Sun, 20 Sept 2020
The public will be allowed to speak in virtual West Berkshire Council meetings, with claims that local democracy had been eroded being labelled “farcical”.
The council restricted public participation in April in response to the coronavirus pandemic, saying that its decisions could be challenged or placed in the hands of unelected officers without the measures.
Residents could submit written questions, but would not receive a verbal answer and could not ask a supplementary question.
The public could not ask or answer questions in planning meetings, instead submitting a 500-word statement.
In the months of lockdown the council says it has learned more about hosting online meetings and is now using Zoom attendee and panellist status.
The public will now be given attendee status, meaning they are in a meeting ante-room and not seen on screen.
They can see other panellists, but not be seen or heard.
Panellist status will be granted when the public wish to ask a question or be asked questions by councillors and they will then revert to an attendee.
The council said this “should limit the risk of any individual alleging that they could not hear (eg) a member and challenging a decision, since they will only be ‘in’ the remote meeting for a limited period, and it should be obvious if they can hear.”
Discussing the new system in a full council meeting last week, Graham Bridgman (Con, Burghfield and Mortimer) said: “We are not suggesting having the public in the meeting room for the entire meeting, but rather just for that element of the meeting they are contributing to.”
Adrian Abbs (Lib Dem, Wash Common), who said that local democracy was being eroded through the restrictions, said he was “ecstatic that we are finally going to have the public back and speaking”.
When the measures were introduced in April, guidance stated that “if a member of the public speaking to a meeting could not be heard by the members of that committee, then no valid decision could be made as the members would be deemed to be absent from the meeting”.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats voted for the measures and the Greens abstained.
Defending the stance, Ross Mackinnon (Con, Bradfield) said that claims of democracy being eroded was “a farcical suggestion”.
He said: “The decision we made as a council, supported by his party, back in April was to ensure that decisions remained in the hands of elected members and not in the hands of unelected officers.
“I, along with other members, understood the misgivings at the time, but the agreement represented a good way forward, balancing competing risks and benefits – so a lack of democracy? Not in my book.”
Leader of the Lib Dem opposition Lee Dillon (Thatcham North East) said: “Our support of this was based on councillors maintaining the decision making through meetings rather than delegating it to officers.
“Whilst we appreciated there was a balance around democracy we felt there was a bigger democratic deficit of removing the decision making from elected representatives, rather than asking the public to limit their interactions in meetings for a short period of time.”
Mr Dillon said his party would support the new changes provided they were kept under review “to make sure that we don’t have a democratic deficit.”
Council leader Lynne Doherty (Con, Speen) said: “Six months ago we were all forced to change the way we worked for the foreseeable future and at that time we took that decision, so that decision making would remain in the hands of elected members.
“We have come a long way in that time.
“What we have done so far is minimise the risk of the decisions of this council being challenged.
“Ultimately those challenges would have at best damaged our reputation, at worst been a hefty penalty to our tax payers.”
Councillors unanimously voted for the changes.