Author: Cyril Richert
One year ago started the first lockdown in England due to the spread of Covid cases. From that date, the usage of video-conference tools exploded: Zoom meetings for home schooling, Microsoft Teams to maintain communication in companies, Google Meet, but also Houseparty and many other similar tools to keep in touch with friends and love ones. All around the country, Councils had to adapt in an unprecedent move to not only continue functioning on a day-to-day basis, but allow the necessity scrutiny that forms part of the local democracy, with online committee meetings, publicly accessible.
In this unprecedented event, the government gave permission to hold such meetings in virtual mode. Unfortunately, the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 runs out on 6 May 2021, and the government has decided not to extend the emergency permission (arguing that it would require primary legislation, and the parliament has other priorities in the context). Indoor meetings will be permitted from 17 May, as per Government’s roadmap.
However, although Council meetings and Committee meetings should be held indoors, it does not mean that Councils should stop broadcasting the debates as they did with remote-meetings. Actually, Luke Hall, Minister of State for Regional Growth and Local Government wrote to Council leaders at the end of March (download letter) making clear that continuing video-meeting is encouraged:
“I would encourage you to continue to provide remote access to minimise the need for the public to attend meetings physically until at least 21 June”
The provision of June 21st (using the wording “at least“) is also an indication that such broadcasting could continue after the date. Actually, the Minister acknowledges that he has received a number of requests from local authorities to continue with remote meetings beyond the scope of the pandemic and the government is therefore “launching a call for evidence on the use of current arrangements and to gather views on the question of whether there should be permanent arrangements and if so, for which meetings.“
What will happened in Wandsworth ?
We have no indication yet of what the Council intends to do after 6 May. Currently, virtual meetings are well attended (especially in comparison to the small area reserved for the audience in the Council building): 80 people on 24th March, 274 viewers on 25th November 2020 (Arding & Hobbs’ decision), 145 viewers on 22nd October (planning application covering Alton Estate in Roehampton)… etc.
The Battersea Society raised the issue with the Chair of the planning committee in a letter date 8 April 2021, saying:
“Our view is that virtual meetings have worked well, and have extended the possibilities for people wishing to attend and to listen to discussions on individual applications. It is also an environmentally friendly route through a reduction of a need for travel.
We should be grateful if you could let us and others know how you and your colleagues intend to proceed at its next meeting on 25 May and subsequently.”
We totally agree with the Battersea Society of this matter. In fact, it was part of the aspirations published by CJAG three years ago already:
“The Council will improve transparency of planning decisions by ensuring that records/videos of the PAC discussions are accessible on the Council website within the week following the meeting.”
Wandsworth Council has got a very poor record on encouraging local democracy. In 2014, a a research on Wandsworth planning consultation concluded that “citizens are not discouraged to further participate by the way the consultation tools works, but rather by the council’s attitude towards their views“. When asked about the possibility to broadcast a live video of the monthly Planning Application Committee meetings, the Council said that they were nowhere near any solution for the PAC meetings as… this is an expense (sic!).
There is no indication on the website where to watch videos other than a sentence in the agenda of each meeting, such as:
Some links are not even clickable (clickable for 22 April, not clickable for 24 Mar 2021), you have to copy and paste in your browser! When following some links, you cannot watch the recording:
On the other hand, some more recent meetings are still available, for example February 24th, 2021, or March 24th.
We could not find any page explaining the Council policy on streaming, with links to past recording, explanations on how to connect…etc.
Many other Council give example of what we could expect
In comparison, a quick search on the Internet will give plenty of Councils providing detail facility for remote access to their meetings. For example we can cite two London boroughs such as the City of Westminster with a page explaining all about Stream Council meetings and Haringey with a series of explanations on how to access virtual meetings, streaming the meeting online, listening to the meeting, view archived meetings, … etc.
NB: Wandsworth PAC meeting is due today Thursday 22 April, with the link: https://richmond.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/563594
UPDATE 02/05/2021: Download our letter to the Chair of the Planning Application Committee questioning the future of PAC meetings.
UPDATE 06/05/2021: High Court spurns bid to continue virtual planning meetings. In October 2020, the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO), Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) and Hertfordshire County Council wrote to the housing secretary setting out the “clear case” for extending the ability for councils to hold meetings flexibly beyond 6 May. The court said:
“The decision whether to permit some or all local authority meetings to be conducted remotely, and if so, how, and subject to what safeguards, involves difficult policy choices on which there is likely to be a range of competing views. These choices have been made legislatively for Scotland by the Scottish Parliament and for Wales by the Senedd. In England, they are for Parliament, not the courts.”
The government’s call for evidence on remote meetings is currently open and anyone can participate to the survey HERE.
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As someone who runs social media accounts, and regularly uploads videos I can testify the expense and time to make them available for public viewing online would be minimal (maybe an hour at most) , and something the public would probably like to see their money spent on.
Indeed, we need a radical change of attitude. It took about 8 years for the Council to properly display the format of the comments received through the website on planning applications, with a break for a new line. A code change that takes a few minutes to make. All those years, leaving a comment would just display a blob!