Liam Walker: This pandemic has shown remote council meetings can work and they should continue

18 Jun

Cllr Liam Walker represents the Hanborough & Minster Lovell Division on Oxfordshire County Council.

If two years ago, we had told our council staff here in Oxfordshire and across the country, that they would all have to work remotely from home, we would probably have been laughed out of the room – after having been given a raft of reasons as to why that is not practically possible. Yet a year ago, that was the instruction given – and local government reacted incredibly quickly and stepped up to the task. We’ve had staff and councillors working from kitchen table tops, in the cupboard under the stairs, or away from the children in a quiet corner of the garden shed. Local government had to react quickly. Simply shutting down wasn’t an option and in fact the complete opposite took place, with councils across the UK redoubling their efforts to support their communities and help them deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Helping families with food, working with our NHS partners to support the shielding programme, supporting community groups, and providing thousands of volunteers to help collect food, medication, and essential supplies for neighbours – local government stepped up and we all played our part.

Arguably few positives have come from the COVID-19 pandemic, but, at a local level, three really do stick out for me: a surge in community spirit, a spotlight on the incredible work of our NHS, care staff and key workers; and (on a more personal level), being able to hold and vote with remote council meetings. While I firmly believe that the former will both endure long after the pandemic dies away, sadly the latter is under threat.

Although “You’re on mute!” was probably the most popular phrase of 2020, enabling local councils to hold their meetings remotely and letting councillors vote remotely will probably rank as some of the most modern changes to hit local government in many years. It was a struggle at the start as some councillors learnt the importance of unmuting, not having the camera tilted too low, and making sure the bookcase behind reflected their personality and politics, but we got there eventually – and it has worked incredibly well.

I’m not sure I need to list the many benefits of remote meetings, but for me the one that sticks out the most is making the council more inclusive, especially for those with young families or those who also have full-time jobs. As someone who works as well as being a county councillor, I’ve been able to balance both roles much more easily and I have been far more productive as a result. Being able to attend meetings by just turning my laptop on has been liberating.

The environment also benefits, with fewer staff and councillors having to travel around their areas in vehicles to attend meetings, which could have easily been held remotely. Plus, there is the benefit to the taxpayer, as councillors and staff across the country are no longer claiming mileage, resulting in more cash for councils that can be invested in frontline services.

It wouldn’t be right to talk only about the benefits of remote meetings without also touching on the downsides. One thing I’ve found hard is having to juggle back-to-back meetings with very little time to exercise or sometimes even pop to the bathroom. I think this has got better but in the early months it was easy to sit at my desk for eight hours a day, which isn’t healthy for anyone.

Getting the right balance is key and going forward I’m definitely in favour of a hybrid model where there is the option to dial in to a meeting remotely or attend in person. It should be about choice and what is most practical for the individuals involved – but having the legislation to allow this is crucial.

Emergency legislation was passed in the House of Commons to give local councils the power to do business over video-conferencing tools like Zoom or Teams, but the temporary law ran out after the local elections on 6th May. The government have now said there is no time to pass legislation on this subject. There is some optimistic news with Hertfordshire County Council formally raising a High Court challenge on the issue with a possible hearing date being in April.

The Local Government Association has also called for the decision to be reversed and the move to stop remote meetings has been criticised by Jacquie Weaver who became famous after that Handford Parish Council meeting. I tend to agree with Jacquie who has said the decision is dreadful and rightly pointed out that remote meetings have helped to increase awareness and engagement in local government.

Robert Jenrick, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, supports the idea of remote meetings. I put the question of remote meetings to him, ironically via Zoom, where he said he is working on a solution and he’s had feedback from councils and leaders across the country on the decision not to extend the legislation.

The roll of red tape has been brought out and there is to be a Government consultation which is open until the end of this month. It will cover local governments’ experiences of remote meetings and I urge all colleagues to contribute towards it and share their views, whether positive or negative.

It’s not often in politics that there is an issue that gets cross-party support but this one has certainly gained it from councils of all colours. That has to be significant and cannot be ignored. The government recently cut red tape to allow councils to fly the Union Flag on their buildings; now it’s time for them to cut red tape to allow councillors to have the Union Flag in their Zoom backgrounds and to continue with remote meetings and voting.