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 Silver, Topping, Mehta, Rogers, Turmaine, Haley, S Williams, Dhindsa, Joynes and Bashir indicated that they wished to ask questions.
a) Councillor Silver asked the Mayor to inform Council explicitly which measures would be used to evaluate the success of the German Christmas market.
The Mayor responded that she would go on public opinion and what was evident. The German market was an attempt to bring a little more life into the top of town. It had been felt last year that the ice rink was isolated and there needed to be a bit more around it. Watford was not a huge city and therefore it would not attract a massive market. The German Christmas Market was an attempt to bring in more to the High Street at no cost to the Council. The German Market was arranged through the Council’s partners Town and Country Markets (TCM) who ran the main market. They had approached the Council about bringing in more stalls at Christmas which was agreed. There had been a mixed reception from the public, however, it cost the Council nothing and added some colour and life. The Council would not be analysing the success of the market in the way suggested by Councillor Silver as there had been no cost.
b) Councillor Joynes enquired whether it was a design fault that the market did not have the wind screens that had now been put up and could the Council get compensation.
The Mayor responded that it was not a design fault. There had been a cross party working group on the market. The initial proposal was for an outdoor market. Due to pressure from opposition groups it was decided to progress with a market that was similar to the then existing market. However, there were no suitable locations for a full indoor market. Many suggestions were received and a feasibility study was carried out on each one, this resulted in the current location. The Council engaged with stall holders, all parties and had visits to see other markets who had similar arrangements which were successful. In response to a request from the current stall holders the Council found the money to install the screening.
It was not a design fault it was never intended for there to be a wind screen which was what had been agreed by everyone. Only once the market was completed was it realised that there was a wind tunnel effect. The new screen would be ready by the end of March.
The Mayor continued that occupancy rates in the market were up and Watford market was one of TCM’s best performing markets. The publication ‘Market Times’ showed that markets were in decline nationally. The successful markets were those which were niche or food stalls. The stalls offering food at Watford Market were doing well. Markets were changing nationally and Watford’s needed to evolve in response. The market was failing before the move and it was a different market experience that people wanted at the moment.
c) Councillor Haley noted in the Mayor’s report that anti-social behaviour (ASB) had fallen by 8% across Borough. He enquired whether the fall in ASB was consistent across the borough or whether there was an increase in some areas. He commented that the complaints he received were about ASB increasing in the centre of town. This included a report of homeless people fighting in an underpass from Queens’ Road to intu in the centre of town during the day.
The Mayor commented that ASB in some parts of the town was non-existent. It was not consistent across the town. When councillors asked residents what they considered to be ASB, in some areas it was inconsiderate parking. Central ward included the town centre and would therefore include everything that went on in an urban town centre. There would not be a town nationally without ASB. The issue was less about numbers and more about how it affected peoples lives.
The Mayor continued that early in her term as Mayor there were children throwing stones at buses and fighting in parks. It was a trend generally that this type of behaviour had decreased. With regards to homeless people fighting, the Mayor presumed that the Councillor had reported this and was also in contact with the ASB officer regularly. If incidents were reported in an area consistently then it would be identified as a hot spot and would get picked up by the Joint Authority Group. The Mayor encouraged the Councillor to engage with the local neighbourhood team and Sergeant Simon Mason. The level of violence in the town had gone down considerably. The Police reacted to any intelligence they received regarding people coming in from London. The Mayor emphasised again that councillors should engage with ASB officers in the Council and the Neighbourhood Teams in the Housing Trust.
d) Councillor Topping stated that in Watford Market on the week before Christmas, 11 stalls were closed with shutters drawn. This week there had been 10 shutters drawn. Within the market, unit 36 was closed with shutters open due to a large industrial fridge freezer left by a previous occupant that could not be moved, even though she had received assurances from the TCM manager that he had tried. Therefore, no rents had been collected in this unit for 2015. She enquired that she thought footfall was still down and stall holders were more successful in the high street and were using the units as storage whilst they were selling on the high street. Councillor Topping thanked the Mayor for listening to Councillor Mehta’s proposals regarding the market wind screen.
The Mayor responded that there was currently 82% occupancy which TCM stated was better than their other markets. With regards to footfall – if there was a failing business councillors would not ask why people did not go to their shop. Therefore, with market traders why should taxpayers subsidise their failing businesses. The Council used to subsidise the old market at over £120,000 per year for many years. There was a current arrangement where TCM ran the market and if the Councillor was not happy she could bring issues back to the Managing Director. The Council could not force people into the market to buy things they did not want. The Mayor hoped that councillors visited the market to buy things as there were some brilliant stalls who were running successfully. The Market was talking itself down and appearing as a negative story in Watford Observer contributed to people not visiting. A trader could move if being at Watford was not right for them, they were not tied to Watford. TCM had said they were trying to target certain stalls for whom a market would work and they hoped to attract them to effect a change. On average TCM received five new interested traders a week of which two converted to stalls. The market was in transition from an old fashioned style market to something different. Concerns could be taken up with TCM and then the Managing Director.
e) Councillor Mehta commented that in the last two weeks Watford Community Housing Trust and Watford Borough Council had approved a decision to create a joint venture company to expand the availability of social and affordable housing in Watford. Councillor Mehta believed that there needed to be creative solutions to the town’s high waiting list and to help people onto the housing ladder. The Councillor asked whether the Mayor would explain to tenants how they would take away their right-to-buy, or confirm how the council would help tenants to buy their housing association homes.
Mayor reported that in her maiden speech on the Housing and
Planning Bill at the House of Lords the previous day there was
cross-bench support for more social and affordable housing and
mixed tenures. The Bill was damaging to
social housing in Watford as it would allow developers to escape
their s.106 agreements so as not to provide social
housing. It would take away secure
tenancies for the first time, and mean that social housing tenants
would be on 3-5 year tenancies. Any
person who currently lived in social housing with a household
income of above £30,000 was going to be asked to revert to
full market rent. During the debate in
the House of Lords the Minister spoke of “high earning
The reason people were concerned about right-to-buy was because it took social housing out of the market. There had never been a time when the houses were replaced one for one. There was a difference replacing one for one or like for like. The Government proposals were currently saying that if a housing association sold off a property in Watford they could replace it in any of their stock nationally.
Nobody could override right-to-buy, there was nothing in the Housing Trust which was trying to cut round this. The reason that the Council and the Trust were coming together was because they recognised the housing crisis. The Mayor hoped that the Government would allow councils to fund building again. The housing company was nothing but good news for tenants, but the Housing and Planning bill was nothing but bad news.
f) Councillor Turmaine enquired regarding the closure of the custody suite at Watford Police Station and the Mayor’s meeting with the Police Crime Commissioner (PCC), the Mayor had said that she would campaign if the new system did not deliver the results intended. He asked whether the Mayor had received agreement from the PCC that if that was the case the custody suite would be reinstated.
The Mayor reported that she had received agreement from the PCC that he would review it. There was a formal route through Chief Inspector Wheatley and also an informal route, by speaking to those who were making journeys to Hatfield. There was concern about how much time would be spent by the police on the road. This was an issue where everyone had some discomfort. If there was evidence that this was taking the police away from the streets where they were needed then something would have to be done.
The Mayor expressed concern about the magistrates court moving and probation moving to Hemel Hempstead. She hoped that all councillors would agree that we still wanted a police station in Watford. This closure was about the extent of the cuts that were being faced. Things were not going to be good in the next few years. The PCC was going to be looking at the estate and the whole building. The current Watford custody suite was not fit for purpose. The Mayor would continue to monitor the situation along with councillors to be ready to act if it was apparent that the situation was not working as it was an important issue for people in Watford.
g) Councillor Seamus Williams thanked the Mayor for informing Council about her first speech in the Lords. He continued that the Court of Appeal had ruled that the bedroom tax had wrongly discriminated against a victim of domestic violence and a disabled child and asked whether the Mayor would apologise for supporting the tax for three years.
The Mayor indicated that it was Labour who had brought in the bedroom tax in the private sector. She asked whether the Labour group would be prepared to apologise for treating the private and public sector differently.
h) Councillor Bashir also enquired about the closure of the police custody suite at Watford Police Station. As the Mayor had already identified there was serious concern in the town about the impact on front line policing with regards to safety, particularly with the night time economy in Watford. For police officers transporting suspects it was a round journey of 30 miles to Hatfield, if Hatfield was full they would be taken to Stevenage Station which was a round journey of 60 miles, about an hour’s journey. This would have an impact on officers in front line services. He asked if the Mayor would accept that the intervention with the PCC had been too little too late and an earlier input could have had a different result.
The Mayor responded that the custody suite was not fit for purpose. It could not be brought up to standard as it was located in a 1960s building. The decision had been made by the Conservative PCC.
Councillor Rogers explained that he had attended a
councillors’ briefing on the Wiggenhall Road lane closure. There was concern at the meeting about the major
disruption, and that not enough thought had been given about
adverse weather conditions that could extend the closure period and
working practices where contractors would not be putting in extra
hours to ensure it was finished as quickly as possible. He enquired why the County Council was being
blamed when it was a Watford Borough Council project.
The Chair reminded Councillor Rogers that there was a motion on this subject later in the agenda.
The Mayor explained that as the legal responsibility rested with Herts Highways, they had to have the final say. If there was any litigation it would go to Herts Highways. The points raised by Councillor Rogers had been covered at the councillors’ briefing.
j) Councillor Dhindsa welcomed the refurbishment of car parks in the town centre and thanked residents for putting up with the inconvenience. He commented on the car parks being locked at night time when residents were trying to find spaces to park in the streets. When residents could not park it had a knock on effect in Vicarage and Holywell. He asked the Mayor whether it would be possible to negotiate for the car park to be available for residents in central ward. If there was extra wear and tear due to people using it at night time and extra costs of staffing to patrol then this could be off set by charges to residents.
The Mayor responded that this was being
done. The central ward councillors had
already met with the car park owners and they were amenable to this