Moving from physical to virtual meetings was a necessity for councils across the country last year when lockdown restrictions including bans on mass gatherings came into force to control the spread of coronavirus.
For Stone Town Council the move proved a success in attracting more residents to watch their meetings. Public attendance has soared since the council started streaming its Zoom meetings live on YouTube.
The relaxation of rules allowing council meetings to be held remotely is coming to an end this month however, despite calls to the Government to extend the move. Local authorities are now looking ahead how members and officers can return to their council chambers in a safe and socially-distanced way.
A Stone Town Council report stated that the council “does not have a building large enough to accommodate a full, Covid-safe meeting under current government guidance”.
As a result the council agreed to hold its annual meeting – which is required by law – virtually on Tuesday, May 4, before the remote meeting allowance came to an end. The annual public meeting has been scheduled for May 27 – a week after the next stage of the Government’s roadmap for lifting restrictions if conditions allow.
While town councillors have welcomed the prospect of going back to physical meetings they are also keen to continue enabling residents to view proceedings from home. They are now considering installing cameras in their council chamber.
The report said: “The use of virtual meetings has been a particular success for the council in terms of public interest.
“Prior to using this process, the level of press and public attendance at council meetings was low, with one or two attendees being typical. This occasionally increased to about six to 10 if an item of particular public interest was being considered.
“The council’s YouTube channel, however, currently has 74 subscribers, and the number of views of council meetings can often be in the hundreds.”
Councillor Jim Davies said: “It’s proved how the good people of Stone are interested in what we’re up to. We’ve had some good figures of people coming in and seeing what we as a council are debating.
“Now we’re looking forward to when we can start to meet face to face again – I don’t think there is any substitute for face to face meetings. But having proved the value of meetings over Zoom I think we now need to look to the future and see if we can embody the new technology in our routine council meetings.
“It is something I believe the people of Stone will want us to do, to ensure they can participate or certainly see us working on their behalf, in a way they have a right to do.”
Town Clerk Les Trigg told the latest mangement sub-committee meeting that following discussions the best approach appeared to be installing three wide angle cameras in the council chamber – one on either side of the room and one directed at the top table where the Mayor or chairman leads each meeting. He is now awaiting quotes for costs.
He said: “This is an area a number of people are looking at so demand is quite high in terms of getting things back from people. I have to say we’re not talking about cheap though – the sort of cameras that can take in that width of the chamber with good enough sound to broadcast as well is relatively expensive equipment.
“It’s been clear from Government advice that even if the council have to meet in person the legislation would allow the public to watch remotely.
“We will not have to allow for members of the public, we just have to allow for councillors, so it will make the return to face to face meetings a lot easier. Until such point we have a system in we will have to make reasonable allowance for attendance of members of the public when we are calculating the space we need for meetings.”
Councillor Jill Hood highlighted the benefits of broadcasting meetings from the chamber for disabled residents who may be unable to physically access the first floor meeting room, as well as giving young people an insight into what goes on at the council which could encourage them to stand for election as adults.
She said: “I think it’s very important that we start to have face to face meetings. But equally I think we should spend some money in being able to enable our town councillors to be filmed live during those meetings.
“What we’re learning from the exercise we’re going through during lockdown and having to have these remote meetings is there are probably hundreds of people in Stone who would love to come and watch our meetings. I know that it’s almost become a sport throughout the country watching your local council meetings because there are so many gaffes made – it really is quite comical.
“We’ve probably got quite a few people who are disabled that are watching our meetings, people who’ve got children tucked up in bed, people who have just that minute finished online working. It’s great for them to sit and watch us.”
Councillor Philip Leason said: “We are making our meetings more accessible for people who can’t physically attend. We could ask if we would be entitled to grants for that.
“I’m sure that some of the younger people would find what goes on in the council chamber of interest. It’s really showing democracy in action so I welcome it.”