SPECIAL REPORT: Will lockdown rules impact local democracy and accountability of our councils?
PUBLISHED: 07:35 09 May 2020 | UPDATED: 08:24 09 May 2020
Coronavirus means local councils are having to find completely new ways to operate. But will that be at the cost of local democracy and accountability? Jessica Frank-Keyes reports.
Lockdown rules could forever alter the functioning of local authorities, as councils adapt to previously “unheard of” ways of remote working, new technology and socially-distanced scrutiny.
Councils in Norfolk are adapting to meet the requirements of life under lockdown while keeping local government functioning via a range of methods and means.
Authorities have worked across Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams and live-streamed meetings on eDemocracy YouTube channels.
But others have voted to hand key decision-making over to senior councillors, emergency committees - or even delegate calls to unelected officers.
Councillors told how “unheard of” challenges have sparked new ways to check power, while open democracy advocates warned that decisions and accountability must remain “accessible to the public”.
Breckland councillor Rhodri Oliver said the unprecedented situation had seen oversight processes changed to ensure urgent decisions could be taken.
Mr Oliver, who is chairman of the council’s overview and scrutiny commission, said: “The only major decision so far was an urgent decision around grant funding which I provided a waiver of scrutiny for. Obviously these are exceptional times but this would have prevented small businesses from receiving funds in a timely fashion.
“I’m kept abreast of all the decisions so I’m aware of what would be coming to scrutiny.
“There are still checks but it’s fair to say that we’re not doing it in a formal scrutiny meeting.”
The Conservative member added that his party had held some remote group meetings, and that the authority was working out how to hold public sessions.
“I think we’re waiting for what’s happening on Sunday,” he said.
But Mr Oliver said he believed the situation could mark a shift in the way authorities operate.
“Clearly councils are dependent on their technology.,” he added.
“This all would have been completely unheard of six months ago, as normally we have to be present to vote. I think it will potentially be very likely to change that for councils as well.
“For Norfolk county council, if it’s possible to hold meetings remotely, it saves 84 car journeys.”
A Breckland Council spokesman said the council intended to hold its June planning and cabinet meetings online and would share more details on its website.
He added: “Internal meetings are being held virtually using teleconferencing platforms Zoom and Lifesize, but following recent national guidance a number of planned committee meetings have been postponed or cancelled.”
While John Collop, leader of West Norfolk Council’s Labour group, said while arrangements were “not perfect” the council was still making decisions and sharing information.
Mr Collop said: “I speak to the chief executive on a weekly basis.
“We’ve been kept up to date and had calls with the council leader.
“It’s a bit strange but we are still making decisions and the council is running. It’s not perfect but information is shared.”
And he added that with officers unsure how long lockdown could last, plans were in place to get the public to submit questions ahead of remote public meetings, after internal remote working was introduced in the last week.
“It’s strange times,” he added. “The public doesn’t know what’s going on and car parks seem to be empty which is causing us problems with revenue. This has never been done before and it’s never been as bad as this time.
“Council officers are developing the system to make sure we’re getting questions from the public.
“The public have got a right to know what’s going on. It does make it difficult - it’s unheard of.”
A spokesman for West Norfolk Council said the majority of work related to Covid-19, with the chief executive and head of emergency planning in daily video contact, and meetings held via Teams.
The first remote public council meetings are set to be held in May, via Zoom, with a cabinet meeting taking place on May 20 and a planning meeting held on June 1.
A transparency advocate urged authorities to ensure decisions remained visible and accessible.
Rachel Davies Teka, head of advocacy at Transparency UK, said: “Transparency and the accountability it brings are vital to ensure decisions are always made in the public interest.
“Local authorities have rightly taken steps to limit social contact in these unprecedented times, but modern technology can ensure transparency is maintained.
“Councils should take all reasonable steps to keep business as usual and ensure decision-making processes are accessible to the public.”
What did the rest of Norfolk’s councils say?
• A Norwich City Council spokeswoman said: “At the current time, the decision making processes for the council remain the same, with the exception of the planning applications committee, which met to determine a temporary scheme of delegations. The report detailing this is available online and the minutes will also be available in due course.
“Meetings will be held remotely for the foreseeable future but this will be under review and in line with government advice. Meetings are being held using Zoom and where the public can attend, they are able to do this remotely.”
• While Broadland District Council also said there had been no change to the decision-making processes.
The council’s normal April meetings did not take place, but that remote meetings would begin to be held from next month, with the public able to attend.
• South Norfolk Council has delegated decision-making from it’s cabinet and full council to an emergency committee, made up of Conservative and Liberal Democrat members, with the process under continual review by the managing director.
But the council’s planning committee is continuing to meet, with a temporary reduction in membership, but political balance maintained.
• A Great Yarmouth Borough Council spokesman said: “All face-to-face meetings of councillors were cancelled in mid-March until further notice. The council is now finalising arrangements to enable the first remote virtual meetings of its policy and resources committee (cabinet) and development control committee (planning) to start later this month.
“The committees will still have their normal political make-up. The virtual meeting arrangements will enable councillors to meet remotely in a safe manner and to take decisions in public on any items which are above the line.
“Those items which were due to go to the cancelled policy and resources meeting in March will now go to the May meeting.
“Much council business since March has been the multi-agency response to coronavirus. That work has been guided at a national level by the government and co-ordinated on a county-wide basis via the Norfolk Resilience Forum, of which the council is an active member.”
• While North Norfolk District Council’s (NNDC) main committees are operating on a fully remote basis and taking decisions as they would under normal circumstances.
An NNDC spokesman said: “If any delegated decisions are taking place relating to Covid-19 then these are being taken by our senior leadership team and reported on the website and then through to cabinet.
“A list of the delegated decisions taken will be published as part of the cabinet agenda and then available to view via the NNDC website.”
Members of the public can attend any committees which would usually be held in public, which are now being live-streamed on YouTube on NNDC’s new eDemocracy channel.
• While Norfolk County Council has handed decision-making during lockdown to cabinet members and the head of paid service, Tom McCabe.
The county council’s first virtual cabinet meeting is taking place on Monday and will be followed in due course by its scrutiny and select committees, with all meetings streamed live online and available to view afterwards.
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