Bringing back face-to-face council meetings 'sets the wrong example'

The Government is facing mounting pressure from councils across the region to reconsider its plans to relaunch local democracy with face-to-face public meetings next month.

Stock photo of a council meeting. Photo: JPI Media

Ahead of Lawyers in Local Government launching a High Court challenge on April 21 to the Government's decision to not extend legal powers enabling councils to hold remote, virtual meetings, leading councillors in North Yorkshire and the North-East have claimed being forced to meet in person to take decisions would undermine lockdown efforts and put people at risk.

With councils' legal powers to hold remote meetings granted under the Coronavirus legislation expiring on May 6, local authorities have appealed to MPs to reverse the Government’s decision and say it remains unclear where they will be able to hold meetings safely.

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One of the region's longest-serving councillors, Conservative-run Darlington council's cabinet member for resources Charles Johnson, said he disagreed vehemently with the Government's position.

He said: "It sets the wrong example telling everybody else to do what they should do and they don't do it themselves. You are exposing people again to risk after all the efforts we have been going through to minimise risk, It's going to be some time before everybody's vaccinated. It's a totally bad decision.

“We can't keep lockdown running for all the time we have to protect people and then say it doesn't matter now.”

Richmondshire District Council's leader Councillor Angie Dale said the Government was prioritising "getting the big councils back into the towns using the local shops and supporting the local economy" over the safety of the councillors.

She said: "Parliament aren't going back until June, but it's alright for us minions to go back. It really is too soon and why change something that's working well?"

Green Party group leader on Darlington council, Councillor Matthew Snedker, said unless the Government changed its decision the authority would "once again be thrown into a position of having to make decisions by decree for the 100,000 residents of Darlington and being unable to make any decisions without people meeting in person".

He said: "We will have councillors who have not had their second or maybe even their first jab and be asking 50 members, plus staff, plus reporters, plus the public to meet all meet in a room. It's not even certain whether that would be legal, as at the moment to do so would mean breaking the law."

While doubts were raised over how effective virtual council meetings would be a year ago, the majority of councillors believe they have brought significant positive benefits, with attendances rising, travel costs and carbon emissions falling as well as claims that it has led to more considered debates.

Richmondshire council now is facing the task of holding meetings in its relatively small offices in Richmond and Darlington council is looking at how it could hold meetings in the town's Dolphin Centre in a protected way.

North Yorkshire County Council leader Councillor Carl Les said: "The problem that is most imminent for us is that we can't get 72 members in the council chamber with social distancing, so we would have to find another venue for full meetings of the council, which would involve cost."

He said both virtual and face-to-face meetings had value and in future the authority wanted some flexibility.

As Lawyers in Local Government are arguing the Secretary of State already has the powers to extend the virtual decision-making meetings without having to introduce primary legislation in parliament, Cllr Les said the authority was working with the County Councils Network and the Local Government Association to exert extra pressure on the Government.

Many councillors say the Government appears unaware of the benefits of remote meetings.

Richmondshire Together councillor Phillip Wicks said: "In a rural district like Richmondshire the ability to have hybrid meetings, both face-to-face and virtual, will save on councillors' time, save on carbon emissions and makes for a better balanced lifestyle all round.

"Why should a councillor be forced to travel long distances to attend meetings, particularly in winter, when the technology now clearly exists for us to have hybrid meetings?"