Claim that virtual meetings could attract more women and younger generations to become councillors in Preston, Chorley and South Ribble

Central Lancashire’s council leaders have backed a call for local authorities to be allowed to hold virtual meetings in an attempt to encourage a new generation of councillors - and make democracy more accessible to the public.

Wednesday, 27th July 2022, 1:15 pm

The Local Government Association (LGA) wants to see councils given the option of staging their meetings either wholly online or in hybrid format, with some councillors present in the room and others dialling in from elsewhere.

Both practices were permitted under emergency legislation put in place during the first year of the pandemic in order to protect elected members and limit the spread of Covid, whilst still enabling councils to continue to make decisions.

However, councillors had to return in person to the corridors of local power from May 2021 after the government decided not to make the temporary arrangement a permanent one.

Could Chorley, Preston and South Ribble councils attract younger and more diverse members if their meetings were held online?

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Under the normal rules governing council meetings, which were conceived 50 years ago - long before anybody could have envisaged technology which would allow members to debate via video screen - councillors must be physically present in order to vote on an issue.

The LGA said last month that greater flexibility was “vital in attracting a wider range of people to stand as candidates in local elections”. Seventy-two percent of councillors surveyed for a recent poll said that hybrid meetings were likely to attract more women, younger people and ethnic minorities to stand for local office.

Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown agrees. He told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “With the reality [being that] councillors remain mostly male and with an average age of over 60, more must be done to ensure those who represent local communities are more reflective of them.

“A key barrier is the difficulty many working-age councillors have to get time off work or balance family and caring commitments, which hybrid and remote council meetings would help address. The inability [of the] government to take the action needed to bring local government into the twenty-first century remains disappointing,’’ Cllr Brown said.

During the first year of the pandemic, Preston’s meetings were held solely online using video conferencing technology, with the output being streamed to allow members of the public to see the proceedings. It was the first time that the town hall had webcast its meetings, but since the return to in-person debates, such a facility has not been available.

Chorley and South Ribble also webcast their meetings for the first time in 2020, but the neighbouring authorities both established a hybrid set-up fairly early in the pandemic, meaning that they had to deploy the kit needed to record the in-person contributors, as well as those taking part from home.

That equipment has continued to be used since councillors returned to face-to-face discussions - enabling all of the boroughs’ meetings to remain live-streamed and then be uploaded for the public to watch back after the event, should they wish.

It has also meant that councillors who are unable to attend a meeting can still dial in from wherever they may be - although the return to the usual rules means that they cannot vote on any of the items under discussion.

The leaders of both districts said that they supported the LGA call for the government to consider making bespoke meetings a permanent option.

Chorley leader Alistair Bradley added: "While virtual or hybrid meetings may not be the ideal solution for all committees - and it's clear that some meetings should still remain face-to-face - having the flexibility to choose is a huge step forward to future-proofing the democratic process.

"Flexibility in the approach can encourage those usually disengaged to get involved with local democracy - and could be a real cost saving measure for local authorities as they look to navigate increased costs and reduced funding."

South Ribble Borough Council leader Paul Foster said that his authority had "championed the hybrid solution from the start".

"We were one of the first councils in the region to conduct our committee meetings in a wholly virtual and hybrid way when the pandemic began.

"Democracy should be for all and to allow for virtual and hybrid meetings is a clear way we can entice those who may not be interested in or aware of local democracy to get involved.

"The world has changed since the pandemic and we, as local authorities, need to keep up,” Cllr Foster added.

Both he and Cllr Bradley said they were looking forward to the government's response to a call ministers put out to local authorities over a year ago, seeking evidence about the best way forward.

However, Lancashire County Council leader Phillippa Williamson said that in-person debates should always be the default for councillors - unless circumstances dictated otherwise.

"The value that virtual and hybrid meetings can have in ensuring the smooth running of local authorities during exceptional circumstances was borne out in the pandemic.

"While face to face should always be the norm for council meetings, we would welcome the opportunity for greater flexibility to choose how we work in times of emergency, such as adverse weather or flooding, to ensure councillors are able to meet and make decisions for the residents of Lancashire."

County Hall briefly returned to remote meetings for its scrutiny committees at the height of the first Omicron-fuelled wave of infections back in January. Although official votes were not permitted - as per the rules - the authority told councillors that it would simply treat any decisions they reached as if they had been taken in a formal meeting.

LGA Chairman, Cllr James Jamieson, noted last month that the government had still not taken any action to address the issue of remote meetings a year after its call for evidence - in spite of the matter being “a priority for councils up and down the country”.

He added: “The pandemic proved that using virtual meeting options can help councils work more effectively and efficiently and can in fact increase engagement from both councillors and residents, which is a vital part of local democracy.

“We urge the government to act quickly and take the next steps to introduce legislation that would empower local authorities to make the most suitable choice for their organisation and communities and bring them in-step with the residents' expectations of organisations that provide local services in the 21st century.”

Responding to the issues raised by Central Lancashire’s district leaders and the LGA, a spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities said: “We recognise that some councils would like the choice to be able to meet remotely - and we'll shortly publish our response to the call for evidence to set out next steps.”