By Marcella Heath, Democratic Services Manager at North Kesteven District Council
The District Council chambers in North Kesteven stand empty. Where voices once rang through the air in debate, motions were moved and votes counted, there is now silence.
It would be a bleak picture, but this is in fact the sound of success. Local democracy in North Kesteven is taking place online instead, loud and clear for all to hear.
In a matter of weeks, our Council transformed itself into a largely virtual organisation to protect the wellbeing of residents and our teams during the Coronavirus outbreak.
Colleagues and Members focused on a clear aim – to adapt to this new reality, innovate and motivate each other to push on. One of those solutions was the ability to hold remote meetings, permitted in regulations issued at the start of April. Our Democratic Services Team Leader played a part in developing national guidance to support remote meetings.
In just three weeks our project team delivered the technology, defined the protocols and dispensed the training necessary to start. We began not just with any meeting, but a meeting of Council.
Group leaders agreed to restrict attendance from 43 Members to 14. By embracing this Members ensured sound decision-making and practicality could win over Coronavirus, and they committed to training and troubleshooting.
Members utilise the Microsoft Teams platform using iPads to access meetings. The chat function is used to indicate to the Chairman that someone wishes to speak, and votes are taken by roll-call.
A listen live link is shared on the website and social media. In one click, we’re throwing open the Chamber doors to more people than who might have attended physically in normal circumstances, and to those who perhaps haven’t engaged in meetings before.
At its peak, 57 people were listening live to the Council meeting on 23rd April; more than our Chamber could accommodate. The meetings are also video recorded with the footage uploaded to our website the next day.
And the commitments during that meeting – to approve a business plan for an enterprise park and rubber-stamp investment in a local social housing scheme – signal our intent to lead recovery in our District.
Since that first Council meeting we’ve held others, such as Planning and Executive Board. For Planning, we’ve continued to allow public speaking to take place and supported applicants, agents, objectors and parish councils to participate by joining the meeting. With 143 views of the video to date, we’re certainly making our meetings more accessible.
Virtual meetings have also now been extended to those with external partners, including a panel which determines fund allocations to community projects.
Including representatives from the Sleaford renewable energy plant behind the fund, Ward Members, community and volunteering figures, the panel agreed over £12,000 to be allocated between three community projects.
Each meeting presents considerations that require a variation in approach, and looking ahead we’re now planning for the Central Lincolnshire Joint Strategic Planning Committee on 15th June which involves Members and officers from four different authorities.
A few months ago we would have thought holding this remotely was an impossibility. Now, we know better. Working together in innovative ways, we can do incredible things.