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Coronavirus: Local councils to hold remote meetings

Coronavirus: Local councils to hold remote meetings

Published by Local Democracy Reporter Jacob Webster at 6:14pm 7th April 2020.

Local councils will hold remote meetings after the go-ahead from Westminster

  • For the first time ever, councils in Harrogate, Craven and Wharfedale will meet remotely.
  • The Government has given the go-ahead to use video conferencing technology to ensure local democracy can still operate.
  • Up to now, North Yorkshire County Council had handed decision-making responsibility to its Chief Executive.

Councils in Harrogate have been given a government go-ahead to hold their first-ever remote meetings in a historic move to set the wheels of democracy back into motion during the virus pandemic.

Local Government Secretary MP Robert Jenrick announced at the weekend that the legal requirement for authorities to hold public meetings in person has been temporarily removed – meaning that video conferencing will be used by councils going forward.

The new rules, which came into force on Saturday, demand meetings to be made accessible to the public, but it is up to each council to decide exactly how this will work.

Harrogate Borough Council – which looks after services including bin collections, planning applications and business support – is now looking at what technology it can use to get meetings underway and catch up on key decisions which have been missed.

A council spokesman said:

“Following the government go-ahead, we are now looking at what software would be appropriate to allow remote meetings to take place at Harrogate Borough Council.

“We hope to have this in place in the coming weeks and will begin with rescheduling some of the previous meetings that had to be postponed.

“Once we have a clear timetable it will be made available on our website and social media.”

Harrogate Borough Council Civic Centre
Harrogate Borough Council Civic Centre

North Yorkshire County Council – which is responsible for services including education, social care and highways – handed all decision making powers to its chief executive, Richard Flinton, when the country went into lockdown.

The authority has now welcomed the government’s announcement to allow virtual meetings, meaning all councillors will be involved in decision making again.

Its Corporate Director of Strategic Resources, Gary Fielding, said the council is “committed to openness and transparency” and is looking at what technology it can use to also involve the public.

He said:

“We need to ensure that we are able to implement a system that complies with the new regulations and that the technology works. At this stage, it is not clear when the first virtual, committee meeting will be held but we have continually been in contact with our councillors via virtual meetings and have published relevant decision records on our website.

“The emergency decision making powers that the chief executive has exercised, during a period where no formal, public, decision making committee meetings are able to be held due to the pandemic are under constant review.

“Once we are able to hold formal virtual meetings that comply
with the regulations, then a decision will be taken as to what approach is needed to best ensure that we are able to continue to respond effectively and efficiently to a rapidly changing situation.

“The council has been using remote access and informal virtual meetings for a number of years to enable its business to be conducted quickly and efficiently, in what is a large, rural county but the law has never previously recognised those not physically in the room as being in attendance with
appropriate voting rights.

“To date, there have been a number of informal meetings with our county
councillors. Any meetings held under the new regulations would be the first, formal, public, decision making committee meetings held at the Council using virtual technology.”

North Yorkshire County Council county hall
North Yorkshire County Council: County Hall

Speaking when he made the announcement, Local Government Secretary MP Robert Jenrick said:

“Local authorities are the backbone of our democracy and they are playing a vital role in the national effort to keep people safe. This change will support them to do that while maintaining the transparency we expect in local decision making.

“Councillors and staff are already doing the right thing by following our advice to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. This includes working from home wherever possible, and the new powers to hold meetings virtually will make that easier.

“It’s critical that they continue to provide essential services and find innovative ways to maintain important economic functions they perform like the planning system and they will now be able to do so.”