Virtual council meetings could continue post-Covid – minister

Virtual council meetings could become a permanent fixture of local politics across the country post-Covid, a minister has said.

Lichfield District Council House
Lichfield District Council House

Whitehall is looking at extending legislation allowing remote meetings beyond its expiry date of May 7, 2021, after council leaders said the system had led to a range of improvements to local democracy.

It follows representations from Councillor Doug Pullen, the leader of Lichfield District Council, who lobbied MP Michael Fabricant to push the proposal in Parliament.

Council meetings across the country have been held remotely since social distancing came in as part of Covid lockdown measures.

Councillor Pullen said thousands of people had tuned into the district's Zoom meetings broadcast live on YouTube, while attendance rates by councillors had "shot up".

He also said the system had resulted in a reduction in the authority's carbon footprint and would potentially attract more people to stand as councillors.

Councillor Doug Pullen

Local Government Minister, Luke Hall, said he was aware that "the flexibility to meet remotely has been welcomed by many", and that "the Government will be considering carefully the case for extending these regulations as necessary in the coming months".

He said it was widely acknowledged that allowing meetings to be held remotely had helped councils to redeploy resources to deal with the pandemic, and to make "critical decisions in a democratic way whilst protecting the health and safety of their members, officers and the public".

"It is particularly interesting to note Councillor Pullen’s enthusiasm for remote meetings and the benefits he has described, including increased public engagement, improvements in councillor attendance, and a reduction in the council’s carbon footprint," Mr Hall added.

"I was also interested to note his point regarding the additional flexibility that remote meetings provide and the potential this has to attract more diverse individuals to the councillor role."

Lichfield MP Michael Fabricant

Lichfield MP Mr Fabricant, said allowing virtual council meetings indefinitely would "transform local democracy across the country".

"Whether the decision is made in 2021 or not, I believe this will be the inevitable future for local council meetings."

Mr Fabricant said he plans to raise the matter against with Ministers early next year.

Calls for online council meetings to continue in Lichfield have been backed by Labour councillors in the district.

The plan was criticised by Tory councillor Derick Cross, the authority's vice-chairman, who said "serious decision making" should take place in the chamber with members "properly dressed for the occasion".

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