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 S Williams, Topping, Silver, Rogers, Bashir, Bell, Dhindsa, J Brown, Walford, Mehta, Haley indicated that they wished to ask questions.
a) Councillor S Williams congratulated the Mayor on becoming a Baroness and her ‘elevation’ to the House of Lords. He asked the Mayor if, in her role as a member of the Liberal Democrat shadow team, she would apologise for her government’s role in putting over a million people on foodbanks.
The Mayor said that she would not apologise for her party going into coalition with the Conservatives when the country needed it. It had been a strong coalition, which had been graciously admitted by the Conservatives. It had stabilised the economy and allowed the country to be in a better position five years later. She commented that not everything had been good in coalition for Liberal Democrats. In a coalition each side had to compromise. It had been the first coalition since the second world war.
The Mayor added that there were many things her party had not agreed with in the coalition. She stressed that foodbanks had not materialised during the coalition; this was a myth. If this had been the case the Trussell Trust would not have existed, who had been present during Labour’s administration. She was sorry that people found themselves in the position of needing to visit foodbanks.
b) Councillor Topping stated that she was concerned about the visiting market booking the prime spaces on Watford High Street for the key Christmas period. Regular stallholders had contacted her with their worries. They had built up a trade over many months and would now be moved during a vital trading period. She asked the Mayor about the loyalty for the town’s stallholders who had supported the market. She questioned whether it would be prudent to locate the Christmas market near the proposed ice rink; this would create a festive theme and allow the loyal stallholders to remain in their current location.
The Mayor clarified that it was the outdoor day stalls that had been asked to move. It was unfortunate that unintentionally the story in the Watford Observer read as though the disruption would affect the main market, located off The Parade. She emphasised that only the day stalls would be affected. She considered Mr Hickman, who ran the fruit and vegetable stall, to be the only one who could be considered as a loyal trader. His stall would be moving to the fly over where he had been at the beginning. She felt that the decision to allow him to trade outside the main market had been part of the reason the market had not been as successful as it could have been. Markets needed their fruit and vegetable stalls, fishmongers and the other regular stalls. Another trader had an indoor and outdoor stall. She did not recognise the other day stalls as loyal traders. They had only recently started coming; they were able to come as and when they wanted. They were all businesses. She had received letters complaining about the day stalls and that they paid less than the regular traders in the main market. She did not feel the Council had any loyalty to the day stalls other than the fruit and vegetable stall.
The Mayor referred to Councillor Topping’s suggestion that the Christmas market should be located near the ice rink. The organisers of the German market knew their business. They had visited and had said they would come to the town on condition that they could be located in that part of The Parade. She reminded Council that a festive market was good and that there were other towns who would want the opportunity to host a festive market. The aim was to support the regular market and its loyal traders, who had stayed through ‘thick and thin’. The market would be in the best place where it would get the best trade.
c) Councillor Silver made reference to Charter Place, which was included in the Mayor’s report. He understood that work was due to start imminently. However, he had heard through the press that there would be delays as the contract with the original developer had fallen through. He asked if the Mayor could give assurance that the development would start on schedule and if she was able to advise who had been awarded the contract.
The Mayor advised that Intu was responsible for the management of their contractors. The Council was aware that there had been issues. She asked officers to provide an update.
The Head of Democracy and Governance informed the Mayor and Council that on Tuesday she had sealed the general vesting declarations. They would be served on the requisite businesses and advised when they needed to vacate the premises. The documents would be available from Thursday in the Customer Service Centre for public inspection. The leaseholders and owner occupiers would be notified. Intu had given the Council clear instructions to progress the Compulsory Purchase Orders, as they intended to start the works by the middle of November. She had asked that Members were provided with an update on Charter Place.
The Managing Director confirmed that some of the demolition works would commence towards the end of the calendar year and major development would start in the Spring. Intu had appointed a new contractor to construct the new Charter Place, but due to commercial negotiations they were unable to make the details public.
The Mayor reminded Council that Major Projects Board would be monitoring progress. She said that people spoke to her about Charter Place and that it was ‘in a mess’. She had to remind them that a new one was going to be built, sometimes they seemed to be unaware of the new scheme.
d) Councillor Rogers stated he also wished to congratulate the Mayor on her peerage. In the future the town would have three prominent politicians in the House of Lords, the Mayor, Baroness Brinton and the Right Honourable Lord Garel-Jones.
Councillor Rogers stated that Woodside residents in Weall Green and Louvain Way had problems with mobile phone masts. In 2011 a large mast was erected and then in 2014 an illegal mast was placed next to the original. These were next to a children’s play area. It showed a clear trend of an industry pushing for larger and more powerful masts regardless of local residents. He had noted it was proposed that the Council introduced a Tall Buildings Policy. He welcomed it and asked that all masts should be referred to it. This would enable the Council to have more control over these tall and often inappropriately sited structures. He asked the Mayor to support this proposal.
The Mayor explained that although she wished she could support the suggestion, masts had permitted development rights. There had been a change in government guidance and operators were required to show they had considered other locations. She recalled being a member of Development Control when masts had been a major issue. There were not many more masts. The majority of people had a mobile phone and they were in use 24 hours of the day. In her opinion it was more about the location of the masts and whether they were in keeping with the neighbourhood. There was no proven evidence of harm to people caused by the masts. She felt it was necessary to consider the best location. In areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty they had been disguised as trees and other ingenious disguises. She wished the Council had more authority over their location. Some of the companies spoke to officers about intended locations for their masts.
The Mayor suggested that he should be more worried about some of the proposed legislation which extended permitted development rights. There were also plans to bypass local authorities in some planning decisions, including in the new Housing Bill. She assured Members that the Council did try to discuss masts with the operators and find the best location.
e) Councillor Bashir also offered the Mayor his congratulations on her peerage and her appointment to the Liberal Democrat shadow front bench.
Councillor Bashir advised that his question related to the announcement of the permanent closure of the Watford Custody Suite. Detainees and suspects from Watford and surrounding areas would have to be taken to Hatfield or Stevenage. There would be a significant impact on the resources of front line officers, who would be diverted away from day time and night time duties in Watford, particularly the Town Centre in the evening. He asked the Mayor if she recognised the potential negative impact on law and order in Watford and whether she had spoken with partner agencies about this decision.
The Mayor responded that she was not aware that the decision was for the permanent closure. She suggested that the Community Safety Partnership Task Group made its views clear about the matter. She had made her views clear and was not aware it was a permanent decision. She advised that she would report back to Members with further information.
f) Councillor Bell asked the Mayor if she agreed that all groups within the Council should send a united message to County Councillor Terry Douris, Executive member for Highways and Waste Management, and the County Council asking for the abandonment of the one-way trial in Vicarage Road. It affected the whole of Watford and not just his ward. At the recent Highways Liaison Meeting all those present agreed the scheme should be abandoned immediately. This would benefit the whole of Watford.
The Mayor commented that she could recall a similar scheme in her road. She said that any change to traffic threw everyone into chaos. She had spoken to County Councillor Douris on several occasions. She advised Council that the County Councillor had suggested it should be a trial as originally officers had wanted it to be a permanent scheme. Currently the County Council was trying to collect data. She had made her views clear. The situation appeared to have settled down since the initial problems. She had travelled to West Watford during this morning’s rush hour and it had taken 17 minutes. The data was required for Croxley Rail Link and the station. She believed it was clear that this was not a permanent solution. County Councillor Douris had got the message. It had been anticipated that there would be problems, however officers wanted to see what the impact would be on the area. She said that it had been good to see all Councillors working together. She expected the trial would continue for a while longer, but not until February.
g) Councillor Dhindsa commented that the hospital was in special measures which was due to the lack of funding from the coalition government and the current government. There was no funding in place for a new hospital. Watford might have a health campus without a new hospital. He asked if the Mayor thought it was still worth pursuing the use of the allotments or whether they should be allowed to remain.
` The Mayor responded that the opposite was true. She strongly believed that when the hospital consultation had been completed, it would not only be desirable to include the allotments in the scheme, it would be necessary. The Council had not pursued this route because it was against allotments. The administration had looked at the hospital’s real estate and the huge funding required to bring the hospital up to modern standards. It was recognised that the hospital would require land to decant and move.
The Mayor said she refuted Labour’s utopia. Labour gave the impression that everything was wonderful during Labour’s government. Watford Hospital had suffered from under-funding for many years. The Labour Government had introduced Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and this was the only way hospitals could get funding. Hospitals had to have foundation status to be able to get PFI. The problems occurring in Watford Hospital did not happen over a few years; successive governments had been responsible. She refuted the initial premise and was sure that the allotments would be required for the hospital.
h) Councillor J Brown asked the Mayor if she could explain the current progress of the market.
The Mayor stated that everyone was concerned about the market. She reminded Members that previously the town had had a failing market. It had been a difficult process understanding the right type of market for Watford and what people wanted. She thought the situation was improving and had advised the management company that the Council wanted to see improvements by Christmas. Occupancy rates were good. It had been Town and Country Markets’ decision to allow some traders to use the units for storage, which meant the units were always closed. Currently there were eight empty units, of which five were under negotiation. Today there were more applicants than empty units. Most stallholders had been renewing their leases.
The Mayor informed Council that the footfall counters showed that there were 10,000 movements through the market every week. The wrap around the food court would be starting soon; providing a windshield effect. The colourful wrap would be installed after Christmas as it had been decided not to disrupt trade during the Christmas trading period. New graphics had been added to the containers making them brighter. The Council had asked the management company to get tougher with the day stalls, for example waste dispersal. The Mayor commented that she believed that the Council would never be able to please those people who wanted the old style market in its old location. She did receive correspondence from people who liked the New Watford Market. She recognised that she would not be able to please all of the people all of the time.
i) Councillor Walford asked the Mayor if she could provide an update on the Business Improvement District (BID) ballot.
The Mayor commented that as Councillors they all knew what they had to do to get the electorate out to vote. The ballot had been a learning curve for staff. She had warned them at a Town Centre Partnership meeting that it would be like an election. They had learnt to canvass and had spoken to every business to try and persuade them of the value of a BID. All major towns and cities had a BID. They would be continuing to remind businesses to vote. They had so far had a 30% response rate. This was on a par with a local election and they were hoping this would increase to nearer a general election turnout.
j) Councillor Mehta congratulated the Mayor on her peerage and appointment to the Liberal Democrat’s shadow Cabinet. She was proud of another lady from Watford sitting in the House of Lords.
Councillor Mehta said that she was on the Palace Theatre Committee, which was organising Diwali on the Parade and Diwali at the Palace , taking place next Sunday. She asked her fellow councillors to encourage their residents to attend and support the events.
Councillor Dhindsa stated that Diwali was celebrated by various faith groups.
The Mayor responded that it did not matter what faith people held, everyone would have a good time and they would enjoy the event. The event was community-led. Initially there was nervousness about taking the event out of the theatre and on to the street, as there was uncertainty how people would respond. The result was the public responded brilliantly. The nicest part was when the young people processed with their lanterns. After the event she had received the odd email questioning why the event had taken place. She had no hesitation in responding that it was a community event for all the community.
The Mayor added that if there were any other faith groups who wanted to use the space for a celebration they could approach the Council. It was a community space. It was also used by the Muslim group for the start of their march they held.
The Mayor informed Council that part of the conditions of the Palace Theatre grant was that they needed to provide more outreach work and to work with the ethnic minority communities.
k) Councillor Haley said that his question was a follow up to the earlier question about the BID ballot. At the previous meeting he had asked whether the Council would provide extra support to the approach roads to the Town Centre, including Queens Road and Market Street. He asked whether the Mayor could provide any further information on any actions for those areas.
The Mayor advised that until the current BID had been secured there would not be any further work for the other areas. She added that Queens Road had been excluded for the first BID as it largely comprised independent retailers and if agreed they would be required to pay an additional sum. It was also necessary to consider if the work being undertaken would encourage additional footfall into the town. In other places it had often been the case that the initial area had spread. When re-ballots had been held the original area had expanded. Queens Road was a neighbourhood centre and was recognised as that. She was aware of the Councillor’s concerns for the area.