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Medway councillors urge government to rethink plan to scrap virtual council meetings


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The government is being urged by councillors in Medway to reconsider its decision to stop councils from holding virtual meetings .

Ministers have announced they are calling a halt to the initiative, which was introduced as a way of allowing local councils to continue with business during the Covid pandemic.

A Medway Council virtual cabinet meeting
A Medway Council virtual cabinet meeting

The decision has drawn cross-party criticism, with councillors across the political spectrum pressing for a rethink. Most councils in Kent have held certain meetings remotely - including several who do not webcast meetings.

Some have argued that holding virtual meetings has helped engage residents with the activities of councils as well as helping elected members to continue with their role despite having to stay at home.

Nick Bowler, Labour councillor for Rochester East, said the government should reconsider the decision.

“As someone who has spent most of the last year shielding with a condition on the clinically extremely vulnerable list, being able to participate in council meetings virtually has not only been good for democracy it has also been good for my own mental health and wellbeing.

"For the government to not be extending that provision whilst we are still in the middle of a global pandemic is very short sighted and I urge them to reverse their decision very quickly to allow remote participation to continue.”

Cllr Nick Bowler (45591418)
Cllr Nick Bowler (45591418)

Medway Labour opposition leader Vince Maple is among those to have signed a joint letter to the local government minister Luke Hall, saying councils should be permitted to continue with the scheme.

The letter from the Association of Labour Councillors states: “Local authorities should be empowered to decide for themselves how meetings take place based on local public health advice. The safety of the public, our staff and councillors is paramount.”

“The ALC notes how online meetings have made local democracy more accessible. We welcome conversations about the benefit of extending the use of online and hybrid meetings beyond the pandemic.”

The Local Government Association said the decision would place councils under significant pressure with meetings needing to be held while social distancing measures were still in place.

“Holding face to face council meetings, with supporting staff, could easily involve up to 200 people in one room even before adding in members of the public and reporters.

Cllr Vince Maple, Labour, Medway Council. Picture: Medway Council
Cllr Vince Maple, Labour, Medway Council. Picture: Medway Council

"This is likely to be a significant challenge with councils, for example, having to source larger venues in order to be able to host meetings with social distancing measures in place, such as full council meetings which will need to be held following the May local elections."

Emergency legislation was passed in the Commons to give them the power to do business over video conferencing tools, but the temporary law is due to run out the day after the local elections on May 6.

In his letter, Mr Hall - the minister for regional growth and local government - praised the efforts of local authorities in England, saying they had "risen magnificently to the challenges of this period".

But he said extending virtual meetings past May would involved primary legislation in the Commons, which would have a "significant impact... on the government's legislative programme, which is already under severe pressure in these unprecedented times".

Virtual council meetings hit the headlines when a virtual meeting of Handforth Parish Council descended into chaos when the authority of the chairman Jackie Weaver was questioned.

Virtual meetings such as this one have become commonplace. Stock image
Virtual meetings such as this one have become commonplace. Stock image

She has also decried the end of virtual meetings, saying it was a dreadful idea.

The temporary law is due to run out the day after the local elections on May 6.

In his letter, Mr Hall - the minister for regional growth and local government - praised the efforts of local authorities in England.

He said they had "risen magnificently to the challenges of this period".

But he said extending virtual meetings past May would involved primary legislation in the Commons, which would have a "significant impact... on the government's legislative programme, which is already under severe pressure in these unprecedented times".

Analysis by KM Group political editor Paul Francis

No-one can pretend that many council meetings offer up pretty dull fare. But there is little doubt that virtual meetings have enabled citizens to see what their elected representatives get up to and that is no bad thing.

Certain meetings can come across as slightly North Korean, with members using the platform as a way to tell us what a fantastic job the council is up to.

But the government's decision has pulled the rug from under the feet of local government, leaving council taxpayers - voters - with no direct access to looking in on what their council is up to.

In Kent, the county council remains the only authority that webcasts almost every meeting; it is time the others caught up.

If it is good enough for Parliament to broadcast what MPs are up to, it is good enough for councillors.

Head to our politics page for expert analysis and all the latest news from your politicians and councils.

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