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The pandemic has changed the face of local government, pushing it online and in the process making it more accessible to more people.
By holding council meetings online, many councils have found that they are giving greater transparency to their democratic processes and this in turn has led to greater engagement and better accountability.
However, on 7 May this year, the temporary laws allowing virtual meetings ended and councils have been back making face-to-face decisions ever since.
Having dipped their toes into the online world, many councils are now embracing what are called hybrid meetings. This is where the decision makers (those who vote at meetings) are in a council meeting room, and contributors, speakers and observers join the meeting remotely.
Before the pandemic, South Hams District Council had already agreed to keep Follaton House as its base of operations and democracy. However, in order to provide a modern flexible space in which democratic decisions can be made, and local politicians can be held publicly accountable, the council believes that the Council Chamber at Follaton House needs modernising.
Having taken the leap forward with modern technology during the pandemic, and providing a much clearer view of local democracy and decision making by having online meetings, it could be seen that by not offering online hybrid meetings now, local democracy at South Hams would taking a backward step.
At present the Council Chamber at Follaton House, has a very fixed table layout, the audio visual equipment is old and failing (microphones and cameras) and the current set up does not allow for hybrid online meetings.
South Hams District Council’s Leader Cllr Judy Pearce now wants the council to take advantage of their online learning and create a future proof council chamber that will enable everyone to benefit from the kind of hybrid meetings as described above.
The council has to replace the old and failing air handling system and the old microphones, regardless of the desire for hybrid meetings. But this now presents the council with the opportunity to create a truly modern space that makes local democracy far more accessible than ever before.
Cllr Judy Pearce, Leader of South Hams District Council, said: “Being able to hold hybrid council meetings presents a rural council like ours with a huge opportunity to be more flexible and more accountable.
“It could save everyone a great deal of travel time and expense as well as provide savings on our individual and business carbon footprint. With such a large geographic area to cover, some people attending council meetings at Follaton House, have been known to travel for over an hour across the district and back for just one meeting.
“Since we have been streaming council meetings to social media, we have seen more people watching than would ever have turned up in person and this has stimulated local debate and made our decision making more visible to more people.
“I think everyone in local government agrees that holding virtual council meetings during the pandemic opened our eyes to the future of local democracy.
“Therefore, at the Executive next week, I will be asking our Executive to agree to an urgent improvement scheme for the Council Chamber.
“This will enable us to embrace the benefits of virtual meetings that we experienced during the pandemic and ensure that we are more prepared, with a more robust system, should we need to return to more socially distanced meetings once again.”
South Hams District Council are not alone in their desire to benefit from hybrid meetings, in a recent survey by the Local Government Association (Remote council meetings temperature check 2021) 63 percent of the councils who responded said that they would be likely to hold hybrid meetings after the pandemic.
The Local Government Association also found from their survey that virtual meetings worked well throughout the pandemic and positively benefited local democracy in a variety of ways. They led to more transparency and overall visibility in the decision-making process and encouraged more public and press interest.
It was noted that holding meetings in this way has the potentially to encourage other prospective candidates from under-represented groups to consider standing for public service. Virtual meetings were especially beneficial for those councillors with other commitments such as caring responsibilities or employment or those with health issues as it made it easier for them to attend.
Efficiencies were also made in hospitality, travel, venue and staffing costs.
Cllr Judy Pearce, said: “We cannot predict when something like the COVID-19 pandemic will occur, but we can provide ourselves with modern technology and a flexible working space that ensures local democracy and decision making can continue under public scrutiny.”
Allowing for supplier timelines and installation, it is hoped that if recommended by the Executive next week, and approved by Full Council in September, then the new chamber could be operational in time for the February Council Meeting next year.
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