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 Bashir, Bolton, Haley, Turmaine, Connal, Khan, S Williams, Silver, Rogers, Shah and Bell indicated that they wished to ask questions.
a) Councillor Bashir congratulated the Mayor on her sponsored fast in aid of the Watford Youth Centre. He hoped that it had not been too taxing. She had raised money for a worthy cause.
Councillor Bashir said that his question related to the Croxley Rail Link. He welcomed the progress that had been made. He asked the Mayor if she could update Council on whether there was any progress on securing the future of Watford Metropolitan line station
The Mayor said that she had fasted for a full 24 hours as she had not been aware that she could get up in the night and eat. She added that she had read about it and it had helped in understanding the benefits of fasting, which was relevant for all religions. She advised that she had raised a few thousand pounds for the Tolpits Lane centre. All funds helped the group to reach their final total.
The Mayor informed Council that the Croxley Rail Link should now be referred to as the extension of the Metropolitan line. All works were on track although there had been some slippage in the timetable, which for the size of the project was inevitable and was allowed for in the plan. Since the first day, Transport for London and the County Council felt that the closure of the Watford Metropolitan station was the price to be paid in order to benefit the rest of Watford. In carrying out a critical analysis of the cost benefit of the proposal put forward, the Mayor said she had made it work. They had not assumed the station would have to close. Park Ward Councillors had worked hard on this topic and continued to do so. She would continue to try to persuade those in charge to find a way to retain the station, particularly at peak times.
b) Councillor Bolton asked if the Mayor was as shocked as he was following the recent announcement by the County Council to cut funding to the exceptional work of Home-Start. This would leave needy families having to be supported by Children’s Centres, who were already very busy and may lack some of the skills required to deal with the complex issues of some families.
The Mayor responded that she was not really shocked by the announcement, but she was disappointed. She said that the local government cuts were starting to bite. The Local Government Association had carried out a full critique of how councils had been affected by the cuts. It had shown that districts had fared the best and shire counties had fared the worst. She advised that she understood the position the County Council was in. However, she questioned whether the County Council had made the right decision to cut the budget, which was relatively small in comparison with the County Council’s overall budget. She did not feel the County Council had made the right decision. The County Council stated that the Children’s Centres were a service that provided practical support to young families. She found this to be patronising and was concerned the County Council did not understand the organisation’s work. Home-Start worked with those families who did not engage with Children’s Centres. If Members spoke to Children’s Centres they would be informed that the Centres found that getting to the hard to reach families was their biggest challenge. However, Home-Start was usually able to reach these families, as the group was not considered to be ‘officialdom’; it was not part of Social Services. They were volunteers who were trained. They gave up to three hours practical support each week to each family. It was delivered cost effectively. 120 families were supported, who tended not to engage. They were troubled families, which had been a successful initiative from the Coalition Government. The initiative referred to Home-Start. Health visitors referred families to Home-Start. This was not a ‘do good’ organisation. It met the hard to reach and challenging families. The Mayor stated that she would be meeting Emma, Home-Start’s Chief Executive, to discuss the organisation’s future plans.
The Mayor reiterated that she was not shocked by the cut in funding. She feared that the worst was to come. There was to be an emergency budget in the near future and she questioned what might be included in it. The Government had ring fenced many budgets in their election promises that local government would undoubtedly be affected. The way Watford Borough Council had managed its budget, she considered that Watford residents had not noticed any changes. However, she was fearful of what was to come.
c) Councillor Haley stated that he considered the Mayor had painted too rosy a picture of antisocial behaviour in Watford and questioned whether she lived in the same town as the residents and himself. He gave details of recently reported statistics. He referred to a local vicar who had reported to him numerous incidents of antisocial behaviour and criminal activities taking place within the church grounds or surrounding area. He said that residents in his ward were fed up with a complacent council and asked what action the Mayor would be taking.
The Mayor said she was staggered by the confrontational manner of the question. All Central Ward Councillors were concerned about antisocial behaviour in the ward. It was not about complacency. Father David had already spoken to the Police. The majority of incidents were not antisocial behaviour but criminal behaviour. In those cases it was the responsibility of neighbourhood policing. Ward Councillors needed to work with the neighbourhood police to establish priorities. She referred to discussions about the removal of a phone box.
The Mayor said that she did not paint a rosy picture; she painted a realistic picture of what was happening in the town. The 19% reported increase in crime was due to the way crime was reported. Previously for example an incident involving 10 people was reported as one crime, now it was reported as 10 crimes. It was accepted by all Council Leaders across the country that there would be an increase in crime until such time as all incidents were recorded in the same way. The criminal damage could be traced to one person and the Police was dealing with this.
The Mayor commented that she did not recognise the Councillor’s description of that area of Central Watford. She was recently in that area and had commented that it was a nice place to live. If there were issues in the area around the church the neighbourhood team should be dealing with them. Ward Councillors needed to be in contact with the team and asking what was being done.
d) Councillor Turmaine had noted in the Mayor’s report about the Big Events programme, which everyone was looking forward to. He asked if she could explain what was being done to ensure that the extra footfall coming to the events in the Town Centre would benefit the market.
The Mayor responded that the market needed to sell itself. The Council could bring the footfall to the town and that was one of the objectives of the Big Events. This would increase secondary spend, which should benefit the bars, restaurants and market. Footfall counters had been introduced in the town. One had been placed to enable the counting of people through the market. The recent count had been 11,000 people per week. It was then up to the traders to encourage people to stop and buy.
e) Councillor Connal made reference to the creation of jobs connected to the Charter Place redevelopment. She asked whether it would be possible to guarantee the jobs for local Watford people.
The Mayor said it was not possible; it would be lovely if all employment law could be ignored and only people from Watford could be employed. No one was able to do that. In the contracts controlled by the Council and working with partners, companies were encouraged to use local supply chains and local people. It would be illegal to insist a company had to employ people from Watford. The Mayor stated that unemployment was minimal. The NEETS, those young people not in employment, education or training, was the lowest in the country. The town’s statistics were well below the national average and that for the East of England. However, the creation of jobs was still paramount, as it kept the town vibrant. There were two prestigious companies who wanted to move to Watford. This would be a good news story for the town. Some of the jobs would go to local people. The jobs were not all low skilled. It was important to offer jobs with a range of skills. The Mayor added that it was the Council’s role for the town to be open for business, assuring business that it was a business friendly town.
f) Councillor Khan asked the Mayor, following the General Election, whether she still wanted to continue with her ‘second preference job’.
The Mayor responded that of course she was happy to continue as Mayor. If he was asking if she was ready to retire, she stated she was not. She confirmed that she wanted to continue to serve Watford and continue the work already started.
g) Councillor S Williams said that this was the third time he had asked a question about the market. He asked the Mayor whether she had visited the market since the heaters had been installed and if they were working.
` The Mayor informed Council that the footfall counters showed an increase from 8,000 visitors to 11,000. She confirmed that she visited the market. She stated that she received a few positive emails about the market over the last week. They had been from younger people and one from a Council employee. She had been stopped in the Town Centre and told the heaters were working. There was still some work to be done. For example whether the food stalls were staining the pavement and if they should be outside some of the shops. However, it seemed to be moving in the right direction. She had received a text from someone to say that part of town was ‘buzzing’. There were definite signs of improvement. The Liberal Democrat Councillors who were pro-markets would not let the situation rest. Everyone wanted it to be a success story, unfortunately it had taken longer than she would have hoped.
h) Councillor Silver asked the Mayor if she could clarify how she knew all 150 calls were spurious, as referenced in her antisocial behaviour update.
The Mayor suggested that it might be useful for the antisocial behaviour officer to talk to Members, particularly those newly elected, to remind everyone of their role. The Mayor advised that the Council worked with the Housing Trust and Police. They responded to every call and investigated the matter. In this particular case one person had been identified as making the vindictive calls. Every call was logged and therefore counted.
The Mayor commented that the questions from the two new councillors had made her realise that all Members needed reassurance about how antisocial behaviour was dealt with. If that was not reflected in the reality of wards then it would be necessary to see what was happening. There were the Police and the Council and Trust’s antisocial behaviour officers that could be contacted. No case should take longer than required to acquire the evidence for the case. This could be challenging for residents as they wanted problems to be stopped immediately.
i) Councillor Rogers said that his question was about the insulation work at Magpie Place in Boundary Way. The work had caused a great deal of mess and problems. In 2013 residents had been advised it would take three months; it had now taken over a year and the work was still not finished. For years he had written to the Mayor’s colleagues about residents’ complaints and concerns about outstanding snagging items. The pointing at properties in Magpie Place was a mess and was not water-tight. All works needed to be done again properly. However, the new pointing in Lapwing Place was perfect. The residents in Magpie Place had had their properties devalued compared to those in Lapwing Place.
Councillor Rogers stated that he had discovered that the Council held £48,000 for retention and to rectify the work in Magpie Place, however as yet no snagging work had been done. He questioned why residents were still living with the mess when the Council could have helped them years ago.
The Mayor commented that she assumed this was a Watford Community Housing Trust matter. She understood it affected two properties. She suggested that if Councillor Rogers wanted her to raise the matter with the Trust she would. If the money was held for works as mentioned, it was probably not held by the Council. She was unaware of the Council holding money in trust for the Housing Trust. She felt this was a matter between the tenants and Housing Trust, but she was happy to follow up on the matter. The Mayor advised that Councillor Collett may have further information which she would provide after the meeting.
j) Councillor Shah informed the Mayor that following the incident in the Town Centre the previous week, she had been approached by residents and the presidents from the three Mosques in the town. Due to Ramadan the Mosques stayed open until the early hours of the morning. She had approached the Police and raised her concerns. The Police had reassured her that would provide extra patrols around all three Mosques. Councillor Shah asked what action the Mayor had taken on this issue.
The Mayor explained that when there was a major incident the responsibility lay with the Police and the Council’s major partners. Her role was to ascertain that a community impact assessment was done. She had been reassured by the Police that extra patrols had been provided not only around the Mosques, but also to churches and other places of worship. She had been informed that key people in the community had been notified. The Mayor said that it was important that the Police had quickly made it clear that racial hatred was not a motivation. She had been also relieved when she had been advised that device had not been viable. If either of those circumstances has been true then Councillors would have been informed; the Police were good at keeping Members informed. When she had spoken to people in the community they had not been over frightened or over concerned. The Police were good at keeping everyone informed.
k) Councillor Bell stated that his question related to principles and u-turns. he had noted the Mayor’s comments on park and ride and how she seemed to have changed her views since 2002. At that time the Liberal Democrats had been against it. He referred to a Liberal Democrat leaflet which stated that the Liberal Democrats were campaigning for a ‘No’ vote on the Mayoral referendum. He questioned whether there were any other policies where she would do a u-turn.
The Mayor responded that with regard to mayoral powers, prior to the referendum it had not been clear how the checks and balances within the Council would work. It was an untried system; different to London. Liberal Democrats were suspicious of the power held by the Mayor and how they would be held to account. However, the system appeared to work. The checks and balances were done by the non-executive councillors. The call-in process was available. She felt that if there was a democratic deficit in local government it was at the Police and Crime Commissioner level. There was no holding the Commissioner to account. There was no equivalent of call-in. She added that both she and Ken Livingstone had campaigned against the role of elected mayor and then carried out that role.
In response to the comments about park and ride, the Mayor said the Councillor’s comments were a travesty. He had been referring to land that was located within Hertsmere Borough Council. The Liberal Democrats had not believed that locating the park and ride scheme within sight of the Harlequin would encourage people to leave their cars. If a park and ride was to be successful, it needed to be located sufficiently far enough away and the car journey in so difficult that people then wanted to use the park and ride. The reference had been to a specific proposal in a specific location. In terms of the principle of park and ride, the Portfolio Holder for Planning had done a great deal of research and wanted the mayor to look into sites for a park and ride scheme. The Mayor stated that sites had been sought for a scheme. The problem was that any sites suitable to help Watford’s congestion were located within neighbouring authorities. None of the authorities were happy to help with a solution. This was absolutely not a u-turn. If there were to be a giant car park on the outskirts of Watford of course she should try to negotiate a scheme and help relieve the congestion along Hempstead Road.