Councillors want government rethink over plans to end remote meetings

Government plans to force local authorities to move back to face-to-face meetings in just five weeks’ time have been slammed as a “backwards step” by Shropshire councillors.

Shropshire Council's leader has said he will raise the issue with government
Shropshire Council's leader has said he will raise the issue with government

Fears have been voiced that refusal to extend emergency legislation brought in last year – allowing meetings to be held remotely – would put vulnerable members’ health at risk and be in breach of other Covid regulations.

Members also said moving proceedings online had led to a welcome increase in public attendance at meetings and a heightened interest in local democracy – but warned this could all be undone if the arrangement ends in May as planned.

Shropshire Council leader Peter Nutting said he would make “serious representations” to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government urging a rethink.

The vow came after a question put to authority’s cabinet by Much Wenlock councillor David Turner.

He said councils had “demonstrated remarkable resilience” over the last year to continue serving their communities during the global pandemic.

“The use of remote technology has meant that the overwhelming majority of elected members at every level have participated in the democratic process from home,” said Councillor Turner.

“With the roll-out of the Covid vaccine there is much optimism that normal meetings will take place in person this year.

“Nonetheless I believe there is merit in maintaining the facility for remote participation under certain circumstances.

“For instance, there may be members who are still classed as vulnerable and they may be unwilling or unable to leave their home.

“And there are significant cost and time saving advantages. For instance, there are meetings, formal or otherwise, that are normally quite brief and could be conducted perfectly satisfactorily online.”

Councillor Turner said it was simply not feasible for many smaller town and parish councils, which do not have access to large venues, to facilitate social distancing at meetings. He further questioned how councils could be expected to meet at all until restrictions on gatherings are relaxed.

He added that the ability to watch meetings from home has “awakened public interest in local democracy.”

Councillor Turner’s comments were echoed by Councillor Lezley Picton, who said: “In the many parish council meetings I have attended since lockdown, the increased number of people who have attended from outside the council – members of the public – has been really heartwarming.

“I think it would be a real backwards step if we lost the ability for parish councils to engage with more people.

“Very often these people come along to listen who would not necessarily have gone out on a winter’s night, and left the kids with next door’s mum-in-law or something, to go to a parish council. But they have been able to take part in the meeting via a virtual screen.

“I think it would be an absolute tragedy if we stopped that in the future.”

Councillor Gwilym Butler, portfolio holder for communities, said the council was undertaking a study of 12 town and parish councils “of all sizes” across the county to establish how they could be supported by Shropshire Council to continue virtual or “hybrid” meetings in future, should the Government allow.

He added: “It is my personal opinion that if an official decision isn’t being made and a vote isn’t being taken, virtual meetings could still continue.

“There should be various options open to local authorities and then it’s up to them to change their constitution to how they want to work locally. There shouldn’t be a ‘one size fits all’ delivered from Westminster.”

Councillor leader Peter Nutting said the council, along with “many others” had made representations to Government about the continuation of remote meetings and pledged to continue to do so.

He said: “I’m hoping everyone will agree that either I or the officers put together serious representations to the Government about the need for a change in their attitude.

“I think the answer will by hybrid meetings. We do need to make sure the technology exists, but Shropshire Council can provide that for parish councils if necessary.”

Cabinet members unanimously agreed to press for an extension to the remote meetings legislation.

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