After a year of meeting virtually, the Town Council has had to return to physical meetings but would welcome the option to continue to meet remotely.
Following the removal of the ability to meet remotely online, Seaford Town Council responded to the Government’s call for evidence surrounding remote meetings and whether there should be a permanent place for these in local authority decision making processes. From the Town Council’s point of view, the answer is a clear ‘yes’!
When the Coronavirus Act 2020 was introduced, express provision was made for local authorities to hold meetings remotely so that they could protect their members and comply with public health guidance. This provision ended on 7th May 2021 and as such, local authorities were required to meet physically to make decisions lawfully.
Despite the Government not extending the provisions for remote meetings, it did announce that it was making a call for evidence surrounding remote meetings. Acknowledging that local authorities, such as Seaford Town Council, have now had extensive experience of conducting remote meetings over the past year, it was explained that this call for evidence is an opportunity to understand these experiences and inform a decision about whether to make these arrangements permanent. Furthermore, that any permanent change would require primary legislation, and such passage would depend on agreement of Parliament.
The Town Council considered this call for evidence at its Full Council meetings on 27th April and 20th May before making its final submission in June. The Town Council has responded with clear support of local authorities having the permanent option to continue to meet remotely, not just as a temporary measure when social restrictions are in place. Members of the Town Council felt strongly that physical meetings may cause some councillors and members of the public to find it harder to take part in the proceedings. As such, that this automatically excludes certain individuals from being able to part in the democratic processes of the Town Council; a real step backwards in terms of inclusivity and accessibility for the Town Council.
A representative of the Town Council says ‘The Town Council worked hard to adapt to meeting via Zoom and it was a steep learning curve – littered with reminders of ‘you’re on mute’ – but we adjusted and pretty quickly found that it was working. Compared to physical meetings, we quickly had more members of public attending a greater number of meetings and getting involved in the meetings too. This meant that as a council we were able to hear their opinions and feed this in to our considerations. We also had Council members attending that, due to various reasons outside of their control, could not have attended a meeting in person. The Town Council has somewhat reluctantly adapted once again to meeting back in person. Unfortunately, this has felt like shutting those doors again that had allowed a much greater inclusiveness and diversity to our meetings.’
It is not yet known when an announcement regarding the findings of the call for evidence will be made. Full details of the call for evidence can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/local-authority-remote-meetings-call-for-evidence/local-authority-remote-meetings-call-for-evidence and the Town Council's response can be viewed as follows: Seaford Town Council Response to Remote Meeting Call for Evidence June 2021