Paul Mercer: Local government needs to stay in the Zoom era

11 Jan

Cllr Paul Mercer is a councillor on Charnwood Borough Council and is the Lead Member for Housing in the Cabinet. He is writing in a personal capacity.

The majority of large companies and banks, as well as many small ones, realised the potential of videoconferencing many years ago and today it is rare to find corporate headquarters which do not have extensive facilities to enable remote meetings or remote engagement in physical meetings to take place. By contrast, local government has been slow to realise the potential of this technology. One of the side effects of the pandemic has therefore been to force councils to embrace videoconferencing, and for the government to, temporarily at least, change the law to enable both attendance and voting meetings to take place.

When Charnwood moved its email platform to Microsoft 365 (as it is now called) in 2018 it deactivated the Teams videoconferencing function. At the time, those of us who suggested that we should experiment with the technology were ignored. By the time the pandemic arrived it was clear that Zoom offered greater potential for managing meetings and after some hesitation it was adopted as our standard for meetings.

Councils can only hold remote meetings under a temporary legal provision and the Government seems to be reluctant to allow it to continue. Luke Hall MP (Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government) has argued that “to extend the facility for councils to continue to meet remotely, or in hybrid form, would require primary legislation”. He claimed that “there is no option to extend the current regulations under the Coronavirus Act 2020 as section 78 (3) contains the sunset date of 7 May 2021”. He gave the usual excuse that “there is considerable pressure on the Government’s legislative programme”.

So far all predictions for when the pandemic will be over have been wrong. For a multitude of reasons, I hope that the pandemic will be over in four months’ time, however hope is not a real policy. We must ensure that councils can continue to meet and vote so it makes no sense to remove the safety net of videoconferencing, especially at a time when local government can do so much to serve our communities.

Although companies were quick to embrace videoconferencing they realised that they could never entirely replace physical meetings. When there are debates over policy it is important to see one’s adversary and the way in which both Teams and Zoom moves between different speakers makes it difficult to have proper discussions. Allowing exclusive videoconferencing would be as damaging as banning it altogether.

What has been quite remarkable in Charnwood – and I am sure in most other councils – is that some of our more technophobic members, for whom even a smart phone represented a challenge, have readily embraced videoconferencing and attendance at meetings and training sessions has increased noticeably.

Videoconferencing offers local government far more than just the ability to continue functioning during a crisis, and as businesses have already discovered, it can be of significant benefit in the future.

The first, and most obvious, is that it means members and officers are no longer required to travel to meetings. Although Charnwood is large in terms of population it covers a relatively small area, but late afternoon traffic often meant that members spent a long time travelling. Video meetings can therefore be an element in our duty to tackle climate change, by taking almost 50 cars off of our roads.

Secondly, it might mean that more people who might otherwise have been reluctant to stand for election might consider becoming councillors. Most of our meetings take place in early evening and the need to travel might have discouraged potential councillors with disabilities, families, or work commitments from getting elected. There is no reason why one even needs to be in the same country and we have had meetings with Labour councillors joining from Rhodes and, in my case, during a work trip to central Africa, again without any issues. With coming changes, such as new unitary authorities, and Brexit giving councils more powers, there will be more work for each individual councillor. For any government to work well it must be representative of the people whom it serves, and therefore we must do all we can to encourage the widest range of people to stand for election.

Thirdly, it offers the opportunity to subject policy to far greater scrutiny by members. Although Charnwood has enthusiastic councillors on its scrutiny committees, they are often presented with so many documents it is often impossible to read all of them before meetings, let alone give policies proper consideration. With more councillors able to attend these meetings it should, hopefully, lead to far greater rigour in this scrutiny process.

Fourthly, it allows for longer meetings. Our meetings are generally restricted to two hours and often truncated with important issues sometimes not being properly discussed. With officers and members being able to join in from home without time spent traveling to and from meetings, more time could be dedicated to discussions without taking up any more of our members’ or officers’ evenings.

Finally, because these meetings can be livestreamed and archived, it offers the public the ability to monitor closely what is happening, as well as local journalists the ability to cover meetings without being there in person. It is rare to see members of the public at most council meetings but now they are accessible on YouTube the number of views is often into three figures. Even Charnwood’s audit committee manages to get views in double figures.

It would therefore be a mistake to abandon videoconferencing altogether. The most logical solution would be for a change in the law to permit hybrid statutory meetings. Those councillors who realise that there is often an advantage to be physically present – especially on contentious matters – would be able to attend whereas those who simply wanted to take a more passive role would be able to do so. The majority of our meetings are not full council meetings, in fact these only occur once every six weeks. While it may be ideal to be in the council chamber, especially as a lead member, to take questions and defend policy, most of the contact time is actually in other meetings such as briefings and committees. In these cases I do not believe it makes sense to deny members, or future members, the opportunity to do so remotely.