Call for councils to continue with online meetings during pandemic

A council clerk says councils should retain the ability to host online meetings during the pandemic, ahead of a Government decision on whether to extend Covid regulations.

Shrewsbury town clerk Helen Ball has called for councils to be allowed to continue online meetings
Shrewsbury town clerk Helen Ball has called for councils to be allowed to continue online meetings

As lockdown started in March last year the government brought in emergency regulations which allowed councils to hold meetings remotely – to get around the issues of social distancing.

The rules which allow them to take place remotely expire on May 6.

Helen Ball, clerk of Shrewsbury Town Council, said the option for remote meetings should be retained.

She said a return to physical meetings would pose problems for the council, and added that there had also been benefits to online meetings, such as increased attendance from councillors and the public, as well as easier access for the media to report on proceedings.

She said: "Prior to Covid we took our instructions of how we convene meetings from the Local Government Act of 1972, so all the provision for councils, not just town and parish councils, we take the guidance from that act.

"It has not really kept up to date with the times. It is very specific that they have to be physical meetings in physical places and councillors can only take part if they are physically there.

Lobbying

"Last year they created regulations that allowed us to have virtual meetings.

"Those regulations expire at the beginning of May so while all the statutory bodies have been lobbying government to say 'can you look a extending those regulations' they have not come out and said they will, so our governing body says we need to start making arrangements for starting to be able to do physical meetings at the start of May."

Mrs Ball said two locations the council would normally use to hold meetings, University Centre Shrewsbury's Frankwell base, and Shropshire Council's Shirehall, are both unavailable.

She said: "It would have to be a Covid risk-assessed building to make sure we can have the meetings. We previously met at the Shrewsbury University but they have said they will not allow any external use of their meeting rooms, as has Shropshire Council.

"It means we might have to start looking at alternatives. We could take on one of our community centres, but they are not really big enough."

Flexibility

Mrs Ball said councillors wanted a mixed system that would allow for remote attendances.

She said: "Members are saying we need a hybrid where physical meetings are held for certain circumstances but that we can continue with virtual meetings running alongside.

"With remote meetings we have found councillors' attendance has been better – nearly 100 per cent, we have had more members of the public turning up, and it has allowed for greater awareness of what is happening because it is easier for the press to cover."

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