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6 things we learned from the Watford Mayoral Hustings
When the four candidates vying to be Watford’s elected mayor on Friday met for the first hustings they clashed on number of key issues in the town.
Liberal Democrat incumbent, Dorothy Thornhill, crossed swords with Labour challenger, Jagtar Singh Dhindsa, UKIP’s Phil Cox and Conservative Linda Topping at St Thomas’ Church, in Langley Way on Monday over subjects such as the health campus redevelopment and Watford Market.
Here is what we learned about where the candidates' stand:
1. The health campus
It emerged the health campus regeneration project, which promises 750 new homes and new health facilities, might be halted if Mayor Thornhill is voted out.
Mayor Thornhill conceded that the scheme probably won’t deliver a brand new hospital, as it had been promised in the past. She said the hospital plans were in the hands of health bosses and what was more likely was there would be piecemeal improvements to the existing hospital.
She added she "won’t close the door" on regenerating the area by saying no to building on Farm Terrace Allotments.
Linda Topping said she defended new homes and shops element in the health campus, saying that element of the project was to be "admired". However she expressed shock to hear a new hospital was not a certainty.
Mr Cox said he would stop the house-building part of the development and wait for West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust to come up with plans for a new hospital.
Councillor Dhindsa said West Watford is the "wrong place" for 750 new homes and if mayor his priority would just to get a new hospital on the site.
2. Farm Terrace Allotments
Candidates clashed over the controversial plans to concrete over the 118-year-old allotments as part of the health campus. The decision is currently being challenged by plot-holders in the High Court.
Mayor Thornhill said plot-holders losing their allotments to the health campus will get new ones with new facilities, such as sheds, in Oxhey.
Councillor Dhindsa said he would save the allotments from the development if elected.
Mr Cox said Mayor Thornhill is breaking the law by taking allotments that are in use and pledged to also protect them.
Linda Topping said she had sympathy with the allotment holders but on balance though the benefits of the regeneration scheme took precedent.
The candidates discussed plans to upgrade the park with £5 million of lottery cash. Councillor Dhindsa stressed need to strike a balance between preserving park’s history and improving facilities.
Mayor Thornhill promised consultations on the upgrade scheme but said whole thrust of plans is to improve park and preserve its heritage.
Mrs Topping criticised spending £5million on Cassiobury Park saying it’s "beautiful" the way it is.
Whereas Mr Cox said he wants fewer noisy events in the park, but would let the majority decide what events take place there.
4. Watford Market
Plans to move the market to the old TJ Hughes car park divided the candidates. The market’s current home, Charter Place, is due to be torn down and turned into an extension of the intu Watford shopping centre.
Mr Cox slated plans for the new market, branding them a "joke", and vowed to find another site when Charter Place is built.
Mrs Topping said an outdoors in a car park is not the right place for Watford Market and said she knew several stall holders would not be moving
Mayor Thornhill said the new plans had been drawn up after consultation with stall-holders. She said previous consultations showed people in the town and market traders did not thing the current market was a success. The mayor added that taxpayers were currently subsidising a failing market and that it needs "fresh blood".
Councillor Dhindsa said the market is failing because not enough money has been put in to it in the past.
5. Immigration and racism
The candidates faced questions from the audience accusing UKIP of being a racist party that was stirring fears of immigration in the town.
Phil Cox said "UKIP is not racist" repeatedly and said in the past he has taken a stand against people behaving in a racist manner. He later said all parties have racists "in their ranks". He said when a racist is discovered in UKIP they are kicked out of the party.
Mrs Topping said immigrants were needed to run Watford businesses and there was "no room" for racism in the town.
Councillor Dhindsa said he remembers when Watford had a racism problem and that he had been attacked in the past himself. He added that the first thing a racist says is "I’m not a racist".
Mayor Thornhill pointed to anti-Muslim posters that have gone up in West Watford said she felt there it was "no coincidence" it was happening at the same time UKIP was on the rise. She said town would "grind to a halt" without immigrant workers.
6. A supercouncil for Watford?
Candidates were asked what they would do to bring more council powers "under the banner" of the town.
Mayor Thornhill said the Liberal Democrats are in favour of creating unitary councils, which have all council powers concentrated in one area. Currently powers are split between the borough council and county council.
Mrs Topping said she would act as a "natural-link" between the Conservative county council and Tory MP - so in favour of the status quo.
Mr Cox said his party would grant people a referendum on any issue where five percent of people ask to give them more say.
Councillor Dhindsa refused to promise a unitary council because he doesn't want to make promises he can't keep.
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