How East Suffolk Council will agree key decisions if Covid-19 prevents meetings
- Credit: East Suffolk Council
Contingency plans have been agreed for making decisions at East Suffolk Council if in-person meetings are not able to be held - but the government's refusal to extend remote meetings has been dubbed a "missed opportunity".
The government, backed by a High Court ruling last week, is not extending legislation introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic last year for council meetings to be held remotely online beyond May 7, citing the lack of time in Parliament to make changes.
It means meetings scheduled after that date must be held in person.
However, East Suffolk's lawyers have advised the authority that some committees can still continue remotely because they were set up under a different parliamentary act.
Those include the cabinet, some licensing hearings, task groups and community partnership groups.
However, full council meetings, planning committees, the main licensing committee and audit meetings will be required to be held in person.
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At Wednesday's annual council meeting, the authority confirmed it was lining up Waterlane Leisure Centre in Lowestoft as a potential external venue for larger meetings to facilitate social distancing, and unanimously agreed delegated powers to senior officers in the event that a fresh wave of Covid or the government's decision not to continue easing restrictions meant in-person meetings were not viable.
Council leader Steve Gallant said: "We are considering contingencies, not the normal function of the council.
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"The normal function of the council is that wherever practicable and wherever permitted by current Covid restrictions that may be enforced we will meet face-to-face, as is required by legislation and the findings of the High Court.
"But should we not be able to do that we do need to take this one and only opportunity we have to put in place contingency plans to allow the function of this council to continue."
Emergency powers were used by many councils last year before remote meetings were set up which allowed the council chief executives and leaders to take urgent decisions, such as allocating emergency Covid-19 grants to businesses, but a prolonged period of senior officer decisions could cause a democratic headache for open and transparent decision making.
Caroline Topping from the Green, Liberal Democrat and Independent group said the situation was not ideal but the chief executive had her full trust if those contingency plans were required, while Peter Byatt from the Labour group said a hybrid model of face-to-face and online would be more beneficial.
Stephen Burroughes, cabinet member for customer services, ICT and commercial partnerships, said it was a "missed opportunity" by the government.
"I think what we were looking for eventually was a hybrid model going forward which allowed us to be more flexible and to be more inclusive in our trajectory," he said.
"I always said we should not sleepwalk back into the way things were, but the way things are going we are doing exactly that.
"I think we have missed a golden opportunity to do something different and make the pandemic a history lesson in how to evolve services going forward."
Mr Burroughes highlighted the significant carbon reduction from reduced travelling to meetings and the increased engagement from the public being able to to tune in to a meeting online rather than travelling to Melton or Lowestoft as benefits have emerged from remote meetings.
Mr Gallant said the government was supportive of remote meetings, but it was a matter of getting the time in Parliament to make those changes that would give councils more flexibility.