Covid: Lancashire County Council takes some meetings back online as cases surge

Lancashire County Council has returned to staging some of its meetings online because of current high Covid infection rates.

The authority will hold its scrutiny committees remotely for the rest of this month in order to avoid councillors having to gather in meeting rooms at County Hall.

There were more than 26,500 Covid cases identified in Lancashire in the week to 8th January - an infection rate of more than 2,162 per 100,000 people.

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Councillors will not have to attend County Hall for anything but the most important decision-making meetings during January

A temporary law change allowing all local authorities to host meetings online lapsed last May after being brought in at the beginning of the pandemic to ensure that councils could continue to carry out their business - overriding a normal rule requiring members to be present in the same room when casting a vote.

That means that the remote gatherings currently being hosted by the county council cannot be classed as official meetings of the authority - but it has been announced that they will be treated as if they are.

Addressing the external scrutiny committee - the first scrutiny body to hold a meeting in 2022 - Josh Mynott, democratic and member services manager, told its members that the decision to move online had been taken because of high infection levels and some difficulty in obtaining lateral flow tests.

He added: “It is absolutely critical to point out that…this is not a formally constituted, official…committee meeting of the council. The law does not allow us to meet online.

“However, what I want to stress to you is that we are treating this as if it is a formal committee meeting - it is in public, it’s being webcast, it’s being recorded, it will be minuted and those minutes will be published in the same place as our usual committee minutes.

“We will treat anything that you say, anything that you decide, any decision you reach, any recommendations you make [in] exactly the same [way] as if they had been made in a full committee meeting…in person,” Mr. Mynott explained.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service understands that this approach will not be extended to meetings which are more reliant on votes than scrutiny committees are, nor those which involve making decisions with financial implications. That means that the authority’s cabinet and development control [planning] meetings to be held this month will both operate face-to-face as normal.

An additional meeting of the full council has also been scheduled for 24th January to discuss plans for a devolution deal - meaning all 84 county councillors will gather in the chamber at County Hall.

Mr. Mynott said votes at scrutiny committees held online would only be “indicative” - yet would be implemented nevertheless.

Once face-to-face meetings resumed early last summer, the county council used its chamber for meetings that would usually have been held in smaller committee rooms, in order to allow members to remain socially distanced.

During full council meetings in the chamber, councillors were initially spaced out more than they had been pre-pandemic - and they continue to be offered the choice of a social distanced seat if they want one.

The government said last year that there was insufficient parliamentary time available for it to extend the legislation permitting remote council meetings.

However, a petition calling for the reinstatement of that option - set up by the Association of Democratic Services Officers and Lawyers in Local Government - has received almost 6,000 signatures.

In a preamble to the document the organisations state that they “do not wish to impose remote meetings on councils”, adding:

“They should have the choice to decide how they run their meetings depending on local circumstances. They know best.

“The period of lockdown showed that remote meetings bring so many benefits to local democracy and residents, apart from the obvious public health safeguards. It is no longer just a response to Covid.”

The authors go on to claim that online meetings have resulted in increased attendance by both councillors and the public - and led to greater openness and transparency in decision-making.

Outside periods of full lockdown, some of Lancashire’s district councils - including South Ribble and Chorley - moved to hybrid meetings, where some members attended in person and others dialled in remotely. However, once remote meetings were no longer permissible, any councillor not present in the room was no longer able to vote - but was permitted to contribute to the debate. Members of the public also continue to be allowed to dial in to take part in planning meetings.

Lancashire County Council has long been webcasting its gatherings for the public to watch either live or later. The pandemic prompted some borough councils - again including Chorley, South Ribble and also Preston City Council - to do so for the first time.

Chorley and South Ribble have since maintained that facility, but it is not currently being offered by Preston, where any residents wishing to witness or be involved in the proceedings have to attend the town hall.