Let’s keep a virtual option.

Cllr Jess David in a virtual council meeting from her home.

Lockdowns and social distancing have thrown up unexpected benefits when it comes to council meetings – according to the ruling LibD-em group on B&NES.

Virtual get-togethers – they say – have improved access and safety, reduced emissions from transport, saving on time and expenses and better engaging with residents.

A motion – calling for the council to join other authorities in urging government to legislate for virtual meetings to be a permanent option – was approved at a full gathering of the Council.

The group argued that councillors, officers and the public had made great progress in developing the skills necessary to hold them and that – long term – this technology could attract a more diverse range of councillors and officers.

(Ironically though – while vote was being taken – the government released a letter saying councils couldn’t continue to meet virtually – even though Parliament can! They obviously don’t like their Union flags fluttering over empty buildings!)

All B&NES public meetings have been held virtually and broadcast live to YouTube since the first lockdown in Spring 2020, due to Covid-19 restrictions. However, the regulations making this legal were a temporary measure and are due to expire in May 2021.

They want the right to be able to consider virtual meets depending upon factors such as participants and weather conditions.

The full council meeting agreed that the leader should write to relevant ministers and local Mps and raise the issue with colleagues such as parish councillors.

Cllr Jess David addressing the Zoom council meeting.

Proposing the motion, Cllr Jess David said:

“Government urgently needs update the laws to allow Councils to continue meeting virtually. The regulations permitting this will expire in a few weeks and it’s clearly not going to be safe to bring everyone back into the Council Chamber by then.

“The Council is not the only organisation which is trapped between the legislation expiry and Covid guidelines meaning a quorate meeting would not be physically possible, so we hope the government could make the same flexibility available to Parish Councils and Charter Trustees, amongst others.

“In the longer term, we’re also asking for the option to hold virtual or hybrid meetings where we choose to do so to be made permanent. This wouldn’t replace meeting in-person but would give us greater flexibility.

“Video conferencing technology has been a game-changer for Councils and for people who take an interest in local government. Previously, only Cabinet and full Council meetings were recorded. But now hundreds of people are watching committees and joining our new public engagement webinars. 

“Broadcasting all Council meetings and allowing virtual participation represents great progress in opening up local democracy. This will enable a much wider group of our residents to participate, without needing to travel to the Guildhall to do so.

“From a personal standpoint, as someone with a young family and a work life, the use of virtual meetings has meant a much more efficient use of my time. I have needed less childcare; I have also saved significant time and reduced my environmental impact by not traveling.

“For anyone with caring responsibilities or with disabilities, enabling virtual meetings immediately makes our work more inclusive and accessible. This could help attract a more diverse range of Councillors and officers to B&NES.

“I feel that having the option for a hybrid meeting would be a great step forward to modernise the way we work – combing a physical meeting with some on screen participation. I understand that council officers are already looking at the technology we would need to make this work.

“I’m delighted that Council supported this motion as an important step to modernise and open up the way we work.”

Great arguments but already lost on government it would seem. Minister Luke Hall has written to all local authorities saying the government is under too much pressure to fit in legislation to allow them to continue.

Cllr Weaver said today: ‘Unfortunately government still say they won’t legislate to allow us to meet virtually after May 7th. It puts councils in a difficult position – needing to find new ways to meet, when extending virtual meetings was a simple fix’

I hear local government lawyers elsewhere have made an application to the courts to declare authorities already have the powers needed to hold online meetings.

Let’s hope they are successful. Too many benefits to let this opportunity fall.