How remote meetings sometimes bring the council closer

The good old days? The gradual easing of lockdown restrictions will see a return to in-person meetings in the Town Hall chamber

Have we inadvertently discovered a better way of staging some council meetings? Croydon councillor ROBERT WARD thinks so

Imagine we had decided in the pre-pandemic world to run council meetings remotely.

There would have been studies, options analyses, pilot projects, equalities assessments, environmental impact assessments, and more. It might even have spawned a few lobby groups. We would still be arguing about the minutiae. Yet here we are.

The building blocks of remote working were already in place in the pre-pandemic world, but it took a while. I worked on a “desktop video conferencing” pilot in 2001. Yet almost 20 years later there was no provision for English local authorities to conduct remote meetings. In 2017, the government consulted on proposals to allow committees to hold meetings by video conference and concluded there were benefits, but nothing was in place.

Then covid-19 gave us a shove forward.

As we emerge, hopefully permanently, from lockdowns we can reflect on what happened and choose how we want to do things now that we have the option. There is a government consultation on future arrangements, which closes next month.

The council committee that I chair, the children and young people scrutiny sub-committee, voted unanimously to continue with remote meetings provided that this complies with the law.

It is not hard to understand why. Turning up at the Town Hall on a cold, wet evening after a long day at work for a three-hour meeting and then to find your way home is a labour of love.

If it were more effective to stage our meetings in the chamber, then we would be there. But I saw no reduction in the attention being paid. Once we got the hang of it, we were more effective, not less. As meeting chair, I can see all the attendees equally, who wants to speak, and the order they raised their virtual hands. A continuing challenge in the chamber was that I found it hard to remember not to call the person nearest to me first.

Crucially for me, virtual meetings improve our ability to hear directly from parents, children, young people, and the wider public.

Now we have a year’s experience of remote council meetings, we should not abandon the advantages that they may offer

While committee members have their own experience of living and working in Croydon, and they hear from friends, colleagues, and residents, that leaves big gaps.

The window on the wider world comes mainly from council officials, filtered through layers of bureaucracy. As we have seen across the council, that filter was very effective at screening out bad news.

When things go wrong, the people who feel it first are those at the sharp end. Think only of the Regina Road fiasco and the subsequently discovered serious shortcomings in the council’s housing maintenance department. It is much easier to ask people to give up half an hour from wherever they want to be than to give up three hours plus travel time to be in a place they are rather less likely to want to be.

There is more we can do, and quickly. When things go badly wrong, the easy phrase trotted out is that we must make sure lessons are learned so this never happens again. Too often we don’t hear what that might mean, what will change. If we do hear, it is months, even years later.

There are two more crucial changes. The council’s dysfunctional complaints process was dysfunctional for a reason. Complaints are another route by which the users of council services can make problems known. It must be fixed.

Last but by no means least, there is timely access to reliable information. My battle to make public, or even as a councillor to see documents that need to be kept confidential in relation to Brick by Brick and the Fairfield Halls, is well documented.

There is still a long way to go. The seven principles of public life, often called the Nolan principles, include Openness:

Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.

Croydon Council aims to be a “much more transparent, open and honest council”.

The words are there but read the Access to Information Protocol put before the Ethics Committee that meets today (click here for the officials’ report in pdf format) and it reads more like a prevention of access to information protocol. Instead of starting from the presumption of access and defining a process to facilitate it, these latest proposals puts in place hurdles to be jumped to justify access even being considered. It puts obligations on councillors but none on council officers.

How do you apply? Who will give or deny access? Where is their guidance? Where is the right to a justification for refusal? What is the appeals process? What are the time scales? How will performance be monitored? How often will the process be reviewed? Shouldn’t this be signed off by the chief executive and the leader of the council to show their commitment and support?

Getting the council to where it needs to be will be a marathon, not a sprint. Getting the three strands of remote meetings, a complaints system and robust access to information will at least mean that we aren’t running that marathon carrying a backpack full of rocks.

  • Robert Ward (right) has been a Conservative councillor for Selsdon and Addington Village since 2018. This article is written in a personal capacity

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5 Responses to How remote meetings sometimes bring the council closer

  1. Honestly I have watched a few meetings , Hard work, technology not the finest for some of our Councillors

    • Those meetings are not much better if you turn up in person. As for technology, some councillors have shown the ability to attend a council meeting and watch football at the same time.

  2. Jim Bush says:

    I like this article/suggestion, especially for meetings during the dark days of winter.
    But if you live in Dickensian council housing, you may welcome an opportunity to escape from the horrors of being at home, and sit instead in a meeting in a warm, light and dry town hall building ?!

  3. James Smyth says:

    Is this to stop the public who might have a genuine grievance, from speaking out??

    • Did you bother reading the article? The public “with genuine grievances” are often shut out of meetings in person. Have you never bothered watching a Paul Scott planning meeting? The same can be done using communications tech, too.
      But they can also provide much-improved access to our elected representatives and paid local officials.
      The “new normal” should take account of this and apply what we have learned, rather than simply discarding it.

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