Hampshire & Dorset Local Leaders comment: digital meetings and decision making
In a previous article ‘We’ll meet again – Are councils embracing virtual meetings?’, Cratus highlighted the importance of councils using virtual meetings to prioritise decision-making and keep business moving during lockdown. Last Thursday, Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, announced that the lockdown would continue for at least another 3 weeks and is likely to disrupt public life for a lot longer. With this in mind, Cratus Southampton asked a number of leaders in the wider Solent area for their views and experiences of virtual meetings so far.
Although all committee meetings of Eastleigh Borough Council have been cancelled until the end of April, steps are swiftly being made to make the switch to digital decision making. Leader Cllr Keith House told Cratus:
“Eastleigh will be moving to virtual meetings for public-facing committees later this month and will keep these going for the foreseeable future. Keeping the planning system going is really important for employment and housing in the months ahead. We do not want to create future delays in starts on site through delayed planning.”
However, some meetings are easier to carry out virtually than others. Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) Council held their first virtual meeting on Tuesday 14th April – a Licensing Sub-Committee with 3 members, 2 observers and the Council’s Legal officials. Cllr Vikki Slade, Leader of BCP Council commented:
“It was really successful, and we will hold virtual Overview and Scrutiny, and Cabinet meetings on Monday and Wednesday [respectively]. However, I am resistant to a Full Council virtual meeting during lockdown due to accessibility issues.”
There are 75 elected members of the council, many of whom are over 70. Since it is not possible to explain the specific video-call system in person, there is a danger that decisions taken at a full council virtual meeting could be open to the challenge that members did not understand how they could make themselves heard. Even if all members do understand, this claim could still be difficult to refute.
This is of particular note for BCP Council. At the beginning of April the Unity Alliance sadly lost one of its members in the untimely passing of Cllr Colin Bungey (Christchurch Independents, Commons ward). At this time of lockdown, no by-elections can be held. The Unity Alliance therefore has to move forward without a majority on the Council. However this does not stop Cllr Slade from getting on with things and engaging with the public; earlier this week she fielded all sorts of questions from local residents in a live Q&A session streamed on social media website Facebook, explaining how the Council is managing the current crisis and what people can expect from the Council and local services provision in these unprecedented times.
In Basingstoke & Deane
Meanwhile, further north in the borough of Basingstoke & Deane, Councillors are considering public participation in local authority decision making. The Leader of Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council, Cllr Ken Rhatigan told Cratus:
“We are looking at having virtual meetings at the Council, hopefully starting in the next couple of weeks with a shortened Development Control meeting. The biggest hurdle is that we continue to wish for as wide a public participation as possible, and that is some of the challenges that need to be overcome before going live with a Committee meeting”.
Perhaps if local governments can streamline remote meetings then there could be greater engagement as watching on a device requires less effort and time spent travelling. If local leaders can get it right, then holding remote meetings can actually help in lowering the barriers to engagement.
The above examples demonstrate how local Councils, which are having to deal with one of the biggest challenges in modern times, are looking for opportunities to keep driving their authority areas forward, keep the engagement with local residents strong whilst staying open for business. According to Cratus, a moment to Clap for Councils would be in order.