When the Leader of Lichfield District Council, Cllr Doug Pullen, advocated the continuation of virtual District Council meetings beyond the Covid pandemic, Michael Fabricant agreed and said he would help.
Back in August, Cllr Pullen said “While the private sector has been hosting digital meetings for nigh on two decades, the ‘compelling event’ never arrived for local government to make the shift.
“Our officers all worked in one building, the councillors attended the chamber for our meetings, and requests for conference calls involved someone putting their phone in the middle of the room on loudspeaker.
“Well, the compelling event has arrived now – and the arguments to maintain some of the provisions of the Coronavirus Act beyond 7th May 2021 are impossible to ignore.
“Here in leafy, largely uncontentious Lichfield district, with a population of around 130,000, we have had over 3,000 views of our 15 Zoom meetings, which have been streamed live via YouTube.
“Intrigue and novelty no doubt have played a part in these numbers, but we are seeing the numbers hold steady, and far in excess of the two or three politicos that would usually turn up our meetings in the chamber.
“Our attendance rates by councillors has shot up too, with virtually no apologies sent in so far, compared to a usual turnout figure of 80.”
Michael Fabricant says “I fully agree with Cllr Pullen. The temporary order put in place because of Covid-19, should be made permanent.
“So I contacted the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government who now say they will ‘consider’ extending the temporary order allowing virtual council meetings indefinitely. This would transform local democracy across the country. Whether the decision is made in 2021 or not, I believe this will be the inevitable future for local council meetings.
The Local Government Minister, Luke Hall, has now told Michael Fabricant: “While the remote meetings regulations applies to meetings only until 7 May 2021, I assure you that I am aware that the flexibility to meet remotely has been welcomed by many, and the Government will be considering carefully the case for extending these regulations as necessary in the coming months.
“It is widely acknowledged that the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 have helped local authorities to redeploy resources to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and make business critical decisions in a democratic way whilst protecting the health and safety of their members, officers and the public.
“It is particularly interesting to note Councillor Pullen’s enthusiasm for remote meetings and the benefits he has described, including increased public engagement, improvements in councillor attendance, and a reduction in the Council’s carbon footprint. I was also interested to note his point regarding the additional flexibility that remote meetings provide and the potential this has to attract more diverse individuals to the councillor role.”
Michael adds “Early next year, I will press this matter again with the Department both face to face and in the House of Commons. Cllr Doug Pullen and I will work together on this and if we achieve a permanent change to the rules of council meetings nationwide, it will demonstrate that where Lichfield leads, others follow!”