The city council’s annual mayor-making ceremony could be held ‘virtually’ next month – so elected members can maintain social distancing.
New laws allow councillors to attend meetings remotely, using phones or video technology, in order to sustain local democracy during the coronavirus outbreak.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council is now looking at introducing virutal meetings in the next few weeks, in time for the annual council meeting on May 21, where the new Lord Mayor will be formally elected. The technology could also be used for cabinet and committee meetings.
Most of April’s meetings have now been cancelled or postponed, with only the cabinet meeting scheduled for April 21 set to go ahead as normal. Special arrangements were made for last month’s full council meeting, with just 15 out of 44 elected members attending.
Council leader Abi Brown says the authority would explore the options for holding meetings in May, and beyond.
She said: “When we looked at the meetings planned for April, it was decided, primarily by the committee chairs, and with consideration of the business coming forward, that the meetings could be cancelled, with the exception of the cabinet meeting.
“But we will review this for the meetings in May, and look at the government guidance on virtual meetings.
“I think for the first couple of weeks we’ve been focused on the council’s immediate response. But moving forward we will need to take longer term decisions over things like infrastructure, and it’s only right and proper that those decisions are taken visibly.
“It is quite exciting to consider the potential for virtual meetings under the new legislation.”
Labour opposition leader Mohammed Pervez agrees that technology should be used to allow council meetings to go ahead.
He said: “I do welcome the new legislation that allows council to hold virutal meetings. Councillors have to play our part in practising social distancing, both to protect ourselves and those around us. But at the same time, it’s important that elected members are allowed to do our job, even in these difficult times. With the advent of modern technology there’s no reason why we can’t use it for this purpose.”
The Coronavirus Act, which was passed by MPs last month, includes a provision for local authority meetings to be held ‘without all of the persons, or without any of the persons, being together in the same place’.
Ministers have now clarified these new rules, saying councils will now be able to use phone or video conferencing technology to hold meetings remotely.
While the details are left up to individual councils, the government says that however meetings are held, they still need to be acccesible to the public.
Many businesses around the world have been making use of the video conferencing app Zoom in recent weeks, as office workers have been forced to work from home.
Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick said: “Local authorities are the backbone of our democracy and they are playing a vital role in the national effort to keep people safe. This change will support them to do that while maintaining the transparency we expect in local decision making.
“Councillors and staff are already doing the right thing by following our advice to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. This includes working from home wherever possible, and the new powers to hold meetings virtually will make that easier.
“It’s critical that they continue to provide essential services and find innovative ways to maintain important economic functions they perform like the planning system and they will now be able to do so.”
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