Councillors voice concerns about end of remote meetings

Social distancing, mask wearing and going paper-free could pose “big problems” when in-person council meetings resume in May, a committee has heard.

Wellington Town Council has discussed the issues with returning to physical meetings
Wellington Town Council has discussed the issues with returning to physical meetings

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has told authorities that emergency powers, passed last year to allow public bodies to meet via video conference, are not being extended and will expire next month.

With 21 members, Wellington Town Council is the largest town or parish council in Telford and Wrekin borough.

Clerk Karen Roper told its members that staff were exploring holding meetings in the civic ccntre’s library, as the regular meeting room is not big enough to allow two-metre clearance between seats.

Policy and resources vommittee chairman Stephen DeLauney said he hoped the Government would change its mind, but, if not, town councillors faced “potentially very difficult” decisions ahead of the expiry date.

In a letter on March 25, Regional Growth and Local Government Minister Luke Hall MP reminded English council leaders that the remote meeting provision in the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 expires on May 7.

He added that extending it would require new laws, and there was not sufficient parliamentary time to draft these.

“I recognise there may be concerns about holding face-to-face meetings,” Mr Hall added.

“We have updated our guidance on the safe use of council buildings to highlight ways you can, if necessary, minimise the risk.”

Difficult

Ms Roper said her concerns were “having a venue big enough to allow us to socially distance with 21 councillors, members of the public, plus staff” and “how we’re going to hear each other” with facemasks and potentially without microphones.

She said staff at the library were exploring ways to help.

“As soon as we’re back in the offices we’re going to try to set the chairs out to see if we can fit that number of people into the library area,” she said.

“It’s not just us, it’s every other council as well, but because we’re such a big council it makes it doubly difficult.”

She added that the wireless internet in the library had in the past failed when large numbers of people had used it at once.

Councillor DeLauney said socially-distanced meetings were supposed to be paperless, “so everyone would have to have a laptop, which means whichever venue we have would need to have a strong enough wi-fi signal for all of us to log in and see the material, potentially”.

He suggested deferring a decision to the committee’s next scheduled meeting, on May 4, and members agreed to this.

“My personal hope is that, by the time we get to May, the government will have extended the existing legislation and we won’t have this problem,” Councillor DeLauney said.

“But, if the government does not and then we have to meet face to face, I can’t see that it’s going to be easy for us to meet all of the requirements.”

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