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 Barks, Turmaine, J Johnson,Asif Khan, Grimston and Dhindsa indicated that they wished to ask questions.
a) Councillor Barks commented that it had been noted in several newspapers about the metropolitan line and its funding. Also it had not been on the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan’s funding plan for the next few years. He asked the Mayor if she could provide an update and help ensure this vital development went ahead, bringing benefit to Watford.
The Mayor responded that it was important this had been raised. Otherwise people only had information through rumours, gossip or the newspaper, it was important that she explained what she understood was happening. She added that she needed to add a caveat that it was to the best of her knowledge. She confirmed that the metropolitan line extension was not in the Mayor’s current plan and as a result people started questioning the reason it had not been included. She understood that the reason was connected to the considerable increase in construction costs. It was not yet clear how that funding gap would be met. She believed that this was why the rumours had started. It was not included in the plan as the scheme was not fully funded. However, she had not heard anything official.
The Mayor added that there were also rumours that the construction work had stopped. She understood that the first section of work had been completed. The next phase would be the construction of the viaduct. She had not heard any reasons why this would not be going ahead.
The Mayor stated that the scheme had had cross party for support for decades. One of the first letters she wrote on becoming Mayor was to Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London at that time. She asked about his plans for the Croxley Rail Link, the original name for the scheme. All members understood the significance it would bring to the town.
The Mayor reiterated that there was a shortfall in the funding. It was understood that Transport for London would be making a bid to the Government’s growth fund. The council was concerned by the rumours. The Managing Director would represent the council at a meeting of the partners on Friday. There were plans to lobby and ensure Mayor Khan’s administration was aware of the scheme’s benefits. She asked the Labour councillors to do the same. The Mayor added that she had written to the Deputy Mayor for Transport, Val Shawcross suggesting a meeting at City Hall. On Wednesday the Mayor would be meeting Richard Harrington MP to discuss what he could do at the Department for Transport.
The Mayor finished by saying that she hoped it was rumours. There were known facts, the construction costs, which made people question what was happening. She stated this was a good scheme, millions had already been spent. Businesses in the town would be lobbying very hard for the scheme to go ahead.
b) Councillor Turmaine referred to the new kitchen caddies and recycling. Labour supported recycling initiatives and the work the last Labour Government did on environmental issues.
Councillor Turmaine said that he had been surprised to see a railway story in the Watford Observer on 6 January about the Liberal Democrat’s campaign about re-zoning. This had first been presented to Watford residents on 20 November, two months before the latest story. He asked the Mayor whether she had any other old stories she wanted to recycle to the press.
The Mayor responded that the recycling stories would be about the administration’s achievements since taking over from the Labour administration in 2002 and would continue to be recycled in the next 12 months. She said that all members should be working together and the story about the metropolitan line extension had provided the opportunity for the story. It was important to highlight the zoning issues now, before the two new stations had their zones set. It was pointing out the unfairness of the current zoning system. With the right kind of pressure it would result in the right decision for the town.
c) Councillor J Johnson asked the Mayor if she could explain how Watford would meet its housing targets with people moving out of London and wanting to live in Watford; whilst still protecting the parks and green spaces.
The Mayor commented that there was an assumption the council could reject developments. The Minister had spoken last week at the Local Government Association and his message had been ‘delivery, delivery, delivery’. There was a housing crisis and all councils would be called on to deliver more and it was likely to be 30% more than the current housing targets. District councils within Hertfordshire had met to discuss housing targets. The new Housing and Planning Bill that was coming forward, would strengthen powers for developers and make councils impotent about what they could do.
The Mayor stated the Liberal Democrat Group was very clear about this matter. It was recognised that homes were needed for those on the council’s waiting list, older children still living at home and for those paying extortionate rents. The council did and would meet its housing targets. However there was increasing concern that the infrastructure required to meet the demands would not be there. The approach would be for infrastructure before expansion, which she hoped would get cross party support.
The Mayor said that she wanted to acknowledge the sterling work carried out by the Development Management Committee balancing its quasi-judicial role with the needs of the town and residents’ views. She referred to the application for Caledonian Court which had been refused by the committee. The developer had appealed and demanded that it should be considered by the Planning Inspector at a public inquiry. The grounds had been that the council would not be able to meet its increased housing need.
The Mayor stated that her group recognised that Watford was a growing town. They were pleased that people chose to live here, but it was certain that it would not be development at all costs.
d) Councillor Asif Khan referred to the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States and alternative right groups in Europe. There was a concern about extremism and how mainstream politicians connected to their local communities. His question related to how together they could ensure that there were not areas in the town, which gave succour to far right alternative groups. He said that the Mayor may be aware of certain comments that had appeared in social media, on the Watford Observer website. He had reported an incident to the Police. It was important that the town’s politicians worked together to rid this nonsense from politics altogether.
The Mayor replied that she was proud that there were no UKIP or BNP councillors on the council. During the last mayoral election there had been a small spike in racial unpleasantness directed at the Muslim community. She had believed that this was due to a very ‘noisy’ UKIP candidate. The recent elections, including the referendum, appeared to have given people permission to say things rather than muttering them. This had been obvious to those working in the ‘Better Together’ campaign; and particularly to her when one woman felt she could approach the Mayor and spit in her face. This had never happened before. As Mayor and councillors, they were all community leaders and should not pander to that type of attitude. It was heard when knocking on doors. She felt all members and colleagues should challenge those comments and state the truth. Everyone should unite around what was not acceptable.
With reference to the Watford Observer website, the Mayor advised that when the Observer was approached they were very responsive and removed any vile comments; she hoped this would continue. It was an unmoderated site. She had spoken to the previous editor about this matter. When the Watford Observer was contacted about comments and the negative impact on the town, action was taken. She referred to the recent comments regarding the Milad procession. She had recently spoken to a councillor from Luton. She was pleased that Watford did not have the same problems that were experienced in that town. Watford had generally good relations with the local community.
e) Councillor Grimston asked the Mayor whether she agreed that following the opening of the new road to the hospital improvements needed to be made to the car park. She questioned how this might be progressed.
The Mayor said that the most important thing had been done for the protection of the hospital and that was to protect the key bits of land needed for the health campus. The council had done what it could. It was clear this had been a main factor in keeping Watford as the main site. Ultimately it was now in the hands of the Trust and the Government to show the way forward. The council did not fund the hospital. It was possible the council could look at the car park. Since the road opened it had exposed the state of the car park, even though it had not changed. The surface was uneven and located on a steep slope. The council could bring forward a piece of work for the car park. The council had been behind the hospital 100%. The council would progress talks on the matter to ensure benefits for patients, those visiting the hospital and the football club.
f) Councillor Dhindsa stated that his question had been covered.