End of online meetings leaves councils with a dilemma

County Hall

Councils are facing the logistical nightmare of trying to meet physically while abiding by social distancing guideline - Credit: Archant

Councils are facing the logistical nightmare of trying to meet physically while abiding by social distancing guidelines after a bid to allow the continuation of online council meetings was rejected by the High Court.
The emergency legislation allowing virtual council meetings will not be extended beyond May 7 – and on Wednesday, the High Court dismissed the appeal, with judges saying primary legislation would be needed to extend the use of online meetings and it was not for the courts to set that legislation.
It means that from May 7 onwards, all councils – from Devon County down to the parish councils – will have to resume meetings in person, and also applies to the Dartmoor and Exmoor National Park Authorities, the Devon and Somerset Fire Authority, as well as the Police and Crime Panel.
The decision has left councils across the county will the difficult task of continuing to carry on the business of local government in a Covid secure manner, forcing them to find alternative venues to hold meetings to ensure all members can safely attend.
By law, all councils have to hold their annual meeting in either March, April or May – North Devon, Mid Devon and Torridge have already held theirs – but Devon County Council and Exeter City Council were unable to move their AGMs due to the local elections and they, as well as East Devon, Teignbridge, South Hams, and West Devon councils will have to hold a full council meeting in May in person.
Cllr John Hart, leader of Devon County Council, told Thursday’s full council meeting that the ‘daft decision’ means the council will now need to look at a range of options to maintain the decision-making process in an open and transparent way, and that meetings would continue to be live-streamed, as they were even before the pandemic.
He said: “While no concrete decisions have been made, contingency plans had been made to book a larger venue at Sandy Park to accommodate an ‘in person’ annual meeting following the Elections, which, as Members will know, will be May 27.
There are, however, a number of issues that Officers are currently considering and assessing which include practical matters such as larger venues / rooms, reconfiguration of committee room layouts, overspill rooms, limiting the use of shared microphones, no provision of refreshments and ensuring that agendas only contain items of key business to reduce the amount of time that people need to be physically present.
“Furthermore, consideration will need to be given as to whether a remote / virtual meeting may still be appropriate for some of our non decision-making bodies and other forums. There may need to be other measures taken to reduce the number of people physically in the meeting room, for example, the council could make use of hybrid meeting technology and ask non committee members or the public / press to utilise this, acknowledging the rights of individuals to attend in person if they wished.
“Much of this will depend on the risk assessments of the rooms and what can be done safely, but it is likely a range of options could be implemented moving forwards.
“However, as a Council, I hope we do not reduce the numbers of committee members in the room or cancel large numbers of meetings (meetings would only be cancelled if there was no business to be transacted, as would be normal) or arranging for decisions that would normally be taken by a committee to be made under delegated powers. But as I say, all of this is subject to further discussion and the views of the new Council being considered.”
He added: “Devon will be saying that remote meetings should continue. It is something we have done exceedingly well and it is a daft decision.”
Cllr Rob Hannaford, Leader of the County Council Labour Group, added: “It’s a really unacceptable poor decision. This is a terrible outcome for local councils, and will inevitably have all sorts of unforeseen consequences and additional costs.
“From parish councils up to County Hall, we have all made our views known to the government in the strongest possible terms asking them to change their mind and let common sense prevail.”
“Even though the covid numbers are down at the moment, the pandemic is still ongoing, and it could very well surge back up again sooner than we think, and this just opens things out for the virus to spread.
“We all know that local democracy has moved on since the start of the pandemic, with councillors and staff embracing new technology. The reduction in face to face meetings should also be encouraged from an environmental point of view because it has reduced car journeys and cut carbon emissions.”
“It was totally pathetic that the government said they had not got enough parliamentary time to ensure that local councils can operate safely and properly – it shows yet again the contempt and deep disrespect the government has for us, and the important difficult work that we do for our communities.”
Cllr Alan Connett, Devon County Council Liberal Democrat group leader, added: “Making large groups of people meet indoors for meetings which often last more than two hours, when we’re trying to stop the spread of COVID-19, is unbelievably daft.
“This affects councillors and council staff. Some may have had COVID jabs, some not and some may have clinically vulnerable family at home.
“It should be up to our local councils to decide when it is safe to return – not the Conservative government.
“This is an opportunity missed as it has proved a remarkable benefit. It has moved on local government and this is a retrograde step. That councils have to meet in person before other people are allowed to do so seems to be very short-sighted.”
Cllr Martin Shaw, who had asked for an update on the ruling from Cllr Hart, added: “Shaw – The Government has put councils in an impossible position. The pandemic is not over, precautions will need to be taken to deal with the threat, and there could be a resurgence of Covid and a new wave, and it is essential that councils have the flexibility to organise business in the best possible way.”
Wednesday night’s East Devon District Council full council meeting heard that the council felt that they could accommodate committee meetings at Blackdown House, but would have to hold their full council meetings at an alternative venue, with Westpoint provisionally booked.
Henry Gordon-Lennox, the council’s monitoring officer, told the meeting that the initial expectation was that committee members have to be physically present to vote but they hoped to continue with a zoom meeting for attendance by officers and public and non-committee members.
He added: “From May 7 we are faced with the prospect with return to physical meetings. The government roadmap makes that easier as time goes on and as restrictions ease, it becomes less and less acute, but it is more acute for the next month and a bit.
“The chamber can hold 16 so it covers off all of the committees that can be held at Blackdown House but it would necessitate a very minimal public access, so we can provide three seats in the public gallery to meet the legal requirement for press and public.”
Cllr Paul Arnott, leader of the council, added: “The courts are blameless and made the legal decision, and this just sits at the government’s door. I think this is so dangerous. I am extremely vulnerable and not had the second jab yet. Most of the younger members haven’t had a first jab, so the thought of them being forced to gather in one room, however big it is, is ridiculous. On public health grounds we should be waiting until we have had at least one jab, but it seems like we won’t be able to.”
Tuesday night’s Exeter City Council full council meeting saw them vote to amend the standing orders of the council to enable them to hold meetings at an alternative venue to the Guildhall, with Cllr Peter Holland, Lord Mayor of Exeter, saying that the current plan would be to hold the annual meeting at the Corn Exchange instead.
West Devon Borough Council are working on the basis that all formal Member decision-making meetings will be held in the Council Chamber at Kilworthy Park.
A spokesman said: “In line with social distancing requirements, the capacity will be very restricted. For certain meetings (eg Full Council), it will not be possible for us to accommodate members of the press and public; they will be encouraged to view the meetings via our live stream.”
 
A spokesman for South Hams District Council said that the position for them is not yet clear. They said: “Due to the lack of ventilation, it will not be possible for us to hold any meetings in the Council Chamber at Follaton House. On the assumption that we will need to meet face to face, we are currently reviewing our options to ensure that we are still able to hold decision-making meetings while complying with social distancing requirements. No decisions have yet been taken over the suitability of potential alternative venues.”
 
A spokesman for Mid Devon District Council said: “We are making backup plans to resume meetings in person at Phoenix House and are currently reviewing our meeting timetable.  In light of the government roadmap, we are also reviewing the necessary arrangements that will need to be in place to hold meetings as safely as possible and in compliance with legislation and guidance.  Further details will be published on our website and as part of any published agendas when we have confirmed these plans.”
 
A spokesman for Dartmoor National Park Authority confirmed that meetings would resume in person at their HQ at Parke and that the press and public would be able to attend.
 
However, North Devon Council has confirmed that as a result of the decision, they will be resuming meetings in person and that there will be no live-streaming of them.
Senior Corporate and Community Services Officer, Bev Triggs says: “If we are required to return to meetings in person, then committee meetings would be held at Brynsworthy Environmental Centre, the Planning Committee would be held at the Rugby Club and full Council meetings would be held at an external venue with social distancing measures and additional measures in place.
“The public and press will be able to attend, however the numbers will be restricted and will be required to notify in advance to book a place. Only meetings that are required will be held. There would be no streaming of meetings for the time being.”
A Teignbridge District Council spokesman said: “We’re looking at options to hold socially distanced Covid secure committee meetings that will be live streamed so that members of the public can watch.   Most of these are likely to be in the council chamber, but we are looking at an alternative for the full council meeting.”
 
Cllr James Jamieson, Chairman of the Local Government Association said:
“It is very disappointing that this last avenue to allow councils to hold online and hybrid meetings whilst COVID-19 restrictions are still in force has not been successful. Councils by law, have to hold annual meetings within 21 days following local elections, so many will now have to use very large external venues to allow all members of the council to meet in person.
“Councils want to continue to have powers to hold online and hybrid meetings even when restrictions have been lifted. A recent LGA survey of its members revealed that 83 per cent of councils said they would be very likely or fairly likely to conduct meetings both online and in a hybrid way once the coronavirus emergency was over if they had the power.
“The current flexibility has been paramount in allowing access for both councillors and the public into council meetings.  Many councils have, in fact, seen significantly increased participation by the public in meetings where important decisions are made about planning, housing and the provision of local services. Councils want the flexibility to continue to meet in this way and continue their business, especially in times of emergency such as when flooding occurs or if there is significant traffic disruption due to weather conditions.
“The Government gave clear evidence at the hearing in support of allowing the option of online and hybrid meetings. Unfortunately, the judgement is clear that primary legislation is needed to allow councils to use technology to hold meetings.”

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