Council leaders criticise 'waste of public funding' on meeting rules

Social distancing at Wherstead Park for Suffolk County Council's 2021 annual meeting

Social distancing at Wherstead Park for Suffolk County Council's 2021 annual meeting - Credit: Suffolk County Council

Two Suffolk council leaders have slammed the government for not extending remote meeting arrangements - after being forced to spend thousands of pounds hiring external venues for socially-distanced meetings.

The government, backed in a ruling by the High Court, refused to extend emergency legislation which allowed councils to hold meetings online through the Covid-19 pandemic.

That has forced authorities to meet in person after May 7 for decision-making meetings.

It left three of Suffolk's authorities having to hire Wherstead Park's atrium to hold their annual meetings, as the council chamber at Endeavour House in Ipswich would not be able to accommodate everyone with social distancing in place.

For Babergh and Mid Suffolk, the cost was £2,700 plus VAT each, while Suffolk County Council's bill was £3,900 plus VAT - as it had more councillors to accommodate.

It is understood government funding will be sought to offset those costs.

Mid Suffolk District Council leader Suzie Morley at the 2021 annual meeting held at Wherstead Park

Mid Suffolk District Council leader Suzie Morley at the 2021 annual meeting held at Wherstead Park - Credit: Mid Suffolk District Council

Suzie Morley, Mid Suffolk District Council leader, and her Babergh District Council counterpart John Ward, Conservative, both apologised to councillors who had been shielding during the pandemic but were forced to attend meetings in person this week.

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They said the Government must allow the flexibility for remote meetings again in future.

"It should not have been necessary - it is a waste of public funding and in my opinion is not appropriate," Ms Morley said.

"It is fantastic to see the country and our district carefully unlocking from Covid, and so far being able to proceed smoothly along the government's roadmap.

"We are though still in a pandemic, and so I am hugely disappointed in the failure to understand the appointments of local democracy and therefore to make a simple extension to the legislation that would have enabled this meeting to take place virtually."

She said online meetings had enabled the authority to "strengthen and broaden" access to democracy and "the time has come for all councils to have the power to choose how we meet - whether in person, online or in a hybrid manner, rather than being dictated to by Whitehall".

Babergh District Council leader John Ward announces one change to his cabinet at the 2021 annual meeting.

Babergh District Council leader John Ward at Wherstead Park for the 2021 annual council meeting - Credit: Babergh District Council

Mr Ward added: "The unwillingness of government to extend the legislation allowing online meetings before the full removal of Covid restrictions has imposed unnecessary financial and logistical burdens on us through having to meet here rather than our council chamber."

He said online meetings demonstrated "clear benefits in terms of eliminating travel for attendees, members, officers and the public alike, and also increased public participation".

Both thanked officers and Wherstead Park staff for their efforts in hosting and broadcasting a Covid-secure meeting.

John Matthissen, from Mid Suffolk's opposition Green and Liberal Democrat group, said the government's decision had "needlessly put at Covid-19 risk hundreds of district and county councillors and thousands of parish councils across England“.

A spokeswoman from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, said that £12billion in council support grants had been provided during the pandemic.

She added: "We are grateful for the efforts of councils to ensure meetings could continue remotely over the past year and backed the legal claim to allow them to continue.

“However, as councils now need to meet in person, we have published updated guidance on how to minimise the risks of face-to-face meetings, supported by unprecedented emergency funding to manage the impact of the pandemic.

“We have launched a call for evidence on remote meetings and their use during the pandemic to inform any potential next steps in the future.”

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