By Chris Hossack, Associate Director
Over the last year, Local Authorities, Police & Crime Panels and Parish Councils have been able to conduct their business of democratic decision making remotely. Legislation passed in 2020 enabled this to happen. However, that legislation expires on May 7th this year, so Local Authorities will have to return to the good old-fashioned way of holding their formal council meetings, in person, in the same room (Council Chamber).
This has caused consternation among many Councillors across the land, particularly the timing of the formal announcement in a letter from MHCLG Minister, Luke Hall, on 25th March. Just days before the start of the pre-election period, when usual council business ceases until after the May local elections. It seems MP’s could not find the time in their parliamentary programme to bring in the new legislation required for a simple extension.
Even amidst an efficient vaccine roll-out, many Councillors remain concerned that in order to conduct their business safely, they need to do it suitably socially distanced. This cannot be achieved in many council chambers especially at a meeting of the full council, which will be the first order of business later in May.
There is also a growing realisation that decision making has not only been more efficient over the last year but that it has also been more environmentally friendly, with many thousands of miles not travelled by road to attend council meetings. Apparently, some Councillors can do round trips to the Civic Offices in excess of 100 miles!
However, there is another side to ‘democracy by Zoom’. It seems a minority of Councillors have become rather too comfortable on their sofas, or in some cases, on their beds. Others have become rather casual in their appearance with, thankfully, rare instances of rather necessary apparel being entirely absent, whilst others have been seen partaking in a ‘cheeky snifter’ on camera. It also can’t go without mentioning the many millions that have now witnessed on You-Tube examples of unprofessional and embarrassing behaviour, that for some reason a faction of elected members seem more willing to engage in, on-line, from the safety of their homes.
If that wasn’t bad enough, poor connectivity and a seeming aversion to the unmute button have added to the frustration. All of these examples have been, at best, a distraction from the overall great work achieved by Local Government during the pandemic.
It is understandable why a good number of Councillors think it is high time to get back to the way it was prior to the pandemic. Undoubtedly, there are lessons we can learn from remote working and, where possible, we should aim to carry those over for non-formal meetings.
Councillors are happy for the benefits of technology to be perpetuated but, they contend, you cannot underestimate the importance of ‘being in the room’ when debating major issues and making important decisions.
It’s important not to lose sight of the science behind the legislation in the first place. Clearly cramming together in a council chamber would have been an unacceptable coronavirus transmission risk, so the right decision was taken to allow councils to go virtual.
However, at time of writing, over 30 million of our fellow citizens have now been vaccinated and, as we work down the age scale, it is fair to say that the majority of them are over 50. Bear in mind, the average age of a Councillor at the last LGA national consensus was the best part of 60, with only around 15% under 45 years old.
It is, therefore, a reasonable assumption that the majority of Councillors have now received at least their first vaccination dose and have good protection against the virus. With the NHS now apparently protected from a third wave, the public health risk from holding in person council meetings is vastly reduced.
Should we be going back to the Town Hall or should we have seen a legislative extension to see the sector through the Summer? Let us know what you think.
You can contact Chris here.