At the beginning of April, the government laid regulations before parliament allowing local councils to hold meetings online or through teleconferencing. Until that point, councils had to meet in person and most decision-making meetings had be held in public. They must be also quorate. Councils are required to hold AGMs in May but that requirement has been suspended for 2021.
Shropshire Council’s annual meeting due on 14 May has been cancelled. An extraordinary council meeting will be held online at the beginning of May to ensure that those councillors who have not attended meetings for six months do not automatically lose their seats and trigger byelections. Planning meetings are expected to resume face to face or online in May. Before then, decisions are being taken by officers.
The regulations allowing remote meetings will expire on 7 May, which is when the current lockdown is due to be reviewed. It is possible that the government will extend the regulations if the lockdown continues. I am surprised the regulations apply for such a short period. Given the annual pattern of council decision making and the current uncertainties about when and how the country exits from lockdown, it might have been better to have put in place regulations until the end of August. The rules don’t force councils to cancel meetings or hold them remotely, they just give the flexibility to hold remote meetings as an alternative.
Although councillors and councils are being forced to adopt new technologies under the current lockdown, that is a good thing. Shropshire Council is one of the few major councils not to stream its council meetings online. Many councils also stream planning meetings. That can only improve democratic accountability (though I warn you it takes a lot of stamina to get through a full council meeting!).
Working online with officers and other councillors will also mean we can work more efficiently. It takes me around an hour-and-a-half to get to Shirehall by public transport. So sometimes I spend three hours travelling for a short meeting.
I don’t want to give up face to face meetings. Very often the informal discussion on the edge of meetings achieves and in corridors helps develop an understanding between councillors and officers about how to tackle complex issues. But we need to learn how to work effectively together online.
Here is what I know about local meetings so far.
AGM. The AGM on 14 May has cancelled. All committee and other appointments will continue to the next AGM in May 2021, unless the council decides otherwise.
Keeping councillors in office. An extraordinary council meeting will be held online at the beginning of May, date to be confirmed. There will be no public or member questions but all members together with the press and public will be able to listen to the proceedings. The only substantive item on the agenda will be a motion to allow those councillors who have not attended a meeting for six months, or cannot attend a meeting for six months, including the lockdown period, to continue in office. This is because councillors are disqualified if they do not attend a qualifying meeting for six months. The council needs 19 members to be quorate it is expected that only that number will attend this meeting, selected to maintain political balance.
Full council. The next full council is expected to be 16 July. This is likely to be full of urgent and Covid-19 recovery business. Business as usual will (hopefully) return at the 24 September meeting.
Cabinet. A remote cabinet meeting will take place on the 29 April 2020. Cabinet members, group leaders and officers will attend the online the meeting, which will be streamed online. Questions from councillors and the public will be read out by the chair of the meeting and a portfolio holder will respond.
Planning. In the interim, decisions have been made by officers under delegated powers. But that cannot be sustained in the long term. Committee members have been attending training sessions on Microsoft Teams. I hope that we will have either a virtual Southern Planning Committee in May. Planning committees are quorate at just three members but with eleven members on each of the two committees we will be well above that in virtual attendance.
Scutiny. No scrutiny meetings are planned at present.
Ludlow Town Council
No details yet published on future meetings. Details will be posted on the council’s website.
Bromfield Parish Council
The May AGM is cancelled. Any immediate queries or concerns should be sent to the Parish Clerk Clive Leworthy firstname.lastname@example.org.