Our intrepid reporter, Brian Cudby set off on a mission to ask all the prospective candidates for the Winterslow Ward some searching questions about their agenda should they be elected. Brian’s article is below:
I became aware that there will be council elections on May 5th for one person to become the Unitary Councillor for the Winterslow division. The Winterslow division includes Pitton. There are five candidates. The current incumbent is Chris Devine and he is standing as an independent. Christopher Miller is for the Conservatives, Ian Martingale for Labour, Alice Kiff for the Green Party and Colin Baxter for the Liberal Democrats.
I am not passionately political but I was interested to see what the candidates have to say about Pitton matters. So I asked them all five questions. Three have replied and I thought that other people in the villages might be interested in what they have to say. Note that they all added in their preambles the issue of the reduced funding from Wiltshire Council.
The first two questions were worded slightly differently for Christopher Miller, because they were in response to his video on Pitton flooding and his first pamphlet. The final three questions were the same for everybody.
Questions 1 and 2 to Christopher Miller:
Do you really believe that mobile broadband is the way to go? You measured 41Mbps on Vodafone – but that is not ‘superfast’ broadband. We should be aiming for 70Mbps and over. This is achievable for those close to the (fibre) box, but once you move further away the speed degrades over the longer copper run. Have you checked out fully the comparable costs of mobile broadband, especially where unlimited bandwidth is required for streaming video etc. And, how would you answer questions from people who do not get good coverage from their existing supplier? I have recently had BT engineers who were not able to call me from the Village Hall because they could not get a signal!
Christopher Miller: Broadband across the Winterslow area has been very painful for most people, as superfast broadband has taken years longer to arrive than could have been the case. This is one of the most consistent gripes that people have shared with me. Today, for many, broadband is now tolerable, but there are still people who suffer hugely, and for those, mobile broadband can be a viable stopgap where it is available, even though it can be more expensive and restricted than hardwired fibre. Vodafone has a data deal with 50gb of data a month for £30. And 41Mbps on mobile is considerably faster than the 2Mbps to 6Mbps that some people get.
I have been campaigning to get fibre to the home (FTTH) installed in Firsdown and Winterslow, especially as BT left off 40 homes in Firsdown from their fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) rollout. I recently reached the Virgin Media threshold for Firsdown, and I continue to push for Winterslow. For more rural areas where the last stretch of copper is long, the advantages of FTTH are in direct proportion to the physical limitations of a given length of copper.
As I go around the area, I am acutely aware of the mobile blackspots, and I would like to see what can be done about those. As a former technology analyst, and someone who currently manages a network, servers and web sites, I know more about all these issues than most people, and I am in a good position to push the right buttons and to avoid being fobbed off.
I watched the Pitton flood video. It is great that you have raised awareness and that you support the plan put forward to solve this important issue for Pitton. As you know Pitton expects to be flooded every 20 years or so. But what are you and Mr Glen planning to do to secure the funding for this project (I believe we need £450k). You both said it should go ahead but neither of you gave me a warm feeling that you would ‘make it happen’.
Christopher Miller: There are three main areas I am focusing on in identifying the flooding issue:
- I do not accept that a 20-year flood risk is correct. Since 1995, Pitton has flooded every 4-5 years. This may be to do with climate anomalies and/or building in the village. But there is reason to believe the frequency may have changed permanently.
- The number of houses directly flooded does not reflect the overall impact on the village.
- The time the village stays flooded is probably well in excess of the average for villages assessed.
I understand that the council applies a formula to determine a village’s needs. If the frequency is in fact 4x greater than assumed in the model, then the overall impact and cost is 4x greater than estimated. Furthermore, if the village stays flooded for longer (e.g. 2x), and causes more hardship (e.g. 2x) than in other villages, the model needs to be adjusted accordingly. With these assumptions, you could end up with sixteen times more impact than currently modelled, and justification for the expenditure would be strengthened. I would hope, if elected, to establish the true facts and campaign accordingly.
Funding is a major difficulty because there is pressure from all sides. But there is budget for needy projects, so the challenge is to make sure it is used for siphons and the like in Pitton, rather than getting siphoned off elsewhere in Wiltshire. I heard a Wiltshire Councillor referring recently to the 17½% reduction in central government funds. But this amount (£72m) is only a small part of the overall budget (£900m), so things are not quite as dire as some people think.
Realistically, we will still need to find some money ourselves if it is to happen, so I aim to bring together the various interested parties – landowners, homeowners, the Council, Environment Agency, Southern Water, and other local parties to find money and get the job done.
As you spotted in the video, I am not in a position to promise anything. But as well as being a financial, statistical and technology analyst, I also a qualified CEDR commercial mediator, so I hope to use these skills to broker a compromise that suits everyone and gets the job done.
Questions 1 and 2 to the other candidates:
What are your views on fibre broadband versus mobile broadband?
Chris Devine: I am not a BB specialist and my only position is that of WC which has had a BB project rolling out across the county for the last 4 years, which, as a Wiltshire Councillor, I fully support and that is fibre based. This project is £300 million plus, paid for out of your council taxes, EU grants and a central Government grant. For me not to support this would be very hypocritical, however, I have been very critical of the main contractor BT, who have been very negligent in their work, especially in our area, where remote locations have been overlooked. I am currently engaged with our BB project team to ensure all our remote areas receive the coverage their council tax has paid for.
Ian Martingale: I support the existing Council broadband rollout scheme however I am aware of some the problems with the existing contract and I think that the Parish Council and local residents should continue to investigate various mobile options.
I believe that there is a plan to ameliorate flooding in Pitton but the capital cost of the project is c. £450k. Wiltshire Council appears to be cash strapped. What would you be able to do to ‘make this project happen’?
Chris Devine: I was discussing the cost of this recently with a WC Councillor involved in Flood prevention work and he estimated over £600k. The major issue here is the cost, versus benefit equation with the current result showing that this fails to benefit enough members of the community to justify a cost which would be equivalent to a third of the average Wiltshire flood budget in any given year. I have discussed this with the Chairman of the South Wilts Flood Working Group, Cllr Mike Hewitt and in the current financial climate it is not being budgeted for. If the village decides to go for this specific project, then I will give it my full support, but, whether or not that will change the likely outcome is debatable. But, we shall cross that bridge when we get to it.
Ian Martingale: I note that the flood defences for Pitton were discussed at the Operational Flood Working Group South. Notes of meeting held on 15th February 2017 state:
- Request for formal presentation to Parish Council regarding proposed scheme. No funding for presentation by consultants at this stage, but Danny Everett will attend to discuss scheme.
- Bund was approved by planning authority – Graham Axtell dealing with this matter
- Questions raised to Mike Hewitt passed to DE.
- Parish Council taking steps to provide evidence to support bid for scheme. EA and WC would like to know how much funding the Parish could provide.
I certainly agree with the first point. The key point is the last one. It looks like the scheme does not meet the criteria of the Environment Agency so further evidence is certainly required. However, it is not only Wiltshire Council but the Environment Agency that have limited funds. The Government must increase funding to include more schemes. That would not only be good for the residents of Pitton but also create valuable employment.
We have had a big problem in Pitton where the Parish Council have rejected two recent domestic planning proposals – only for these to be overturned by Wiltshire Council. What is worse is that wrong information was presented at the Wiltshire planning meeting recently and the Chairman of the Pitton & Farley Parish Council was not allowed to put this right during the debate. If this continues Pitton will become a village of five bedroom mansions, which is not why the current village residents made Pitton their home. What has happened to the need for affordable housing? What would you do to address this situation?
Chris Devine: You will be aware that I called the latest one in to the Southern Area Planning Committee (on which I have sat on your behalf for the last 14 years) where despite my best efforts the officers recommendation (to accept) was accepted by a majority of my fellow Councillors, who were of the opinion that the application did not warrant refusal. The fact is that many such planning applications, may well lack merit and contain errors, but, at the end of the day if a majority of the committee are happy to accept such anomalies then they will be passed despite my best efforts. But, on the plus side I have also managed over the years to have numerous such applications refused, as well as getting many weak applications accepted, all on behalf of the respective Parish Councils. But, my one solid rule is that I will never go against a Parish Councils wishes as they directly represent the people of the villages. On the subject of affordable houses, I am ensuring that in all large-scale developments in our area there is provision for such dwellings in conjunction with housing association properties. I also fully support the WC council house and support to housing associations policy.
Christopher Miller: I would like to think that if elected I could pre-empt planning problems like you describe, or at least intervene to get them sorted out by standing up for the village. It’s hard to be specific, so instead, let me give you more of a flavour of who I am and what I stand for:
- With experience of drawing my own architect’s plans, and going through the planning process for two significant projects, one of which was a listed property, I have a lot more experience of building and planning issues than most people.
- In principle, my first priority is to follow what villagers want for their area, within the constraints of the proper planning process.
- Personally, I have a strong liking for homes designed for the elderly for a number of reasons (which would make this letter even longer, so I will hold back for now!)
- I am campaigning to stop the redefinition of who can use affordable homes in Wiltshire. The consultation and link for the online survey can be found here: christophermiller.me/housing-allocation I would encourage everyone to oppose the deletion of the connection criteria for close family who have lived in the area.
I have been campaigning vigorously to maintain the affordable housing criteria, and I understand the consultation is being revised as a result. The consultation is currently suspended, but I do expect it to come back amended, and I will see what the new position is before continuing the campaign.
Ian Martingale: I am aware that the Parish representative can make a statement at the beginning of the meeting. I assume therefore the problem to which you refer arose after that statement was made. The key point is that the Wiltshire Councillor must be aware of the details of the application and the view of the Parish Council. The Wiltshire Councillor can intervene and I am surprised that this did not happen in this case. I will make sure that if elected, I will discuss all the details with the Parish.
The state of our roads is, at best, a nuisance and at worse – dangerous. What would you do to address this issue?
Chris Devine: Roads are my number one concern and I have a running dialogue with Southern highways on the subject, where I know all the key officers and what can and cannot be achieved in the short and long term on limited budgets. However, over the last few years, I have managed to get major road repairs in most of Winterslow, the Dunstable road (which took 2 solid years of badgering), West Dean the final bend in on the old Southampton road in Clarendon, Lucewood lane out of Farley and Mill lane in Winterslow (both in February). I had the Pitton Farley road sides completely re-done and I got them back to do the parts they missed. I was instrumental in having the Pelican crossing put up at Clarendon on the A36 as well as the signs and road marking, again on the Pitton Farley road.
These are only the major road issues, there are scores of potholes and smaller areas I have covered (no pun intended) as well as sign replacement and road markings. I probably spend 2 to 3 hours a week checking our roads and writing emails, but, I know it is a never ending problem and I shall continue to fight our corner with Southern Highways. I currently am trying to get Highways to repair the road surface damage on the old A30 past Haines garage as well as a number of other areas. For the immediate future a number of Parish Councils would like to see village road speed limits reduced and this is an area I shall also be concentrating on.
Christopher Miller: Yes, the roads are terrible, especially this time of year, and Wiltshire Council generally prioritises faster roads over village roads, which is not very helpful. However, as well as the nuisance-yet-not dangerous potholes in Pitton, the hill above the Silver Plough is quite dangerous, so I think there is a good argument to uprate it, and I will look into what I can do specifically for that.
The Parish Steward is able to arrange minor road repairs, and it is likely that some of the present potholes could be dealt with by him. If so, this is something for the Parish Council to prioritise for him, and I have already had a word with Rod Coppock about it.
Obviously, there is the Wiltshire Council App, which is excellent, and gives good feedback on progress, and I would encourage you to use it to report specific things that need doing. This can make things happen a lot faster than they would otherwise. But I suspect there are still things (not just in roads) that don’t get dealt with despite being reported, so I am considering setting up a register (possibly online) so that at a local level, we can see what has been reported, by whom and when. And then I can follow up longstanding complaints with hard data on how long it has been hanging around, and how many people reported it.
I have done a video survey of almost all the roads in the area, and I found White Hill to be the most concerning part of the whole network of roads. Here is the footage I took of it. I have today spoken with the Cabinet member responsible for roads, and made it very clear to him that notwithstanding the set criteria, this is a dangerous situation, and the road should be prioritised.
I have also set up a Pothole Gallery to report potholes so that we know what has been reported: https://www.christophermiller.me/pothole-gallery/
Ian Martingale: Lots of roads in Wiltshire need work done to them. If elected, I will work with the Parish Council to make sure that we make the best possible case for these improvements to be made. My opening comments however do apply to this question. Capital projects, like road improvements are a good way of boosting the economy as well as benefiting residents.
Finally, Wiltshire Council appears to have no money and budgets were frozen during the previous year for paths work. What would you do to ensure funding was continued (even increased) to support maintenance (by volunteers) for our network of paths.
Chris Devine: On many occasions over the last 14 years I have spoken with Nick Cowan the head of rights of way and had urgent path work brought to the top of the `to do` list and I will continue to do so when necessary, however, we are also giving out specific grants through the Area Board, where we fully support path groups led by people such as Nigel Walsh. As someone brought up in the countryside I am of the firm belief that public paths and rights of way are one of the most important areas of our rural way of life and I will continue to support them at all times.
Christopher Miller: Having saved the best till last… I support what you are all doing with footpaths very much, but you will appreciate that I can’t make any promises about budgets that are (and will be) outside my direct control. However, I would like to help in several ways:
- I would like to spend a decent chunk of time getting to understand the process and the work involved.
- I would like to promote walks locally for walkers and volunteers through use of artistic walking videos and a web site once the foliage is out, including donation options to raise funds ourselves.
I would like to help build on the case you and your team have made already at Wiltshire Council, by quantifying benefits and focusing the “asks” so they are more easily digestible and deliverable, as well as hard to ignore.
There is not really time to achieve much before the election because it will look so much better when the vegetation is out, but you should be able to judge from my own web site, which I designed myself, how I would approach helping to promote footpaths.
Ian Martingale: I am aware of and grateful to the volunteers who give their time freely to support the maintenance of the network of paths. I support Wiltshire Council in giving money to these projects which cost little but bring great benefits to the local community and provide volunteering opportunities.