The Leader said that he had written to the MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, Gordon Henderson, on 14 March 2021, asking him to “press the Government to clarify as early as possible their position on extending the ability of councils at all levels to meet remotely after 7 May 2021.” This followed a telephone conversation with Mr Henderson.
The Leader said that he included the phrase “at all levels” because he was not just concerned for Swale Borough Council but also about parish and town councils if remote meetings were no longer legal. The Leader stated that he was also concerned for Upper Tier authorities but knew they would speak for themselves.
The Leader advised that he had pointed out to Mr Henderson how impractical it would be at this stage to force Councils to meet in civic venues, and that it would either be contrary to public health guidance or undemocratic. He had also pointed out the real benefits of meeting remotely, with improved attendances by visiting Members and by local residents, as well as environmental benefits including journey avoidance. Referring to the way forward, the Leader had also stressed the importance of local decision-making, a view shared verbally by Mr Henderson, who was supportive of his position.
The Leader advised that the following day, he had written much the same message to Helen Whately, MP for Faversham and Mid Kent, editing slightly to stress the impact on Faversham Town Council. He had received an office response to say the MP had raised the matter with ministers and would let him know the response. Last Thursday he received the response from Luke Hall MP, Minister of State for Local Government.
The Leader stated that the Minister had clarified that the Government would not bring forward legislation to extend the regulation to meetings beyond 7 May 2021. It cited the need for primary legislation and how that would have an impact on the Government legislative programme.
The Leader considered that to be a feeble answer. He stated that throughout the pandemic, ministers had continually stressed their appreciation of local government and Mr Hall spoke of our rising “magnificently” to the challenge, yet when local government begs for an extension, the time could not be found.
The Leader stated that the Government really did not understand local government. He reported that Mr Hall did make suggestions as to how decisions could continue to be made without breaking Covid-19 guidance. These included delegating decisions to key individuals such as the Head of Paid Service or relying on single Member decision-making without the need for Cabinet meetings.
The Leader stated that no member of the Council would want to embrace such undemocratic procedure and he hoped in the feedback to that statement, Group Leaders would join him in condemning this appalling and insensitive approach to local government. The Leader considered that what local residents would ask was why on earth their local councils could not decide how to balance their meetings between civic venues and remote meetings, not just immediately but for the long-term.
The Leader stated that there was hope, and that the Association of Democratic Services Officers, along with Hertfordshire County Council, had issued proceedings in the High Court to enable remote meetings to continue with the existing legislation. However, in the meantime, the Council and others would risk wasting resources in preparing for circumstances which the High Court might override. The Leader stated that it was all a very sad return for the “magnificent way” local government had responded to the pandemic.
The Leader referred to a press report last week which said that the Light Cinema hoped to open in Sittingbourne before June 2021, and he hoped that it would herald a summer of opportunity for the local economy, building, as far as Sittingbourne was concerned, on our being the third most resilient town out of 222 in England. He said that the Council had great potential in our towns, if the extension of homeworking lead to an increase in demand in town centre services. He added that beyond this summer and for some time, the Council needed a clear focus on economic growth, recovery and resilience in order to play a lead role, and needed clarity about where it wanted to go.
The Leader said that Swale was typical of much of the country outside the metropolitan areas. There were people in good comfortable occupations but there were far too many who were not. He said that the pandemic had exacerbated inequalities that were not only socially unjust but also economically inefficient. He added that whilst the Council looked for growth, they wanted it to be good growth, a local economy with high levels of demand for local goods and services, with a high level of environmental sustainability.
The Leader said that prominent in the agenda, for the next decade or so, should be town centre improvements, support for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) and Micro businesses, and a radical improvement in skills and education. The Council would resource this as best it could but there were also Government schemes in the pipeline for funding support, in which the criteria closely matched the priorities of the Council.
The Leader reminded Members that at the previous meeting he had acknowledged how much was owed to Council officers during the last year’s crisis and also the leadership role played by councillors. He said that moving into the second year he was sure the Council would want to go further and thank all those who had worked heroically for the public good in the last year. He said it could not be an exhaustive list, but first and foremost:
· all NHS and care workers;
· prison officers;
· refuse collectors;
· supermarket staff;
· the voluntary sector;
· community groups
· KCC and parish councils;
· faith groups;
· foodbanks; and
· individuals helping neighbours.
The Leader said the list was endless, but above all the Council must remember all those who had suffered from Covid-19. He said that Swale had recorded 13,246 cases from positive tests, some of whom were now afflicted by long covid; had 449 deaths; and the suffering being endured not just by the patients but also by friends and families. The Leader asked the Mayor to allow a minute’s silence to remember those who had suffered and those who had given so much to the local community.
The Mayor led the minute’s silence.
In response, the Leader of the opposition thanked the Leader for his update and said that everyone probably knew of someone who had died of Covid-19. He considered that people who had been involved in the vaccine programme, which had provided light at the end of the tunnel, should also be included in the list of thanks. The Leader of the opposition spoke about the success of remote meetings and the benefits of both remote and face-to-face meetings and considered that something in-between was probably the way forward. He agreed with the Leader that the Council should be able to determine what was right for Swale. The Leader of the opposition also agreed that development of education was key to Swale’s success and was pleased to see that Borden Grammar School were currently consulting on extending their offer to more young people in the local community.
Other Members raised points which included:
· A hybrid of virtual and physical meetings was the solution;
· public engagement had improved at council meetings since they had been held virtually;
· would be silly to lose all that had been learnt about holding remote meetings;
· disappointing that local government was in “limbo” about the way forward;
· it would be very difficult for parish councils to hold physical meetings given that most village halls were very small;
· welcomed any financial package from the government that could be sourced for work on a hybrid solution;
· needed to be mindful to stick to the distancing rules given that Covid-19 rates were rising in the Borough;
· unfair that parliament were still allowed to hold virtual meetings until June 2021, but not local government;
· the private sector functioned reasonably well by holding hybrid meetings so did not see why the public sector could not do the same;
· hybrid meetings could improve accessibility and reduce member travel expenses;
· agreed that it would be undemocratic to delegate decisions to officers and a single Cabinet Member;
· should get a quote for cost of installing the technology required to hold hybrid meetings;
· there was cross-party support to continue with remote meetings;
· it would be wrong and send out the wrong message if the Council were to start holding physical meetings at the present time;
· remote meetings added a fun, human element to proceedings; and
· the Council needed to encourage people to take-up the vaccine.
In response, the Leader thanked Members for their support. He warned that Covid-19 infection rates were increasing and he was concerned that many people in Swale were not taking-up the offer of a vaccine. The Leader said that it was important that the Council pushed Government for a permanent decision and legislation in respect of remote meetings.