Local elections will be held across much of the country on 6 May 2021, including here in Shropshire though not in Telford & Wrekin. Also on 6 May, the legislation which allows town and parish councils to meet online expires. That is causing some concern among councils across the country.
On Monday night, the south area od the Shropshire Association of Local Councils agreed to a motion that I had drafted calling for councils to be able to have the choice of meeting online or face to face in a council chamber or other setting. Last night, Bromfield Parish Council agreed to support the same motion.
Bromfield today is writing to political leaders calling for councils to be allowed the option of meeting online as well as face to face. Shropshire Council leader Peter Nutting has already indicated that he will support continuation of online meetings and Shreswbury Town council is also calling for virtual meetings to continue.
Few of us had heard of Zoom or its rival Teams a year ago. Since then, we have got to know them well, as well as a multitude of other online conferencing products.
In most cases council meetings have proved to be as effective online as face to face meetings have been. (Except for continuing council discussions in the pub afterwards!) Not having to travel to meetings has saved councillors’ time, reduced costs and reduced carbon emissions.
Sometimes they have been more effective. When Bromfield Parish Council held a meeting on the closure of the parish post office, thirty people attended. We don’t have anywhere in Bromfield big enough to host that many people.
There are health concerns about returning to face to face meetings in early May. By them, the pandemic will have diminished and hopefully will be coming to an end. But crowding people into a council chamber like Ludlow’s Guildhall would not be safe even if all those present have been vaccinated. It is likely that guidance on social distancing will still be in place. That means that councillors will need to be miked or they will not be heard. Larger venues can be used in Ludlow but that will add to costs at a time when budgets are strained.
The government is showing no signs of wanting to extend the regulations that allow town and parish councils to hold online meetings. That means that councils across the country are drawing up plans to get back together in the same room from May.
I see no need for this. Councils should have the option of meeting online or in a meeting room. We should be taking advantage of the opportunities presented by our technological age not insisting that town and parish councils continue to meet in the way that have done, until last year, since 1894.
Motion calling for the flexibility to continue virtual meetings alongside in person meetings
It isn’t always easy in rural areas, particularly during winter, to attend all the meetings because of inclement weather and commitments. That problem is alleviated and time is not wasted if members are able to attend remotely from home.
Shropshire Council and many town councils have declared a climate emergency. Reducing travel to meetings will reduce the carbon footprint of council business.
Virtual meetings provide an opportunity for greater numbers of the public to attend. It is also easier for councillors who are carers or who have mobility issues to attend.
This Council believes it should have the flexibility to hold both remote and in person meetings.
This council resolves to write to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) urging that the temporary change to the meeting rules set out in the Local Government Act 1972 be made permanent to allow the flexibility to hold meetings remotely or in person after 6 May 2020. The council also resolves to write to SALC, Philip Dunne MP and Shropshire Council expressing the same wishes.
Email from Bromfield Parish Council to Secretary of State Robert Jenrick, Philip Dunne MP and Peter Nutting, leader of Shropshire Council on remote meetings
Councils need flexibility to meet online as well as in person after the May local elections
As you will be aware, town and parish councils have been meeting online since the start of the pandemic. This has worked well, though at times broadband issues have caused problems for a few participants. Meeting online has often increased public participation and the number of people who cannot use online technology is reducing rapidly.
The current regulations for meeting remotely expire on 6 May 2021. Despite the reducing infection rates for Covid-19 and the accelerating vaccination campaign, this date may be too early to hold face to face council meetings, particularly where there is expected to be a large public presence.
Last night, Bromfield Parish Council in south west Shropshire unanimously agreed to support a motion asking you and others to lobby for the ability to hold virtual meetings as well face to face meetings after 6 May 2021. The Shropshire Association of Local Councils agreed the same motion the night before.
It was not the view of Bromfield Parish Council that all meetings should be online. But that there should be flexibility to hold meetings in the format that best suits the council’s needs and the health situation of the day.
We hope that the legislation can be extended and can give councils the flexibility to hold face to face or virtual meetings as circumstances permit.
Chair, Bromfield Parish Council