The Leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council, Councillor Louise Gittins, has called on the government to give local authorities the power to hold hybrid council meetings if they decide to do so.
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, legislation was introduced to allow councils to hold meetings and make decisions online, with this being lifted in England in May this year.
Therefore, decision-making meetings such as Cabinet and full council have to be held once again in person in accordance with current legislation, anything else, which is not decision-making, is held online by Cheshire West and Chester Council.
With the complexity of local government, there are some ways to get round these rules, as Councillor Gittins explains:
“At Scrutiny, we call them informal meetings, so we get round it by that, so no decision has to be made and we have to look at the terminology.”
Speaking of an online meeting held back in October, she said:
“Seventy of us on the Teams meeting, there were motions where we supported and considered things, but we didn't actually make any decisions, so we could hold that online.”
Speaking of a government consultation that was done with councils asking about what they wanted for future of local authority meetings, Councillor Gittins said the results showed that authorities “overwhelmingly” want to move to a hybrid approach.
She gives an example of her own council when discussing the difficulties of holding full council meetings in person.
A largely rural council, Cheshire West and Chester covers 353.9 sq. miles and has a total of 97 parish and town councils throughout the borough.
Commenting on these challenges, Councillor Gittins said:
“We'll have one in December, which we’ll have to hold in person, it'll be in Winsford.
“Headcount 70 councillors plus and maybe 20 support staff, who will need to travel to Winsford on a dark winter's night.
“Then the meeting will probably finish at 10 o'clock at night and they have to travel home.”
With Covid-19 rates at an all-time high due to the new Omicron variant, travelling to meetings is a concern for many councillors, she added:
“I know that there are members, councillors, that are perhaps more vulnerable health wise, so they're still very nervous about meeting, they probably will have been on the shielding list, so they're still nervous about meeting in person.
“So actually, in that circumstance, a virtual meeting would make a lot more sense.”
This can have an effect on decision-making at the council, as if councillors cannot physically attend meetings to vote in person, then this can swing the vote one way or another.
Councillor Gittins said that Covid-19 proved that the authority can make decisions in full online meetings, whilst still having a “very robust debate” and carrying out the democratic procedures that are required.
With Cheshire East and Chester Council aiming to be carbon neutral by 2030, the absence of in person meetings and working from home has seen the authority save 2.2 million staff miles in the last year, which equates to 458 tonnes of carbon (CO2).
On the climate emergency benefits of hybrid meetings, she said that from her point of view, “the argument is a no brainer”.
Another argument that Councillor Gittens makes about moving to hybrid meetings is to increase the diversity of the council, which has 70 members representing 45 wards across the borough.
Commenting on this, she said:
“It's hard enough being a councillor and we want to attract a more diverse range of people.
“Particularly for people who've got young families and are having to arrange childcare while you have to meet in person, it just seems there must be a better way of doing this.”
The rest of the council are also officially in favour of moving to a hybrid system of meetings.
Councillor Gittins said that during the government’s consultation, all of Cheshire West and Chester’s councillors fed into it, with the authority holding a workshop on the issue.
However, despite this, some councillors on the authority are wary of change.
“There are still some councillors who are very traditional and think that the only way you can make a decision is to meet in person,” she said.
Despite some “kickback” from members who want to have meetings in person, she said that “officially everybody is in support of it”.
Things are changing for Cheshire West and Chester Council as a local authority, with the council reviewing all staff working patterns.
Working closely with employees, the council has come up with a new model that will be in place from January 2022, where there will be a mix of home working and in person working, but with the emphasis being on working from home.
This is something that Councillor Gittins “expects to be the norm” for the authority.
Learning from the pandemic, she asks “why can't we take all the good things that did come out of the pandemic and build on those?”
Although Councillor Gittins acknowledges that “it's good to meet in person” and that she is not telling people not to, her message is clear, councils should have the flexibility and choice to make their own decisions on how they meet and make decisions.