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West Berkshire councillors required to meet indoors from May 7 - when social distancing rules forbid it

West Berkshire Council offices in Market Street, Newbury (45959713)
West Berkshire Council offices in Market Street, Newbury (45959713)

COUNCILLORS across West Berkshire will be legally required to hold meetings in person again from next month – while the Government is advising people to not meet indoors.

Councils were granted permission to hold meetings remotely as the country went into lockdown last year.

The regulations are currently in place until May 7 and no extension has been granted, meaning councillors will be required to meet at a specified physical location after that.

Thatcham Town Council must hold its annual meeting in May, and had scheduled it to be held on May 9.

The Government roadmap to easing restrictions introduces the rule of six, or two households, indoors on May 17.

Commenting on the apparent lapse, Richard Foster (Lib Dem, Thatcham Colthrop and Crookham) said that councils would be required by law to meet in person when the Government wasn’t allowing people to meet indoors.

He also queried how 18 councillors and council officers could meet socially distanced.

Town and district councillor Steve Ardagh-Walter (Con, Thatcham Colthrop and Crookham) said: “If I was a betting man, and I’m not, I would offer a pint of beer that something would change.

“This seems like a Government cock-up that’s not been thought through.

“I would not be surprised if the picture changes when the Government realises what they have done.”

Thatcham town councillors have now voted to move their annual meeting to May 5 and hold it remotely. The town council will also look to hold a formal mayoral ceremony later in the year.

West Berkshire Council’s full meeting in May will be held on the 4th, which council leader Lynne Doherty (Con, Speen) said gave two months to find a suitable venue to accommodate 43 councillors and up to 10 officers under the current guidance.

She said that the council chamber was capable of holding around 30 people and a return of face-to-face of some committees, such as the executive, could be held socially distanced.

Mrs Doherty said she had received a letter from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government last week saying that the regulations would not be extended but the department was calling for evidence to assess the situation.

A permanent change of legislation is required to extend the rules on holding virtual meetings and the ministry said that there had been a lack of time to address it.

Mrs Doherty said she had been “very disappointed” with the letter and that the issue should have been prioritised in Parliament.

She said: “I’m quite excited about going back to face-to-face meetings but I know not everybody will feel comfortable with it.”

She said that returning would be harder for parish councils that met in village halls and would not necessarily have space to socially distance.

Mrs Doherty said that holding meetings online was “a better way of getting people engaged in local democracy and I don’t want to see that stopped”.

“We need to work with the Local Government Association to see if we can get that decision reversed,” she added.

“Whatever happens we need to be able to stream these meetings so people can still watch.”

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