Editor : David Kernek (kernekdavid@gmail.com)

Monthly Archive: March 2021

How Covid-19 has hit Roman Baths & Pump Room visitor numbers

Bath’s Roman Baths & Pump Room was the 32nd most-visited attraction in the UK in 2020, according to figures from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions.

Despite being closed for 138 days due to Covid-19 pandemic – and reducing visitor numbers to a maximum of 20% in order to enable social distancing – the site welcomed 316,436 visitors in 2020. This follows a record year in 2019, when there were 1,325,085.

The figures include daytime visitors to the baths and customers in the Pump Room restaurant.

The site is scheduled to re-open – subject to changes in LockDown restrictions – on May 17, having been closed since the beginning of the year.

Tickets from 17 May until the end of August are now on sale at www.romanbaths.co.uk.

Picture: Roman Baths, Bath – © David Kernek

Railroads to South West recovery

Members of a growing grassroots rail movement have continued to work despite Covid-19 for communities across the South West towards a greener transport future, and are looking forward to supporting the region’s local recovery.

The Community Rail Network’s report – Community Rail in the South West,  sponsored by the Rail Delivery Group – says that more than 600 volunteers give more than 27,000 hours annually to support social inclusion and wellbeing, sustainable and healthy travel, and economic development and tourism in their area valued at £2.3 million.

Seven community rail partnerships and 70 station groups across the South West region engage people with their railways and stations, working with train operators and local authorities. Their activities include community gardening, food growing and bio-diversity projects at stations, community arts and heritage projects, and working with rail industry companies to improve shelters, signage and pedestrian and cyclist access.

Community rail across the South West looks forward to playing a pivotal role in building back better from Covid, and helping railways to be a ‘vital component of a greener, more inclusive way forward as part of a green recovery’.

Says Robert Nisbet, director of nations and regions at the Rail Delivery Group: ‘The railway is at the heart of local communities, and the fantastic initiatives by community rail volunteers in the South West play to its strengths, connecting people up and down the country. As we recover from the pandemic, getting more people back on trains will be vital to boost local economies and the environment, so the support of community rail will be more important than ever.’

For more information about community rail, go to https://communityrail.org.uk

Bath centre anti-terror plan … publish feedback, council told

Little if anything has been heard recently of the council’s controversial so-called anti-terrorist scheme for the town’s historic centre. This is the proposal that would see static and sliding bollards blocking traffic access 24/7, the removal of on-street parking for disabled drivers, and a ban on delivery services – including food, parcels and other goods – in the security zone. The defence measures proposed would not, clearly, be any sort of obstacle for terrorists planning attacks on foot or on cycles and e-scooters.  

What is known is that more than 500 consultation responses have been sent to the council, which says the comments made by residents and businesses ‘will be taken into account, along with the recommendations from an accessibility adviser. These results and any proposed modifications and mitigations to the original consultation proposals will be progressed in accordance with the council’s decision-making process’.

Publishing consultation responses, however, does not yet appear to be a feature of the council’s decision-making process, which is why several Freedom of Information (FoI) requests asking for the feedback to be published have been sent by residents and businesses to Bath & NE Somerset Council. To date, no replies to these requests have been received.  

The Freedom of Information Act requires authorities to reply within 20 working days, but environmental information regulations say that if a public body needs more time – if the information requested is particularly complex – the time limit can be extended by a further 20 working days as long as it responds within the initial 20-day time limit stating when it believes it will be able to reply in full.

It’s reasonable to assume that many of those 500+ responses will fall more than somewhat short of unmitigated support. Some might even suggest that the scheme uses the terrorism threat – one that is faced every day in every street in every town in the land – as an excuse to further the council’s anti-car crusade.

The plan has been described by critics as ‘draconian’ and ‘deeply unfair’.

‘Anyone living in this area’ says the Abbey Residents’ Association, ‘will be essentially trapped unless they are able to walk, cycle or use mobility vehicles to reach shops and other facilities including blue badge and general-purpose parking areas.’

Western Power unveils £6bn investment plan

Western Power Distribution (WPD) has proposed record investment and a ground-breaking network improvement plan for Somerset, which promises to reduce power cuts, help vulnerable customers, and support environmental targets. The company is wants to hear from customers who would like to comment on its plans.

WPD is responsible for the power lines, poles, transformers, and substations that deliver electricity to 7.9 million homes and businesses across the Midlands, South West and South Wales, including those in Bath.

With a headline pledge to become a Net Zero company by 2028, 22 years ahead of the UK target, WPD’s £6 billion five-year plan details its roadmap to a smarter network that will grow with the region’s increasing demand for electricity. Through extensive ‘bottom-up’ forecasting, it plans to connect a further 1.5 million electric vehicles and 600,000 heat pumps by 2028. The company also intends to work closely to support local authorities and ensure the electricity network is capable of achieving local Net Zero ambitions as early as 2030. WPD says it is committed to protecting areas of outstanding natural beauty by removing 31 miles overhead lines across its distribution regions.

The investment, it says, will be made without increasing costs to customers – energy bills will be broadly the same throughout the years ahead.

The investment will help 113,000 customers in fuel poverty, make savings of £60 million. It will also help WPD support around 387,000 vulnerable customers in the South West on its local Priority Services Register. The company gave £1million in 2020 through its ‘In this Together – Community Matters Fund’ which funded local charities supporting those impacted by COVID-19. The company plans to establish an annual £1 million ‘Community Matters’ fund to support the most vulnerable in its local community until 2028.

‘We’re a proud member of the Somerset community,’ says Mark Shaw, WPD’s Business Plan manager ‘and want to hear views on how we should invest to ensure we support regional growth and a move to a lower carbon economy.  Our business plan has been designed in collaboration with more than 9,500 regional stakeholders.  We’re now keen to listen to more customers’ views and ideas on how we can best invest in an innovative energy system while continuing to make a real difference to the communities we serve.’

The plan will be further developed over the summer before being submitted to the industry regulator Ofgem in December.

For more information, and to have your say, go here: www.westernpower.co.uk/BP2.

Readers write … North Road – Where’s the research?

Does our Lib Dem council do any research? It seems not. Before Bath’s Lib Dem-led council permanently closes North Road to turn it into a cycle path, do you think our very wise council actually tried to see if Bath’s VOI e-scooters can actually make it up North Road? You would think they would check, wouldn’t you?

We all know the Lib Dems don’t believe in consultations, we all know they don’t believe in research. So before they spend vast amounts of our money on this scatty North Road scheme, we thought best to check it out for them.

Nobody who weighs in excess of 75kg (11.8 stone) can use a VOI scooter to go up North Road. They simply aren’t powerful enough to make it.

Before the Lib Dems throw our money away, perhaps they might have carried out even the most basic of research?

Mark N. Stricklin,

Crown Guardians Bath Ltd.,

Tel +44(0)1225423327

Mob +44(0)7715123299

mail@crownguardians.co.uk

www.crownguardians.co.uk

Hot spot for newly-weds?

Bath was a popular spot for annoying hen parties – remember them? – before the town was closed down by the Covid-19 plague as a rest and recreation centre. Research by Flowercard – the company that sends ‘floral hugs’ – suggests it might emerge from LockDown as a stand-out honeymoon resort.

Based on 2019 and 2020 internet searches – and using Google’s keyword planner thing – Flowercard reports that Bath tops the UK list with a 61.54% increase in popularity as a honeymoon destination.  

But here’s a surprise: coming in at second place is Birmingham, with a 57.14% year-on-year increase. The Bath Chronicle will not hear a carping word said against Birmingham – honest! It’s packed with Industrial Revolution-era landmarks that speak to its 18th-century heritage as England’s manufacturing powerhouse. It also has canals, a museum and art gallery known for pre-Raphaelite masterpieces, and a very large exhibition centre. There must, though, be more to this than meets the eye. Perhaps a marriage that survives a Birmingham honeymoon will better than most withstand the stuff that life throws at it.  

Other spots on the UK’s popular search list were more predictable: St. Ives, Cornwall; the Cotswolds; Devon; Cambridge; Loch Lomond; and Snowdonia.

Overseas resorts on the search lists are entirely foreseeable: the Maldives (519,000 searches), followed by Bora Bora, Bali, Mauritius, Fiji, Santorini, Goa, Paris, and St Lucia.

https://www.flowercard.co.uk/blog/which-honeymoon-destinations-are-at-the-top-of-our-wish-lists

Degrees of consultation

Local councils are required by law to undertake a formal period of public consultation before planning decisions are made. That much is straightforward, but from there on it can get complicated with different procedures – amended this way and that by statute – for different types of planning issues. The rules for bog standard planning issues might differ from those affecting listed buildings and conservation areas. And planning authorities have discretion as to how they tell people about planning applications. Chapter and verse can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/consultation-and-pre-decision-matters

The government tells local councils that ‘publishing information online in an open data format can help facilitate engagement with the public on planning applications’, which is what most planning authorities now do.

But is it possible that the consultation bit becomes simply just a part of the whole tedious bureaucratic business of bashing out a proposal, putting it out in the cold light of day, and hoping that by the closing date for responses not too many mischief-makers have spotted that the grand plan has more holes than a lace curtain?

This topic was raised at the March meeting of Bath & NE Somerset Council when – in the bit when members of the public are allowed to have their time-limited say – Bath businessman and former Conservative Party candidate Martin Grixoni told councillors he wanted to talk about something over which he strongly sensed it needed to be held to account.

‘It is,’ he said, ‘by my estimation the poor level of consultation we are experiencing in the city. I was minded to do this after an ever-increasing series of examples and the online clammer was breaking the noise levels.

‘There is too big a proportion of the things being put through [by the Liberal Democrat controlled council] that are not clear in your own manifesto and that appear to be more of a hidden agenda. There is not sufficient or sometimes any consultation, and all too often the time allowed for responses is too short, or the questions are too skewed. I am suggesting that Bath really should have better consultation.’

These were some of the examples he gave:

The North Road bus gate – ‘No meaningful consultation-gate’ might be a more appropriate phrase! Neither the public nor the stakeholders on the hill such as King Edwards School have been consulted correctly.

Entry Hill – ‘Not properly consulted on, and there was a complete failure to model properly on Dispersed Traffic pollution. Specifically, and pretty worryingly, I have been informed that the new residents association excluded non-Liberal Democrats from attending or speaking. Result: A council U-turn.’

High Common Approach Golf course – ‘No consultation at all. In this case it was claimed that a Frisbee course was the same as a golf one!  Thousands disagreed, which resulted in a climb down by the council.

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods – ‘Questionnaires, done no doubt by expensive London agencies are in my view very poor value for money. There is massively insufficient “internal reliability” and they are therefore psychometrically flawed.  There were no questions on political views, household incomes, or education levels. The report itself notes that the level of bias introduced is “unknown” but concludes that this was not a serious issue. It is. This type of questionnaire would be laughed out of town if submitted academically; a well-trained undergraduate student could have done a much better job. Result? It’s all gone a bit quiet

‘There are so many other examples,’ Mr Grixoni concluded, such as the excessive ‘Ring of steel’ anti-terrorist traffic proposal for the city centre. I will leave you with the council’s own Community Engagement Charter, which states what it will do: Discuss a proposal when it is at a formative stage; provide sufficient information to allow intelligent consideration; ensure there is adequate time for a considered response; conscientiously take responses into account; and provide feedback on our comments. Can I request that you follow your own charter and just ‘do better by Bath’?

For ideas on how planning authorities and developers can improve the consultation process, this input from Canada might be helpful …

https://www.stantec.com/en/ideas/content/blog/2019/with-video-3-ways-to-make-your-public-consultation-process-a-success

2nd try for Min hotel conversion

Having had its first plan for converting the Royal Mineral Water Hospital (The Min) building (1738) to a luxury hotel rejected by councillors last year, the site’s owner – Fragrance UK – has gone back to the drawing board to produce revised proposals based on the specific objections that were raised by residents in the area and councillors.

The company wants to hear the views of the area’s residents before it submits the revised plan –the work of Bath-based architects Aaron Evans and Greenhalgh Landscape Architecture – to Bath & NE Somerset Council.

These are the main changes:

  • A reduction in the number of bedrooms, down from 164 to 160
  • A cut in the scale of the proposed extension, ‘which will ensure minimal impact on the amenity of neighbouring properties’
  • The extension has been re-designed … there would be no south-facing windows at upper floor levels, thus eliminating the possibility for direct overlooking.
  • A ‘sensitively designed’ garden to enhance biodiversity 

Full details of the revisions can be seen at http://theminexhibition.co.uk/our-proposals, where there is also – on the website’s Contact Us page – an online form on which comments can be recorded.

Other features of the plan include what the company says would be ‘significant public realm improvements’on Upper Borough Walls and Parsonage Lane, and managed public access to the two Roman mosaics discovered on the site.

The owners say the development would create 120 full time jobs and pump £35 million into the local economy and supply chain during construction and operation.

Fascism? Really?

Seen in Bath on March 27, 2021 – a peaceful and good-natured protest by, largely, teenagers against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 and, especially, the police. It was watched by three police officers who might or might not have been tempted to ask these protestors what their definition of fascism was.

Postal voting – Just a little too easy?

Early out of the box for the upcoming election (May 6 – don’t miss it!) of a mayor of the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) is Labour’s candidate, Mr Dan Norris.

Alongside his pitch – he’ll bring jobs to the area, re-train workers, re-build businesses, he pledges to be Britain’s most bee-friendly Metro mayor, adding that he hates cruelty to animals, has a cocker spaniel, and supports Bristol City FC – is what looks like a plea to voters to vote by post. ‘Vote safely, vote from home, vote Labour.’ Helpfully, he sends to residents the form they have to fill in if they want to apply for a postal vote.

Asking your local authority for a postal vote is as stress-free as ordering a pizza delivery. The only info asked for is name, registered address, address to which the ballot paper should be sent (with a brief explanation of why it might differ from the registered one), telephone number, e-mail address, optional), and date of birth. There’s a box to be ticked if people want to apply for a permanent vote usable at all elections and referendums.

Applicants are not asked to provide proof that they are eligible – by nationality or age – to vote. It all looks very, er, casual.

The case for postal voting is sound. It helps people who are disabled and those whose work or holiday arrangements prevent them getting to a polling station. But in England, Scotland, and Wales, no reasons now have to be given. It’s different in Northern Ireland where, says the Electoral Commission, ‘you must provide a valid reason as to why you can’t attend your polling station in person. This could be because of: illness, disability, holiday or work arrangements.’ So, it’s not so casual there.

There’s no evidence, says the Electoral Commission, that fraudulent postal voting is a danger to democracy. It says the number of fraud allegations is in the low hundreds and the number of convictions is even lower. It recognizes, however, the possibility that police forces might not have a ‘complete record of all activity which could involve electoral fraud offences.’ And, of course, the police have other crimes about which to worry.

MPs such as Steve Baker (Conservative) thinks it’s probable, not just possible, that dodgy postal voting is a bigger problem than the political parties and the Electoral Commission would have us believe.

‘The overwhelming majority of my constituents,’ he wrote in December 2019, ‘would be shocked if they knew the extent of corrupt election practices and voter fraud which happen each time there is an election.  

There is widespread abuse of postal votes. In one case, private data held by a third party for legitimate purposes was used to apply for postal votes, and then intercepted before electors had a chance to complete them. The victims would not make a formal complaint as they feared retribution. I have received accounts of candidates visiting electors’ homes, demanding postal votes are completed in front of them, and then taking them away. I have testimony of one young woman’s unmarked postal vote being taken off her under duress by a relative and handed to a candidate. We learned about it because she wanted to cancel her postal vote so she could cast it again herself.

‘We cannot assume voters enjoy secrecy and freedom when marking a ballot paper at home. We have received reports that activists working on behalf of particular candidates have sought to procure votes for as little as £10, a free taxi or a free pizza. Again, we know some of these cases have been reported to the Police without prosecution taking place.

‘When one vote is stolen, or otherwise corrupted away, it’s not just a pencil mark on a piece of paper but is the inheritance of a tradition of liberty and equality fought for at great cost and handed down over centuries. If we fail to understand the magnitude of the importance of the corruption of even a single vote, then we are a politically bankrupt nation.’

The Bath Telegraph struggles to find one good reason for voting in the WECA mayoral election. It’s an unwanted and unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. It would be good to know, however, that every vote that is cast is kosher.