Campaign: Keeping the Sainsbury’s bus

I wanted to document what we have done so far to successfully campaign to maintain an important community resource. Having been a public relations practitioner, I felt it important to reflect on the steps we had taken. Taking a wider view, I was just so thoroughly depressed on what was happening on the Westminster stage with our European relations, it felt appropriate to concentrate on real issues, which effect real people locally.

Each day of the week, Sainsbury’s provide a free community (shopper’s) bus, serving a different destination on each day, taking residents to and from their Watchmoor Park superstore, on the Blackwater Valley trunk road. It is in the borough of Surrey Heath, but is right on the border with Hampshire and Berkshire. The service is contracted to Stagecoach.

Many of the group on the Thursday bus, on what we thought was our last trip!

The service is amazing. It serves areas like (I think) Mytchett, Ash Vale, North Camp and Frimley Green (Mondays); Church Crookham and Fleet (Tuesdays); Sandhurst, Owlsmoor, Old Dean and Heatherside (Wednesdays); Yateley, Darby Green, Frogmore, Blackwater, plus Frimley Road and Yorktown (Thursday); and Hawley Lane, Cove and Southwood (Fridays). One of the only problems with the service is that it is not promoted. There are no details anywhere either at at the store, or on noticeboards, and nothing on the internet.  When you rang up for details, Sainsbury’s refer you to Stagecoach, and Stagecoach refer you to Sainsbury’s. It’s as if the service is Sainsbury’s ‘dirty little secret’.  So much so, that a couple of years ago, as a group of passengers, we produced our own flyer to promote the service in Yateley, which to their credit, Stagecoach paid for printing, and Yateley Town Council put on all their noticeboards.

In mid-October 2018, the driver told us the service was ending in the week beginning 5th November. The sense of distress was palpable. The group of twenty or so people who use the service on a Thursday from the towns of Yateley, Frogmore, Darby Green and Blackwater are totally reliant on the service. Many do not live on other bus routes, some are disabled and most are not on the internet. Many live alone, and otherwise would be isolated without the service, which takes customers back to their doors with their shopping where possible.

Anger was not enough. It was important to get to the heart of the issue, and where power lay. Word went round the bus that someone remembered back in the midsts of time that they thought Sainsbury’s were obligated to provide the service as a condition of obtaining the original planning permission for the store.

Rather than letting emotion get the better of us, I wanted to find out how I would discover if this was true.  I looked at the various planning decisions connected with the store, listed on the council website.  There was not enough information there – an indication that the store were required to produce a ‘travel plan’, not when the store was originally conceived in 1987, or built in 1992, but much more recently in 2004, when it received planning permission for a store extension.

Meeting the county councillor for Yateley East & Blackwater, Adrian Collett (left). Not sure why I look so stoney faced!

As it was a transport issue, I sought advice and counsel from my own local county councillor over the bridge in Hampshire, Adrian Collett.  He gave me the confidence to approach Surrey Heath, who were very happy to allow me access to all the planning documents in the archive, associated with the planning decision (Ref. 02/1126) – hundreds of pages of them!

As the paperwork demonstrated – and the officers who I followed it up with confirmed, there was indeed a planning condition on the development in the form of a Section 106 Agreement, which meant the store could only open, if it would continue to provide, and extend a free bus service to shoppers in the surrounding local community. One of the central issues was that the store cannot be reached by public transport, and local planning policy is actually to reduce reliance on private cars (even though you might not think it!

Once this was established, it was important to see if there was any chance of a change of heart on Sainsbury’s part.  While Surrey Heath Borough Council looked into the enforceability of the planning condition on a legal basis, they also engaged with Sainsbury’s. I made sure that information was also communicated back about the situation via the Stagecoach drivers, and on a personal level, sent an email to the local Sainsbury’s manager, asking him to suspend the axing of the service, since the enquiries about the enforceability of this planning condition were now going ahead.

It was also important to keep our community informed, but not be loud for the sake of it.  Posts were made regularly via the over 17,500 strong ‘Yateley CommunityFacebook group, which included photos of the regulars on the bus.  This helped mobilise strong community support, and word-of-mouth solidarity throughout the town.

The woeful late leaflet.

When no response came, it became clear that we had to reach out, so that the reputational damage threat was clear, as well as the potential legal enforcement. In what we thought was the final week of the bus, things really started to crank up.  By the Tuesday of that week, Sainsbury’s were getting the drivers of the bus to hand out the above leaflet – it was woeful. Not only was it late in the day, it was misleading. The headline said ‘Changes to your free bus service’ when actually it was AXING it. It went on to imply that there was a replacement service, when it was merely referring people to a ‘Dial-A-Ride’ service which Sainsbury’s do not fund, and to which shoppers from over the border in Hampshire and Berkshire would not be able to use. It also says that the ‘replacement’ service is for people ‘who have no access to bus routes’, when the real issue is that it is Sainsbury’s that is not on a bus route!!

Heartfelt cards from passengers on the bus.

The campaign continued to hot up. There had to be a way of people feeling involved, but there was little point of a petition at this stage. We each decided to send greetings cards to the manager of the store. It meant we were able to make the issue a real human one, and give it a personal touch.

Originally, we were going to send ‘Goodbye, We’ll Miss You‘ and ‘Sorry You’re Leaving Us…. Standing At The Bus Stop‘ cards, but the news of a 20% increase in Sainsbury’s profits on the day of what was due to be our last bus gave us an additional hook. Some also sent “Congratulations on your 20% Rise in Profits Today” cards too. All shoppers made sure we were considered as human collateral.

As well as this, I shared the story and photos of our group on the bus on Twitter. I was overwhelmed by the response. Broadcaster Nicky Campbell, and influential tweeter James Melville were amongst those who backed our cause (between them having over 231k followers alone!). The careful wording of the tweet meant that even Stagecoach ‘liked’ it, adding to its impact. We received a substantial number of Re-Tweets, helping us secure over 18,000 impressions for the post. The local Hants & Surrey Bus blogger picked up the story too. I had primed the local print newspaper to be across the story, but was being careful not to make too much noise for noise’s sake, despite obvious pressure from other passengers to approach local newspapers, and regional TV and radio.

The priority was always to get Sainsbury’s to ‘do the right thing‘ – and late in the day on Friday afternoon, I was called by one of the drivers, to say that Sainsbury’s were having a change of heart, and had made money available to continue the service until at least February. The threat of legal enforcement, and the growing clamour of damage to reputation in the local community must have been taking their toll.

Loyal customer – it’s just my neurological condition means I can’t otherwise get to the inaccesible store without a driving licence.

So, despite much skepticism (including on my part), the bus is still with us – a campaign success for the regulars on the bus.  I cannot tell you the difference it makes to the lives of the people on that bus – it is such a lifeline.  It remains to be seen if it will be permanent.

We must maintain vigilance. Hopefully, something can be resolved, and Sainsbury’s will see how it improves their standing in the community, but also ultimately, how it contributes to their bottom line (I don’t see how any assessment is made of how much we spend in the store, versus the cost of running the service) – and still, above all of this, it is a civic obligation, irrespective of the enforceability of a planning condition, which was clearly written to be enforceable for as long as people shopped at the store – unless Sainsbury’s applied through due process for the service obligation to be modified.

However, that reprieve may only be temporary. It still seems more than likely that legal advice to the Council or Sainsbury’s is that the Section 106 agreement may be unenforceable, as it did not specify a time-frame as originally drafted, even if it was intended to be for as long as the store traded! Hopefully, Sainsbury’s will follow the spirit of the legal agreement, especially if usage demonstrates community need, and to do otherwise would dent reputations – not to mention the threat of enforcement still remaining.

One improvement for now is that, in updating passengers about the situation, Stagecoach have put the timetable for the service on their website! You can find details by clicking here (still buried away a little, usually in Service Updates, but at least it is there). It also informs us that while the service continues to run “usage will be reviewed by Sainsbury’s“.  That means everyone must do all they can to ensure people know about the existence of the service, so that it can be as well used as the Yateley route on a Thursday – and hopefully the bus can continue beyond February!

There’s still some room on top for this service!  Thank you for your support.

[Postcript – throughout this period, an amazing level of service from the officers of Surrey Heath Borough Council; great relationships built with people at Stagecoach – but when it comes to the main players, Sainsbury’s, I can’t even get a reply to an extremely personal, heartfelt and diplomatic email, despite the fact that I spend £000s in their store each year. As a loyal customer for decades (and a PR practitioner), that makes me feel sad.]

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Counter-consultation crosses a boundary

The Boundary Commission‘s final proposals for the new boundaries for parliamentary constituencies have finally been laid before Parliament, as part of its review of seats.

Irrespective of whether I agreed with the decision to cut the number of seats, I do think the number of electors in each seat should be more equal – although I’m not sure it should be as arbitrarily applied as it has been in the process as we have seen – but my experience of the consultation process, and much of the outcome leads me to question the whole thing.

The proposals for the seat I live in (North East Hampshire) had been a bit of a joke, so I engaged with the consultation, offering some solutions to the issues involved.  For anyone who is interested, the town of Alton had been added to our constituency (even though it doesn’t sit anywhere near the other towns in the existing seat and is in another district/borough), but more importantly, Church Crookham (which sits in between my town of Yateley, and that of Alton) is split off from its ‘sister’ settlement of Fleet (they are basically inter-twined), and plonked in the separate constituency of Aldershot.

Looking out towards the Blackwater Valley from Yateley Common at Minley.

I know it is a difficult issue, balancing the numbers involved, and like the Commission, I found it impossible to resolve just by taking off a single ward here, and adding a ward there – but I did hit upon a solution, re-drawing the parliamentary constituencies across the county boundaries of Surrey and Hampshire, using the natural communities of the Blackwater Valley as their inspiration.  If you live in this patch, you know this is the reality when it comes to health provision, transport, education, employment, media and shopping for example.

Imagine my surprise when after the its consultation, the Boundary Commission concluded that it had not received any alternative counter proposals!!!

So, when it had a final consultation, I spent HOURS – nay, DAYS – doing the necessary work, constructing the new potential parliamentary constituencies using this approach, to demonstrate it IS possible to have an alternative proposal.

Imagine my despair, when yet again, the Boundary Commission conclude in their report, published today (10th September) that respondents “did not provide any alternative counter proposals” when I blatantly DID.

I made sure that I referred to their oversight in my submission to their final proposal, and so they could not say counter proposals had not been received, I put the detailed work in, working ward-by-ward, dealing with knock-on consequences in neighbouring constituencies.

I was expecting them to reject my proposals, of course.  What I wasn’t expecting them to do was completely ignore them for a second time.  It has totally undermined any residual faith I had in the system of public consultation in this country.  This was a genuine, and detailed attempt to engage with a public policy problem – and the process doesn’t even bother to acknowledge it.

For your perusal, I thought I would provide my proposals.

Blackwater Valley North means that the towns of Yateley (Hart, Hampshire) and Camberley (Surrey Heath, Surrey) are paired, which historically, makes much more sense.  The towns have strong public transport, shopping and employment links, and the surrounding towns of Blackwater, Hawley, Frimley and Bagshot make natural bed-fellows.  Frimley Park Hospital is a huge employer across more of this area arguably, than it is in the previous ‘Surrey Heath’ constituency, for example. It also deals with the anamoly of having Yateley, and a far flung town like Alton in the same seat.  It makes much more sense for Yateley and Camberley to be in the same seat, than Yateley and Fleet – despite being in the same district, there are zero public transport links, and very little shared shopping or employment.

Blackwater Valley Central seat re-unites Fleet with Church Crookham  in Hart, Hampshire (separated by the current boundary proposals), and puts them with conurbation of Farnborough (Rushmoor, Hampshire), which makes for a more natural fit, as part of an overall set of seats based around the wider ‘Blackwater Valley’ conurbation; which has been used in public policy making circles, following the course of the River Blackwater – and more recently, the Blackwater Valley Route (the A331).

Blackwater Valley South brings together the towns of Aldershot (Rushmoor, Hampshire) and Farnham (Waverley, Surrey), which arguably is the closest fit in all of these proposals.  It is bizarre in the extreme that the villages and towns of Weybourne, Badshot Lea, Ash and Tongham have all previously been in different constituencies.  A solution based on the Blackwater Valley would help solve this, and bring two great towns together into one seat.

East Hampshire in my updated proposals now includes all of the Alton seats, and Holybourne & Froyle, which in the Boundary Commissions proposals, had been switched to North East Hampshire.  This makes no sense at all, since they are part of the district of East Hampshire, and look more naturally towards Petersfield for representation – and are not a natural community with places like Yateley.

Guildford in my proposals has merely been tidied up to reflect the need to meet the constituency size rules.  This includes switching Pirbright and Normandy from the previous Woking seat (this makes total sense since they are in Guildford borough) together with Bisley (in Surrey Heath) and Brookwood (in Woking), which together form a natural set of shared communities, and could fit well in the Guildford constituency.  I have also included Mayford & Sutton Green ward (in Woking), and this fits well too in the northern fringes of Guildford.

Surrey/Hampshire Borders is effectively the South West Surrey seat of old, but I have taken out Farnham. In its place, I have included a number of wards which had previously been in the south of the Guildford constituency (centred on Cranleigh), but which are all actually in Waverley borough, so arguably make a better fit for this constituency.  As well as this, I have added three wards from East Hampshire.  It needed to do this for the size, but in fact, Bramshott & Liphook, Headley and Grayshott, arguably fit more naturally with the conurbations of Haslemere and Hinhead than they do with Bordon and Alton.

Woking is merely the same seat as before, updated to reflect my other changes. It now includes three wards from Surrey Heath (Chobham, Lightwater and West End) all of which fit more naturally with Woking than they do, say, Camberley.  Two wards have been taken out to Guildford (Normandy and Pirbirhgt) which are actually in Guildford borough anyway, and one ward is taken out (Mayford & Sutton Green) to help meet the numbers, but arguably is as much on the fringes of northern Guildford as it is southern Woking.

So, there you have it. I just wanted to show that when the Boundary Commission published their proposals today, and they said that there was an “absence of any such satisfactory overall counter proposal” for my area, they were wrong.  I’m not pretending I had all the answers – I am sure there are holes here – but I genuinely felt I had the beginning of an answer to some of the issues, yet no reference was made to this at all in two rounds of consultation. I was born and raised in this area, and feel I have a good understanding of the Commission’s challenge – but feel totally ignored.

I know they received the material, because it all sits, receipt acknowledged on their website.  It’s just no reference is made to it in its supposedly detailed reports.

   

If I was feeling a little more cynical, I might feel it had something to do with the fact that my solution would effectively remove the seats of cabinet ministers Michael Gove, and Jeremy Hunt.  And we couldn’t possibly have that, could we?

The whole process waiting for the final Boundary Commission proposals has been a real let-down, and an anti-climax.  For me, the process has not worked.  It has not produced a solution which works, even though one could exist.  In the new seat of North East Hampshire, I can’t get to the neighbouring town of Fleet just four miles away on public transport – and including Alton over twenty miles away is just absurd, even though Church Crookham, just over four miles in the same direction is not included.

I can genuinely understand why the eyes of thousands of people ‘roll’ when a public body announces it is putting a policy or proposal out to consultation – and I’m not sure I will be as keen to engage in future.  When a public body says no counter proposal has been suggested during a consultation process, when as you can see from what I have outlined, I did propose one, a boundary has been crossed (just as in the cross-county ‘Blackwater Valley’ based solution I offered in North East Hampshire).  I’m left feeling a little bit more dis-engaged.

Maltings radio project takes to the air

The Farnham Maltings is using the occasion of World Radio Day on Monday 13 February to announce that it is to launch its own radio project – and it wants the community to get involved. ‘Sound Vault’ will take to the air in the next year, and will seek to create a ‘radio space for all’, where volunteers can flex their creative muscles, the community can tell their stories, and everyone can get a platform for their artistic talents.

nickycampbell

Me with former ‘charge’, BBC Radio 5 Live breakfast presenter Nicky Campbell.

Sound Vault’ will utilise the possibilities offered by podcasting technology to give a wider range of people the chance to make programmes, and share them with a bigger audience. I’m thrilled to be able to say that I will be leading the project as a volunteer, after going to them with the germ of an idea, and capitalising on my experience working for BBC Radio 1, then later with Kiss FM and Bam-Bam (see below), and subsequently with Mark Goodier and Nicky Campbell.

wrd2017_logo_en_blackblue

Explaining the idea, Gavin Stride, who is the Farnham Maltings’ Director (and head honcho) said;

“World Radio Day – this year on Monday 13 February – was established by the United Nations to celebrate radio as a medium, and to encourage us all to use it to promote freedom of expression. Radio is the mass media reaching the widest audience in the world, and is a powerful storytelling tool. It is only right that the Farnham Maltings use World Radio Day to reveal our exciting plans.”

 

Initial programming plans centre around four themes:-

Voice: personal story-telling; oral history; and voices from the street;

Audio Collage: sound creations, where music meets speech;

Specialist Music: exploring music genres missing a platform elsewhere;

Maltings + : an audio dimension to the Farnham Maltings’ own programme.

The online radio platform will be accompanied by a website, and social media dedicated to celebrating listening more generally around the world.

Former Kiss FM breakfast show DJ Bam Bam has dropped by to advise me on the plans.

Former Kiss FM breakfast show DJ Bam Bam has dropped by to give me some advice on the plans. Bam presented the show for 7 years, and won countless Sony Radio Academy Awards, before going on to become a pioneer in podcasting. Back in 2006, he was one of the first DJs to launch a daily podcast, and his ‘Faceless‘ podcast was one of the most downloaded of that year.  Today, as well as presenting the breakfast show on Southampton’s Sam FM, his audioshows.com consultancy is behind the successful Brain Training Podcast which has reached number 11 in the Top 100 podcasts on iTunes.

Sound Vault’ is now putting out a call for volunteers who are interested in getting involved in the project – whether in the shape of production, technology, digital, legal, music or oral history/digital heritage expertise. People interested in becoming involved with the project can find out more details at Farnham Maltings’ refreshers, festival of retirement on Monday 27 February where I will be running a stand between 11.00am and 4.00pm – or by emailing me at paul@dutchHQ.com.

Once a volunteer team has been recruited, the plan is to reach out to source programme content from the community, using a studio at the Farnham Maltings, portable digital recording equipment, and ‘pop-up’ recording booths.

While I live just eleven or so miles up the road in Yateley, I was born in Farnham, and my family have lived around this area of the Surrey/Hampshire border, whether in Bentley, Church Crookham, Crondall, DeepcutDogmersfield, Elvetham, Frimley,Odiham, Rotherwick, South Warnborough or Yateley for hundreds of years – so a project dedicated to tapping into local story-telling is extremely important to me.

Farnham Maltings

Farnham Maltings

The project, while centred on the Farnham Maltings, and surrounding communities on the Surrey/Hampshire border, will ensure that its horizons are global as well as local. Updates about its development will follow in the coming months. It is expected to launch in time for World Radio Day 2018.  Updates will be posted at www.farnhammaltings.com/soundvault . Stay tuned!

 

a radio space for all.

a radio space for all.

Get involved – email paul@dutchHQ.com

** For anyone who doesn’t know, Farnham Maltings is a creative organisation that works with the artists and communities of South East England to encourage the greatest number of people to make, see and enjoy the best art possible. From a range of buildings, set in the heart of Farnham, they present events and workshops from large scale craft festivals to intimate cabaret shows, as well as proving space for voluntary and community groups to deliver their own ambitions. They enable artists making craft, theatre and dance work to thrive by providing affordable studio and rehearsal space, offering producing and tour booking, developing networks, sharing resources and equipping artists with the skills and opportunities to promote their work locally, nationally and internationally. farnhammaltings.com . They are a perfect fit for a project like Sound Vault – and I’m really excited to be working with them.