Technology overcomes old rules
Town and Around’s Special Investigator reports on virtual working, drones and more.
When the Government ordered a ban on all public meetings it included council meetings. The Borough Council cancelled all meetings set to go ahead prior to 30 April. That maybe about to change following a relaxation in legislation. Previously council meetings that were open to the public had to held in person. But this rule was rescinded and until further notice all council meetings can be held virtually either through video or by telephone. The change effects all councils in England including parish, borough/district and county councils in Norfolk. This means remote council meetings will enable everyone taking part to stay at home, helping to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Meetings will remain accessible whilst ensuring councillors staff and members of the public do not have to leave their homes. The move has been supported by the Local Government Association, who's Chairman Cllr James Jamieson was quoted as saying: "Giving councils powers to hold meetings remotely is important to maintaining local democracy and allowing critical decisions to be made during this public health crisis. Councils need to respond quickly and make very many key decisions. They can now do so while remaining open, transparent and accessible to the public.".
At the Borough Council, councillors are being asked to help facilitate video meetings with more news likely to be forthcoming in the near future. The software used is unlikely to be Zoom after reports that South Devon District Council had problems as one individual claimed to be a councillor but was not, and everyone was put on mute when what was believed to be porn could be heard in the background. Inevitably, there have been teething problems which may cause smaller parish councils problems, but one lesson learnt from South Devon is to have an IT specialist on standby to deal with what the South Devon Chairman called "hecklers", but he was being polite.
One service that interests many people which may have specific difficulties with video meetings is Planning. The present system is that in addition to those applications specifically identified as needing a site visit, any development that has 10 or more new homes proposed requires a site visit from the full Planning Committee. The members of the committee and officers visit the site via a bus. It is very possible such site visits will not take place while the emergency lasts. I am told the idea of a drone has been put forward as a substitute for the site visit.
When the Borough Council does go virtual councillors will no doubt want to question the Cabinet member for Response to Covid-19, Heacham councillor Stuart Dark who has reported that 80% of council workers are designated as key workers with over 70 being reassigned full time specifically to deal with the council's response to Covid-19. Cllr Dark has further reported that support payments and business rates allowances processed total over £35 million in aid to local businesses so far, as well as increases in housing allowances for over 1300 local tenants, and additional assistance for those on Council Tax support.