Should local councils be able to meet virtually?

The BBC reports:

Forcing councillors in England to attend meetings in person is leading to some quitting, councils have warned.

A legal requirement to hold full council meetings in person was temporarily dropped during the pandemic but reintroduced in May 2021.

A survey by the Local Government Association (LGA) found one in 10 councils had seen members stand down since then due to the change…

Joe Harris [Lib Dem], vice-chairman of the LGA, said: “Good decision-making needs people who reflect the range of experiences, background and insight that exist in their communities.

“However, councillors are restricted by law to attend council meetings in person, which can deter a range of people including full time professionals, parents of young children, carers, workers and disabled people from stepping forward to represent their communities.”

My own preference, such as for the Federal Board which I chair, is to have a mix of in person and online meetings (with or without tea).

The latter are important for opening up active membership to a broader range of people – and especially for something like the Federal Board with a remit over a wide geographic area and so for which travel time and cost to meetings can be a big factor.

The former are important for building up relations between committee members, and it’s notable that even successful technology firms which tout a ‘work from anywhere’ policy still get staff together in person for away days at least once a year.

In politics, I think there is also an advantage to having to be in the same physical location as your opponents from time to time, as that helps build the sort of cross-party relations that are necessary for any sensibly working democracy.

But what exact pattern works best for any particular body depends on its own specifics, and what works best for a council covering a small geographic area, such as Islington, and what works best for a council covering a large geographic area, such as Somerset, is not necessarily the same.

It should be up to the council to decide, rather than for there to be a fixed template forced on everyone from Whitehall.

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3 responses to “Should local councils be able to meet virtually?”

  1. In this discussion of whether meetings should be physical or online, one group of people is being completely ignored, the general public who elect these councillors. Online meetings are effectively behind closed doors as far as the public is concerned and although there is no reason why councils could not stream them on their web sites, I am not aware of any that do. In my Borough (Harrow) the Council having sold off the Civic Centre for housing now holds its physical meetings in a building next door to the Civic Utilities site where there is no parking for the public wanting to attend meetings.

  2. I think it should be done on a ‘case by case’ basis. If someone has an issue that genuinely limits their ability to attend in person, such as a disability, then this should be considered. But on the other side of the coin we all know of councillors who take their responsibilites far less than seriously. These members tend to get booted off for non-attendance at some point as things stand at the moment. But if all they had to do to continue to get their allowance was to log on to a PC, then I’m sure some would stick around longer, which would be to the detriment of their constituents.

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