A report of the Mayor had been circulated with the agenda.
The Chairman invited members to indicate whether they wished to ask a question of the Mayor. Councillors Bell, Martins, Bashir, Saffery, Mauthoor, Smith, Stotesbury, Turmaine and Dhindsa indicated that they wished to ask questions.
1. Councillor Bell thanked the Mayor for his close partnership work with all members during the Covid 19 lockdown. He acknowledged the Mayor’s responses to his questions regarding John Lewis’s decision to close its Watford store. Stating that the John Lewis Partnership’s intention to adapt its operations at a national level had been the subject of press speculation for some time, Councillor Bell questioned whether the Mayor had met with representatives from the Partnership only since its 2 July announcement or whether there had been meetings prior to this date
The Mayor acknowledged the benefits of regular cross-party working during Covid 19 which had played an important part in co-ordinating the council’s response to the pandemic. Referring to Councillor Bell’s substantive question, the Mayor confirmed that he had met with John Lewis’s senior management team last week to discuss the closure. He confirmed that the Council would do all it could to support those individuals who had lost their jobs. There was a widespread desire for John Lewis to maintain its 140 year presence in the town. The Mayor underlined his commitment to ensure that Watford maintained a thriving town centre.
2. In a supplementary question, Councillor Bell cited articles which had appeared in The Guardian on 8 February and again on 5 March in The Guardian and Financial Times regarding the possibility of store closures and job losses in the John Lewis group. He asked why the Mayor had not sought an urgent meeting with the Chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, Dame Sharon White, at the time the articles had appeared. He noted that a meeting with Dame Sharon White had still not taken place.
The Mayor advised that he had written to Dame Sharon White to request a meeting and also maintained regular and on-going contact with the intu management to pursue the best possible outcome for the town. He outlined the broader difficulties faced by John Lewis and confirmed that the local store paid no rent and, since mid-March of this year, had paid no business rates. The Mayor invited positive input from all parties to promote the town, including its retail sector which had been hard hit by the Covid 19 lockdown.
3. Councillor Martins thanked the Mayor for his help for victims of Covid 19 in the town which had been widely appreciated. However, he remained concerned about the effects of Covid 19 on the welfare of children, particularly in regard to their mental health. Although responsibility for children’s services rested with Hertfordshire County Council, those suffering lived in Watford. Councillor Martins asked what issues had been raised in the Mayor’s conversations with head teachers and what help had been offered.
The Mayor thanked Councillor Martins for his actions to support the voluntary sector during lockdown, including in his capacity as the council’s mental health champion. He acknowledged the work undertaken with head teachers to help identify families in need and those struggling with mental health issues. The Mayor drew attention to the Watford Together website (www.watfordtogether.co.uk), which had a section on mental health and wellness with signposting to sources of help. In addition, the Mayor outlined the recently opened healthy hub at the Town Hall, which had a focus on mental health issues.
4. Councillor Bashir added his thanks for the cross-party partnership, liaison and dialogue which had been maintained during the Covid 19 lockdown. He also welcomed the considerable work undertaken to provide shelter for Watford’s rough sleepers. Referring to media reports about the problems facing intu, Councillor Bashir queried the Mayor’s high-level plan to maintain Watford as a premier destination for shopping in the south east of England.
The Mayor welcomed praise for the council’s housing team, which had worked hard with New Hope and One YMCA to move rough sleepers into accommodation. In response to Councillor Bashir’s question, the Mayor emphasised the profitability of intu in Watford, which had been one of the busiest centres since lockdown restrictions had eased. He reiterated the changing nature of retail which saw people wanting to combine shopping with other activities, such as bowling, seeing a film or going climbing. The Mayor remained confident of finding a new owner for intu Watford.
5. Councillor Saffery asked the Mayor about rumours relating to a government White Paper on local government reorganisation, specifically whether the Mayor had seen any proposals to abolish Watford Borough Council and to confirm his determination to ensure that the town continued to determine its own future rather than being subsumed into a wider unitary authority.
The Mayor agreed that the current government appeared set on a reorganisation of local government. His priority remained the interests of local residents and these were not best served by a single authority in Hertford looking after the diverse interests of 1.2 million people in Hertfordshire. The timing of the proposals was poor; residents were currently facing real economic and health concerns. The Mayor was proud of the officers at Watford Borough Council and would oppose rigorously any proposals to form a single unitary council.
6. Councillor Mauthoor thanked the Mayor for his cross-party working and officers for their hard work during the Covid 19 pandemic. She questioned whether voluntary charities would be able to sustain services should there be a second wave of the virus.
The Mayor agreed that the voluntary sector faced significant challenges. Over recent weeks, there had been huge demands on its services at a time of financial pressure not least due to lost income streams. For this reason the Mayor had set up the Watford Covid Appeal, which had raised over £150,000 to date to help local charities. The Mayor stated that he would continue to do everything he could to support Watford’s voluntary sector and welcomed help from all councillors in this endeavour.
7. Councillor Smith outlined the importance of Watford’s performance and events venues, including Watford Colosseum, and asked what work was being undertaken to reopen their doors.
The Mayor described the Watford Together initiative, which had brought together a number of important local venues including the Watford Palace Theatre, the Pump House and Watford Football Club. Citing the government’s £1.5 billion funding package for the arts, the Mayor confirmed that he would be arguing for a fair share of this money for the town’s cultural sector. The council was keen to open venues as soon as it was safe to do so and officers were working to secure this outcome.
8. Councillor Stotesbury asked the Mayor to provide an update on the council’s green initiatives, including the Beryl bike usage figures. He asked whether the Mayor would be attending the council’s Sustainability Forum event which was taking place at 7pm on 28 July.
The Mayor welcomed the nearly 40,000 journeys, or around 195,000 kilometres cycled, on Beryl bikes since their launch in March. Earlier this month the on-demand buses had been launched creating another sustainable transport choice for local residents. Mayor Taylor underlined the importance of Watford’s environment. During lockdown there had been a reduction in congestion resulting in cleaner air in the town. He would continue to work with businesses to promote environmental issues in the future. The Mayor confirmed his attendance at the Sustainability Forum on 28 July.
9. Councillor Turmaine added his thanks for the council’s work helping the homeless during the lockdown. He considered that it would be a tragedy if they were allowed to return to the streets. Considering Watford’s retail sector, Councillor Turmaine asked the Mayor if he knew what was happening with other flagship stores in the town.
The Mayor added his praise for the work which had been undertaken to alleviate homelessness in Watford, including the One YMCA initiative to provide addiction support. Addressing Councillor Turmaine’s question, the Mayor reiterated his responses to earlier questions about his contact with Watford’s retail sector and the underlying problems it was facing. He underlined the importance of the council retaining its freehold, and therefore influence, on the shopping centre which had been opposed by Labour councillors previously.
10. Councillor Dhindsa echoed his thanks for the close partnership working between Watford’s political parties and the efforts of officers to alleviate the impact of Covid 19. Moving on, Councillor Dhindsa focussed his comments on the £150,000 which had been raised in the Watford Covid Appeal. He expressed concern about the lack of funding provided for BAME groups.
The Mayor refuted any suggestion of racial bias in decision making when allocating money from the Watford Covid Appeal. It was unhelpful to suggest improper process. Money had been distributed to over 40 organisations representing Watford’s diverse communities and targeting those most in need. The fund raising effort had been supported by Councillors Saffery and Allen-Williamson and the assistance of other councillors would be welcomed in the future. Full information about all recipients was available on the Watford Covid Appeal website.