Harrogate council leader says return of face-to-face meetings in May a 'mistake'
The leader of Harrogate Borough Council says it is a "mistake" that council meetings must return in-person before all coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
Councillor Richard Cooper also said local authorities should be given a choice whether to hold meetings remotely or in-person after the government yesterday announced that emergency legislation which has allowed virtual decision-making during the pandemic will end on 7 May.
“I think it is a mistake not to carry on with remote meetings until we are at least fully out of Covid restrictions," councillor Cooper said.
"Ideally I would like to see the provision remain in place to enable councils to have the choice to meet remotely or in person. This will allow us to ensure that we are entirely Covid safe but also to choose to hold, in particular, short or small meetings in a way which reduces our impact on the environment.
“I am hopeful that a way will be found to make this happen.”
The Local Government Association, a body which represents local authorities across the UK, also said the decision was "extremely disappointing".
In a letter to councils, Luke Hall, minister for regional growth and local government, said while he recognised there may be some safety concerns, the vaccine rollout and fewer Covid cases "should result in significant reduction in risk for local authority members meeting in-person".
He added the government would hold talks with leaders over how remote meetings could be made permanent, as he also urged councils to continue providing remote access for members of the public through live-streaming.
Mr Hall said: "I am aware that some authorities, though by no means all, have made calls for the government to make express provision for remote meetings beyond the scope of the pandemic.
"I am today 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."
The announcement comes after Harrogate councillors last week agreed to look into how remote and in-person meetings could be streamed online in the future.
In January last year and before the pandemic struck, councillors voted against an idea of live-streaming because of claims it would have been too expensive but councillor Chris Aldred said Covid has now shown there is a "clear interest" in people being able to watch meetings online rather than in person.
He told a meeting of the council's general purposes committee: "People are clearly interested in the deliberations of their local council and we ought to continue to give them the opportunity."
Councillor Pauline McHardy also said: "We shouldn't exclude members of the public that do want to listen into meetings but are too far away or perhaps don't drive.
"These are supposed to be public meetings and we should be open, transparent and always above board."
In his letter to councils, MP Luke Hall said any local authorities concerned about holding physical meetings should consider resuming these after 17 May when large indoor events of up to 1,000 people or 50% capacity are due to be allowed.
Under the roadmap out of lockdown, 21 June is the date when all coronavirus restrictions are due to be lifted.
By Jacob Webster, Local Democracy Reporter