East Devon District Councillors have voted to extend its innovative ‘virtual’ consultative meeting programme until Annual Council in May 2022.
Whilst Prime Minister, Boris Johnson was announcing ‘Plan B’ on Wednesday evening, Councillor Ian Thomas, Independent Chair of the Council, who led the temporary reintroduction of ‘virtual’ consultative meetings for the period to January 2022, proposed their extension.
As Chair, my top priority is the health and wellbeing of all associated with East Devon District Council, its Officers, Members and the public we serve.
In July we found ourselves in the tightening ‘jaws’, not simply of a COVID pandemic but also a legislative vacuum.
Whilst the excellent COVID-19 vaccination programme continues to reduce hospitalisation and mortality, the data are inconclusive on future risk, particularly with the rapid growth in cases of the Omicron variant as we move into the Winter, a time when peaks in influenza and other respiratory infections can also be expected.
The outdated, 1972 Local Government Act, which underpins Local Government governance, does not recognise 'virtual' meetings as satisfying the requirement to be physically ‘in the same room’, simply because the act predates Tim Berners-Lee invention of the World Wide Web itself, by a full 17 years.
The enormous level of uncertainty, which prompted our return to ‘virtual’ meetings, remains.
We are particularly conscious that our local health service is under extreme pressure.
In this context, it is important we take all steps to ensure that our potential impact on healthcare demand is minimised, whilst we continue to effectively deliver our services to East Devon residents.
Smooth running of consultative ‘virtual’ meetings, in support of delegated powers to Senior Officers, demonstrates that we are well placed to extend our use of ‘virtual’ meetings through the winter and protect the health service by reducing our risk of infection.
We have also achieved several other benefits from our online meeting experience.
At a time of great financial pressure on Local Government, travel expense claims by Members have delivered cost savings over 95%, with further associated efficiencies through a reduction in travel time.
Travel reduction also delivers similar saving in our personal carbon footprint, contributing toward a key Council priority of a ‘net zero’ footprint by 2040."
‘Virtual’ meetings are much more effective, in terms of public engagement, with all meetings both broadcast live and published on the East Devon District Council YouTube channel.
Instead of rare public attendance at our ‘face to face' meetings, 'virtual' meetings may be viewed several hundred times, as our council demonstrates its commitment to openness and transparency.
Cllr Thomas concluded,
“Extending temporary ‘virtual’ meetings over the winter period is totally consistent with Government’s ‘Plan B’ instructions to ‘work from home if you can’.
We support the Local Government Association, which we understand is seeking re-introduction of legislation allowing for remote meetings. Should such legislation be laid before May, I envisage our practical experience will be of enormous benefit, in allowing us to smoothly ‘morph’ into a programme of full, decision-making online meetings, as was possible prior to May 2021.
In the interim, I’m grateful for overwhelming council support for the extension of our current arrangements.”
The Council is next scheduled to review its temporary use of consultative ‘virtual’ meetings to be effective from 10th May 2022.
Meanwhile the Chair will be working with Officers, leaders of all political groups and individual Members, to develop forward facing options for the longer-term governance of East Devon District Council's meeting programme.