they give to the community.
That credit can then be used by them, or a friend or relative, to “spend” with partner organisation, giving volunteers a chance to visit a bowling alley, a concert or perhaps going to the cinema.
Alternatively, volunteers can donate their credits for the wider community to gain such as covering the cost of child-minding or paying for a training course.
The government has invested £400,000 in the time credit pilots which Wiltshire will benefit from, the council itself setting aside £100,000 towards the programme as part of the council's investment for the future budget expenditure.
The two-year trial is part of the government’s White Paper called Giving, whose aim is to make it easier and more attractive for people to donate to charity and become volunteers.
John Thomson, Wiltshire’s deputy leader, says: “I am delighted that Wiltshire has been chosen to pilot this exciting and innovative scheme in England. Volunteers are the bedrock of our community and it is essential we find ways of not only keeping the volunteers we have but also attracting new volunteers.”
“Time credits not only thank people for the work they do, but encourages new volunteers to help many other people in the community.”
Wiltshire Council’s decision to cut the number of management organisations for the county’s thirty Sure Start centres from fourteen to four outside providers is having a devastating effect on voluntary groups in the old Kennet District Council area.
Three of the four management organisations for the new contracts are national bodies based outside the county.
Already Voluntary Action Kennet (VAK) which set-up and ran the Pewsey Sure Start centre, has closed for business. And the Rural Needs Initiative (RNI) charity which set-up and ran the Marlborough’s Corner House centre and Tidworth’s Windmill Hill centre, will close by the end of the year.
Working with Pewsey parish council, VAK did all the hard work setting up the centre and successfully completing purpose-built premises which were only opened in January this year. In 2010-2011 VAK received £117,450 of government funds from Wiltshire Council for Pewsey Sure Start centre.
VAK’s information shop in Pewsey will be closed within the next few months and services moved to the new library. Last year Wiltshire Council paid VAK £8,870 towards the information shop.
The closure announcement on VAK’s website ends: “We are very sad we will not be around to continue to support our rural communities.”
[See also our companion story: “Fears for the future of Marlborough’s Sure Start centre are averted.”]
Coinciding with the changes in Sure Start management, the Council also made a thirteen per cent reduction in funding for all voluntary organisations providing specialist help for under-fives in the county. And a fifty per cent cut in funding for Home Start Kennet which supports families with young children across the Marlborough and Tidworth areas, including army families.
Apart from achieving economies of scale, the Council’s policy of ‘clustering’ centres for the tender process was aimed at ensuring ‘greater cohesion with partner agencies.’
Yet Kate Easter, chair of Marlborough centre’s advisory board, says RNI had done “a great job in getting services on side and working together.”
She’s optimistic about the new regime: “Change is a good thing if it’s managed well.” And she’s very positive about the impact 4Children’s larger network and wider experience will bring to east Wiltshire’s children centres.
RNI was started in 1997 by Kennet District Council and a range of partners to combat the isolation of rural families with very young children. In 2007 RNI was asked by Wiltshire Council to set-up and run the Marlborough and Tidworth children’s centres.
In 2010-2011 RNI received £317, 595 of government funds from Wiltshire Council to manage the two centres.
RNI and VAK submitted a joint tender in 2010 to run Marlborough and Pewsey centres which had already been formed into a ‘cluster’ by the Council. And RNI pursued a lone bid for the Tidworth centre. Neither bid was successful.
In a statement to Marlborough News Online, RNI’s trustees said: “After reviewing options in this current economic climate, (we) have taken the difficult decision to move towards the closure of the charity later this year.”
The trustees “feel that the original aims of the RNI are now further embedded in national and local policy.” And they are fully supportive of the new regime – and wish 4Children well particularly “as they will be building on the strong foundations laid by RNI.”
Indeed it can be said that Marlborough News Online has found nothing but support for the new management – so strong is the belief that Sure Start is doing a really valuable job in the Marlborough community.
However, it seems that the call by the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, for councils to provide more support to local voluntary groups, came too late for the Rural Needs Initiative and Voluntary Action Kennet.
Pickles said that while local authorities are looking to manage on reduced budgets that they should not ‘disproportionately’ cut funding to charities and voluntary groups.
His call came one week after the start of the new financial year – when the budgets and contracts for Wiltshire’s Sure Start in 2011-2012 had been fixed.
[Financial figures revealed through Freedom of Information requests.]
Click on pics to enlarge
David Hemery with Edwina and torchAbout six hundred people were at Barbury Racecourse on Monday evening (June 4) to see the former Olympic hurdle star David Hemery light Marlborough’s Jubilee Beacon. David Hemery brought with him the Olympic torch he had carried through Royal Wootton Bassett and signed many autographs.
The rain held off and, as the beacon began to burn, the clouds parted to give a wonderful view of the full moon.
The event was organised by the Marlborough Brandt Group with the help of the Barbury Estate and of Chris Musgrave and his team who built a huge bonfire which blazed into the night sky – helped by some very large bales of old linseed straw.
After the hog roast, pay bar and fish and chips and a charity auction of Coronation and Jubilee memorabilia, many people took the steep, torch-lit route up to the beacon – some very young and less young were taken up by tractor and trailer.
Several families took advantage of the wonderful site with its views across the downs, to camp overnight – while the beacon blazed away above them.
David Hemery lights the BeaconThe only disappointment was that the young rowers from Marlborough, New Zealand who had rowed in the previous day’s Thames Pageant, never made it down to Marlborough, Wiltshire. They were held up in London to attend an unscheduled presentation and to fix some problems in getting their boat shipped back to New Zealand.
Mayor Edwina Fogg was very disappointed as not only were they to have been honoured guests at the beacon celebration, but were also to be presented at the Town Hall on Tuesday (June 5.)
One young person at the Beacon was especially saddened that the lads from Marlborough, New Zealand didn’t make it - her cousin was one of the rowers and she was looking forward to meeting him for the first time.
“It was a most wonderful occasion and the culmination of months of planning and organisation by a large number of people,” Brandt Group founder Nick Maurice told Marlborough News Online.
“At least 30 people were involved in one way or another and almost exclusively in a voluntary capacity.
“The beacon was built over three days by the staff of the Barbury Estate who were quite magnificent in everything they did to make sure the lighting of the beacon went smoothly.
“It was such a privilege to have an Olympic Gold Medallist in David Hemery to light the beacon in the London Olympic year in front of 600 residents of Marlborough -- and to have Edwina Fogg our Mayor to encourage us all to raise our glasses to Her Majesty The Queen.”
And he added: “Then two special moments occurred when the blaze was at its height, huge sparks were rising into the heavens and the clouds cleared and the full moon appeared.
“My mobile rang and it was friends in Marlborough's link community of Gunjur in The Gambia announcing that they had just lit their beacon and were wishing Her Majesty long life and happiness!”
Below are more photos of the Marlborough Beacon event - including a shot showing the full moon and a 'morning after' shot of the pile of still burning ashes:
Reuben & Lucas Arkwright and Courtney Goodwin with David Hemery's Olympic torch Mayor Edwina Fogg with loudhailer addressing the crowdDavid Hemery with lit Beacon
The morning after..... BEACON-MOON.800pxCrowd wind their way up to the beacon
A record 634 visitors poured in Marlborough’s historic The Merchant’s House when it opened its doors, free of charge, for an open day.
Most visitors were from the Marlborough area, but many came from other parts of Wiltshire and the South West to see the property, rebuilt by silk merchant Thomas Bayly after the Greater Fire of Marlborough, in 1653, and now being restored by a charitable trust.
And there were a dozen or more too from across the Channel together with some 87 children who were able to tour the iconic house.
The Merchant's House was officially opened by Councillor Alexander Kirk-Wilson, Marlborough’s new mayor.
Pictured with him below is the mayor flanked by the Town Beadle and the Officers of Dignity, carrying the 17th century maces, Sir John Sykes, chairman of the Merchant’s House trustees, and Susan Pearson, modelling a beautiful 17th century costume researched and hand-made by Angela Munns and Margaret Matthews, on show for the first time.
“The Trust would like to thank the many volunteers and crafts-people who helped to make the open day a success,” a spokesman told Marlborough News Online.
If you want a sexy female MP, then vote Conservative.
That appears to be the message from the results of the website www.sexymp.co.uk, which has named the UK’s sexiest male and female MPs.
When viewed earlier it nominated nine out of the top 10 sexy women MPs as all being Conservatives, and, of course, one of them happens to be Marlborough’s own MP Claire Perry.
Elegantly tall Claire had taken seventh place on the website, the number one spot going to Labour MP Luciana Berger.
And on Twitter, Claire declares: “I know it is WRONG to look but can’t help noticing that nine of the top ten female MPs on www.sexymp.co.uk are Conservatives.”
The website has been created by entrepreneur Francis Boulle, an entrepreneur who has appeared on the reality TV show Made in Chelsea, and has been romantically linked with the Harry Potter actress Emma Watson.
Prime minister David Cameron found himself in 93rd place out of 506 male MPs, with Labour opposition leader Ed Miliband at number 76, precisely 70 places behind his younger brother David, the former Foreign Secretary, who is in sixth spot.
Mr Boulle admits that his website is likely to cause offence, but insists: "It will help people to know who their Members of Parliament are and lift the veil on Westminster."
Marlborough needs to stage a Big Debate on the future of the health and well-being services for the area as a result of the controversial NHS reforms now currently put on hold by the coalition government.
The idea has been suggested by Dr Nick Maurice, in the wake of Excalibur Project conference held at St John's School and Marlborough College last month, which posed the question, How can Marlborough become a leading international hotbed of learning by 2020?
The event was attended by more than 100 people, ranging from Marlborough school headteachers, parents and children too.
“A similar exercise on the subject of health could be undertaken in Marlborough – opening up a wide-ranging debate,” Dr Maurice, whose family founded the town’s medical practice, says in a letter to Marlborough News Online.
“We could ask the question, ‘How can Marlborough become the healthiest community in the UK with the greatest sense of well-being in 2020?’
“This might be a project that could be funded by the Friends of Savernake Hospital and the community.”
He believes a skilled organiser “could be brought together with representatives of as wide a cross-section of the population as possible” to pose the important questions about the future of the NHS, which is currently causing turmoil between the three main political parties.
And he adds: “Those questions might include, what is the current state of health and well-being of the population of Marlborough? What are the major health and social problems facing the community?”
“And what are the barriers to improving that situation?”
The Corner House Sure Start centre in the George Lane car park is under new management – averting fears that it might be among those centres around the nation closed by spending cuts.
The centre was set-up by a local charity – the Rural Needs Initiative, which also ran the centre in Tidworth.
Both centres were part of the ground breaking scheme to support families with children under five years old and both centres are now run by the London-based, not-for-profit organisation 4Children.
4Children is the third largest voluntary provider in the country. They were calling for a Sure Start-type scheme ten years ago and because of their expertise and research, they were called into Downing Street to help shape the previous government’s policy.
4Children now run sixteen of Wiltshire’s centres – as well as nineteen in Essex.
Sure Start provides a place where children under five and their parents can receive joined-up support services. These include: early education and childcare; support for parents – with advice on parenting and local childcare options; child and family health; helping parents into work.
Wiltshire has thirty of these centres and last year the Council decided to put them out to tender. The resulting changes mean that just four providers now run all thirty schemes and the mix of Council staff, local charities, trustee groups and school governors who up to March ran sixteen centres, have lost out.
[See our companion story for the impact of these changes on local charities:” Has Wiltshire Council forgotten about localism and the ‘Big Society’?”]
The national charity Action for Children (with Methodist roots and formerly known as the National Children’s Home) also lost out in the tendering process. They had run seven of Wiltshire’s centres.
Marlborough’s Corner House centre has a full-time outreach worker, three part-time support workers and a coordinator, as well as a team of volunteers. They have all been taken on by 4Children who are in the process of appointing a new manager.
The previous manager of the Corner House, Sue Deedigan, is now in charge of the group of five 4Children centres in east Wiltshire: two in Devizes, one in Pewsey, one in Tidworth, and Marlborough’s Corner House.
Sue told Marlborough News Online she’s excited about the change: “With 4Children’s experience and guidance I am confident we will be able to provide better support and services for the children across the Marlborough community area than ever before.”
4Children’s deputy chief executive, Charles Ellis, told us that they’re planning to develop the services provided by its Wiltshire centres. His motto is ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’, but if they find gaps in the services to families with young children, he wants to fill them.
And he promises that 4Children will carry on campaigning to make sure that “Sure Start does not get lost during the difficult financial situation”.
Why did Wiltshire make these changes – taking funding and responsibility away from local charities and passing it to larger and more distant providers?
As well as 4Children’s 16 centres in Wiltshire, the other three managements are now Barnardo’s - two centres (down from five last year): Spurgeons (a charity with Baptist origins based in Northamptonshire) – nine centres. The only local charity to survive the changes is the Rise Trust of Chippenham which has kept the management of its three local centres.
In a statement to Marlborough News Online, Wiltshire Council explained that they were able to limit the impact of government cuts by getting the largest possible savings from economies of scale in the new contracts.
However, Council documents from before the 2010 election make it clear that achieving ‘economies of scale’ was always one of the aims of the tendering process. Further reduction in funding was made possible when the coalition government ruled that Sure Start budgets were no longer to be ring-fenced.
The Council’s aim now is that “Through targeting work at the families in most need, services will still be provided in all areas of the county and for children under five in most need.”