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 Turmaine, Asif Khan, Smith, Shah and Bashir indicated that they wished to ask questions.
a) Councillor Turmaine said that he wished to ask the Mayor about the Football Lads Alliance march on 7 October 2017. The organisation was intended to bring together football supporters who could gather together to pay respects to the victims of terror. There are now genuine fears that the English Defence League (EDL), Britain First and other similar organisations were trying to use it to stir up racism and islamophobia, as reported in the media. He asked the Mayor if she would be seeking assurance from Watford Football Club that it would monitor the situation and disassociate itself with this group if the fears were realised.
The Mayor replied that this was a challenging situation. The EDL was a legitimate group and everyone had their views about the group. She assured everyone that nobody from the Liberal Democrat group condoned their views and actions. There was always a worry that an event could be hijacked by them. The council had similar concerns when the Royal Anglian Regiment wanted to march through the town. There had been problems in Luton at their Freedom of Entry march. In Watford, there had been relief when the same problems did not arise. This had been in part due to the positive response of the local Muslim community, the police and local people.
The Mayor added that she had sent a message to the club to discuss it. The police were aware of the issue. It was something everyone was worried about. She was also aware of some speakers at Mosques and how their comments could cause certain people to be upset. Everyone needed to be careful of things that may inflame the situation but it was not possible to deny people their freedom of speech and right to assemble. It was a matter she cared about and got involved in. She thanked the responses of the local community who were always positive.
b) Councillor Asif Khan referred to a BBC news article about councils giving one-way train tickets to homeless people. He asked the Mayor for assurance that this council did not follow the same practice in Watford.
The Mayor advised that she was unable to give that reassurance. New Hope had done this. When it was done, it had been the most humane and sensible thing to do. If someone was trapped in Watford, homeless and desperate and the only thing stopping them going back home was they would never have the money to join their family and it was their express desire, then it was the right thing to do. In conjunction with New Hope, the council had flown family relatives to Watford to help their family member. If it was the right thing to do and done in the right way, then the council would do it.
c) Councillor Smith said that he was sure that everyone had heard about the roll out of Universal Credit and that it was not being smoothly implemented. He asked the Mayor for information about how the council was ensuring a smooth roll out in Watford.
The Mayor responded that as yet Watford had not had to do anything. The reports were from the pilot councils. At Watford officers would be making note of what had happened in those local authorities. The Mayor said she did not understand how it could take six weeks to switch a person from one form of benefits to another. She had asked questions at a national level about the situation. She had asked for details of why people fell into arrears and the reason for the gap in payments. She had heard that the roll out would be delayed. The council was gathering information, learning from the pilots and considering how it might affect Watford residents.
d) Councillor Shah said that her question was to ask about the level of consultation with local disability groups with regard to the relocation of disabled bays from the town centre to streets outside the centre.
The Mayor said that the council did not consult when the administration was clear about what it wanted to do. If one consulted then it gave people the impression that something may not happen. The objective for the centre of the town was absolutely clear. The town was not a car park. The aim was to make it a better environment for young children, families, the elderly and vulnerable people. It had been clear that it would not be made fully pedestrianised. However, the council did want to cut down on pollution and improve safety.
The Mayor added that her group cared about blue badge holders, taxi drivers and other users. The new proposals would ensure there was more provision than the current arrangements. The spaces would be located in different places. The information was available on the council’s website and responses had been received. The scheme had been amended from the original version. The council had been clear about its objectives for the town centre. She said that it was important to remind the community that every car park in the town centre had spaces for blue badge holders. The spaces were wide and clean and the car parks were safe. There would be some people who were unable to park where they used to by some of the shops, but the town centre would be better for many people, less polluted and a better environment.
e) Councillor Bashir referred to the council’s IT services and how they had not been in a satisfactory state, particularly when they had been outsourced. In a recent Budget Panel report he had been surprised to read that the council had incurred an unbudgeted overspend of £476,000. This equated to 3% of Watford’s contribution towards Council Tax. This had principally related to employing contractors and agency staff as the council could not hold on to its own staff. He asked the Mayor to agree with him that this was an unsustainable and unacceptable situation. He asked for assurances from her that she would be looking into this matter closely and find a resolution in the next 12 months.
The Mayor responded that she did not recognise the councillor’s comments as being true or accurate. It was not an overspend in that sense. The council had decided to bring the contract back in-house. She said that it appeared the councillor was blaming outsourcing; the in-house service had not been acceptable. The Mayor commented that if there was a problem with a service, whether it was provided in-house or outsourced, it was necessary to find a way to solve the issue. The important thing to understand was that the council was not prepared to allow the problem to carry on and it had wanted to solve the problem. In order to bring the service back in-house, and get it properly staffed it, was necessary to commit additional money which had not been included in the original budget agreed previously.
The council had the money available as it was prudent and well-run. It was agreed to commit the additional money needed to bring Watford into the 21st century. The council wanted a step change in its IT, known as Watford 2020 in the council. Staff were excited about it. It enabled the council to use IT for the many different opportunities. The council could have ‘limped on’ until budget setting in January, but she did not want to mess around. This was not an overspend; it was additional money for additional things. The total figure quoted included an amount for Three Rivers District Council’s IT, as it was a shared service. The money would be used to raise the level of IT. It had already made a difference in the services provided.