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 Rogers, Bolton, Bashir, Martins, S Williams, Dhindsa, Turmaine, Topping, Silver, Haley and Connal indicated that they wished to ask questions.
a) Councillor Rogers explained that a resident in his ward had written to the Watford Observer expressing surprise that Watford was building houses again. Under the previous government coalition, tenants had the right to buy. He said that less than a year ago the people of Watford had voted for the present government and it was heard from Watford Community Housing Trust (WCHT) residents that a key reason for this was an extension of the right to buy for housing association tenants. He asked if the Mayor could give an assurance that homes built and rented out under the joint venture between the WCHT and Watford Borough Council would be eligible for the right to buy after the requisite number of years and meeting the other necessary conditions.
The Mayor responded that the shortage of social rented homes would at some point be a very serious issue. She said that people working at all levels, for example in schools and in hospitals, needed to be housed. As rents were going up, social and affordable housing was absolutely key. She explained that the Council had taken an innovative step to form its own company and to start building again after many years of councils not doing this. It had been decided not to extend the right to buy to those homes simply because they wanted them to remain as social housing in perpetuity. She outlined how in her view the current Housing and Planning Bill going through the House of Lords would wreck social housing. She considered it unreasonable that those on her side of the chamber should be expected to support the annihilation of this housing. She explained that the right to buy was out of the reach of people on low wages in the town as the costs were so high. She concluded that whilst her party was running the Council and was a partner in the new housing company, the right to buy would not extend to those new homes.
b) Councillor Bolton asked that given recent and pending planning applications, particularly in the Queens Road, Loates Lane and Lord Street area for new properties, and taking in to account the government’s relaxation of rules that made a refusal of applications on parking grounds very difficult (and also the likely impact on local streets of the Charter Place development); whether the Mayor would agree that a review of the times of the relevant controlled parking zones (CPZ’s) was needed and that this should be included on the Council’s work programme.
The Mayor responded that not only was it almost impossible to refuse applications on parking grounds; in the future there would be powers that would virtually take decisions out of the Council’s hands. These, were called Planning in Principle and Competition in Planning. Consequently, the idea that it was Councillors who were stopping the surge in growth was an ideological response to a problem that did not exist. But given councils current situation on planning matters and on parking; all that could be done was to introduce controlled parking and ration the road space where residents wanted this. She explained that when it came to parking zones there were as many people in favour of this as against and it was not possible to win on this aspect. All that elected representatives could do was to try and be a fair arbiter and a genuine advocate of whether a CPZ would solve the problem. She discussed an example in Callowland last year when residents decided that a planning issue would not be solved by controlled parking – it was a tight vote with many thinking the CPZ might solve the problems. The Mayor’s view was that there were more cars in the area than the road space would accommodate.
However, there were parts of the town, especially on the outskirts where the controlled enforcement ended at 6pm, with people coming in to the town (which was lively at night) - and parking in streets around the town centre. As a result, residents had expressed concern that they could not park when coming home from work due to people parking to use the restaurants etc. Whilst it would be difficult for the problem to be resolved, the Council wanted the town centre to be successful and there were now improved car parks; so what was desired was for visitors to park in the car parks safely and to leave the streets as much as possible for residents. She concluded that if Councillor Bolton was convinced that this was what residents wanted (and it was up to councillors to fight for the consensus and to find out what residents desired) it would make sense to extend the hours in central ward. Whereas in other areas this may cause problems; where residents were returning home from work at night and there were more cars than road space. The Council was willing to listen to the outcome of any consultation.
c) Councillor Bashir welcomed the Mayor’s recent campaign to re-zone Watford Junction Station. He said that the current situation had a significantly detrimental effect on the citizens of Watford and they were paying higher fares than other residents who lived farther a field from Central London. He sought clarification as to whether Watford Metropolitan Line station was part of the Mayor’s campaign to re-zone, because the last thing that was wanted was two different zones for these two stations in the town.
The Mayor explained that there were three different zones in the town. The opportunity for the review had arisen due to the Metropolitan Line extension; resulting in the new stations having to be zoned. It was the Council’s duty to bring to the attention of the relevant authorities that there seemed to be a very anomalous position in Watford; and the more one looked at it the stranger it became. The response from Transport for London (TfL) did not answer the questions raised (they did not say why Watford was different to the examples that had been given to them); but invited further dialogue for consideration. As a result, the Council had got to make the case. It seemed, at present, that Watford was a ‘special zone’ and very expensive. What was not wanted was for the travelling between the stations in Watford to be prohibitive. Therefore, all the more reason for Members to be together on this issue; and getting some rationale for what seemed to be a very strange criterion for how zoning operated. There had not been a sensible explanation in the TfL letter. It was ‘watch this space’ on the matter.
d) Councillor Martins explained that he had attended a meeting at County Hall where representatives of the Watford Fields Residents Association presented a petition to the Highways Panel, signed by over 330 people, asking for the footpath on Wiggenhall Road to be reinstated. The Panel agreed to review the situation and to undertake a feasibility study. However, the Panel had said that they would require the support of Watford Borough Council to progress the matter, particularly in relation to the compulsory purchase of land. He asked whether the Mayor would undertake to support the initiative and ensure Watford Borough Council took all appropriate steps.
The Mayor said that the Council would do what it needed to do. In a scheme as large as this the main issue was non compliant land owners. There was a very complex arrangement of owners who were not cooperative. There was also the issue of having to get the road works completed before the Metropolitan Line extension works commenced. The timetable had been slightly expanded but the land ownership issues had not got any easier. However, the residents had shown that this was a key issue for them. The Mayor summarised that there was a green light to proceed but with some caution; but no firm promises could be made on how the matter would turn out. What mattered most was that the road was completed in time for the Metropolitan Line to proceed.
e) Councillor S Williams asked how much it was costing the tax payer to dig up the bridge over the pond on The Parade again. The last time this happened was about 18 months ago and it seemed that a lot of money was being spent on the bridge; with £4.5 million originally. More money was now being spent to dig it up for a second time.
The Mayor asked that Councillor S Williams be given accurate figures for the original cost of the bridge instead of having the vastly exaggerated figure. She reassured him that the works were not costing tax payers or the residents of Watford a single penny. The company who had originally installed the bridge was paying the costs.
f) Councillor Dhindsa explained that his question related to the Spring Clean. He said that it seemed a little confusing that where a private company was providing a street cleaning service; with residents paying council tax for this (and with the highest council tax in the county) – why street cleaning still needed to be supplemented by residents with a ‘spring clean’. He added that when the service was provided ‘in house’ there was no need for the ‘spring clean’. He asked that if Veolia was providing a good service; why was there a need for the spring clean and why was the council asking residents to help out with this when the service should be provided by the private companies who were taking their council tax.
The Mayor responded that when her administration took over the Council, street cleaning was appalling. She was told for example, that chewing gum could not be removed from pavements because Watford’s paving slabs were different and that subways could not be cleared of graffiti because this would give young people a fresh canvas for further images. The council had prioritised these issues and were now at a stage when they were highly commended or did well in the wards. She said that Councillor Dhindsa was criticising a national initiative.
She discussed how residents in Watford responded to the ‘Clean for the Queen’ initiative and how they cleaned for their community; including on private land. She explained that the number of ‘friends of’ groups had grown significantly and they all worked very hard. She argued that Councillor Dhindsa’s question was a typical response from the Labour Group who were reluctant for communities to get involved and to have a pride in their neighbourhoods - preferring contractors to do works. Her party had a different ideology; it was about community empowerment, pride in where one lived and community spirit. She considered the Clean for the Queen to be a great day.
g) Councillor Turmaine explained that his question related to the demolition of Charter Place. His constituents wanted to know whether the Mayor had offered Hertfordshire Highways any of the rubble that was being ground up from the works so as to do something about the disastrous state of the pot holes all over west Watford.
The Mayor felt that this was a very innovative thought and that Councillor Turmaine was right to point out that this related to Hertfordshire Highways. She was not sure what happened to aggregate but this would doubtless be worked in to the contract. It would probably not be quite as simple as just dropping the ground rubble off in to pot holes but she liked the thought of the idea.
h) Councillor Topping asked that, the Mayor having alluded to her maiden speech in the House of Lords and having taken up a front bench position with her party in the Upper House; did Watford now have a part time Mayor on a full time salary, contrary to her promise to the people of Watford during her mayoral elections.
The Mayor commented that she was in a similar situation to the local Member of Parliament who had been promoted and had another important role as a junior minister. She said that her new position did not mean that she spent any less time in Watford. What mattered was that she did her job as Mayor and did this properly. She explained that her group knew where her priorities lay and if anyone was to find her wanting they would be the first to let her know; as would the people of Watford. She knocked on doors every Saturday morning in the town unless the weather was really inclement. The Mayor asserted that she was doing her job as the Mayor and that she was elected two years ago to serve the people of Watford until 2018. She was immensely proud of that and barring illness or death that was what she would be doing.
i) Councillor Silver thanked the Mayor for her detailed report. He explained that with the Council’s new policy on discretionary business relief for the financial year starting the 1st April 2016; meaning that community groups such as sports clubs and scout groups received an automatic rejection of their request for rates relief. He had been approached by several concerned groups in and outside his ward, expressing concern that this could cause them significant financial problems. He asked whether the Mayor could confirm that no community group would be put at risk of having to close or relocate away from their community due to this new policy.
The Mayor responded that in light of the government cuts to be implemented the Council had to look at everything. She said that the issue came about when she was examining the list of people who were receiving the full 100% discretionary rates; with some of the people unknown to her. Consequently, it was right that a review of the work they were carrying out was conducted to make sure this was appropriate. She explained that 80% of monies were given automatically and that 20% was discretionary; so very often there were not large sums of money involved. The Council had told all groups concerned about the current situation and what it would cost them. Furthermore, they had gone online and looked at reports on the Charity Commission’s website; and in one case there were millions of pounds in the reserve fund. As a result, the group would be asked if it needed the relief - which would seem only fair. She explained that currently every group that was receiving the full 100% relief was being spoken to; and with some accepting the situation.
The most important criteria when considering these matters were issues around hardship. Consequently, if hardship would be caused they would continue with the funding arrangements. However, some group funds indicated that they were in a reasonable state. The Mayor commented that if one asked communities whether they considered the Council had had to make cuts; with certain exceptions in the social care and welfare areas (which were not the Council’s responsibility), she suggested that people would not have noticed. However, this was unlikely to continue as there would be more cuts in the future. Therefore, the Council had had to look at every saving possibility and at all optional spending (which the Council did not get back). For everyone who received rate relief there would need to be a cut somewhere else in the budget. Consequently, giving people 100% rate relief was not painless; it was money that still had to be paid, so there needed to be money set aside for this - effectively like grants. She concluded that some groups were not appealing decisions, that there were robust discussions with others and where there was genuine hardship the group would be supported. She thanked Councillor Silver for his concern.
j) Councillor Haley explained that his question related to the difficulties experienced by many residents in the central ward in parking due to the over development in part of the ward. He noted the ongoing improvements of the Church, Gade and Sutton car parks by the new operator and asked whether the Mayor agreed that she had missed an opportunity when renegotiating the contracts to arrange provision for local residents to park outside of shopping hours in these car parks.
The Mayor responded by explaining that the opportunity had not been missed and central ward councillors were progressing parking in these car parks for residents and negotiating the price. Citi Parks were extremely amenable to the proposal which was good news. She questioned Councillor Haley’s use of the phrase ‘over development’ in relation to the central ward. She explained that, with the planning proposals coming from central government, the pressure to increase housing numbers would be significant and far in excess than that which currently applied; and a sophisticated response would be required to ensure the reputation of the Council. She would not want to return to the situation that applied to planning figures when first coming to office. She concluded that there may be tough times ahead in relation to what constituted the term ‘over development’. Members should be united in their views on the amount of development that the town would be forced to take and also about the real issues relating to parking policy in the town centre; and decide what policies were required collectively for Watford.
k) Councillor Connal asked whether the food hygiene statistics for the town centre were better or worse than those previously published and how they compared with the total figures for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Mayor explained that the figures were better; with a year on year improvement hoped for. She asked that the specific information be forwarded to Councillors following the meeting. She was aware of a number of premises that caused problems with regard to hygiene; and the important aspect was that the Environmental Health Service was good. In general terms, people took food hygiene matters for granted when visiting restaurants.