Having staged its meetings remotely since the pandemic struck, the authority was obliged to return to face-to-face debates last month after the government chose not to renew the temporary flexibility that it had given councils to meet virtually.
Preston City Council held its first in-person full council meeting of the Covid era in the spacious surroundings of the Guild Hall in May, in order to comply with social distancing requirements. However, the venue was unavailable for Thursday’s meeting, meaning that members returned to the more compact arena of the town hall chamber for the first time in 15 months.
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Screens were erected and councillors were wearing masks, under the government’s one-metre-plus-additional-precautions guidance. The short agenda was made up almost entirely of perfunctory administrative items, but the ruling Labour group also opted to suspend oral questions to cabinet members, so as to minimise the time councillors had to be in the room.
However, the Liberal Democrat group objected to the move, with all of their number except deputy mayor Neil Darby staging a walkout in protest at the change, which also had the support of the main opposition Conservatives.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service after his group’s early departure from the debate, Lib Dem leader John Potter said that as the chamber had been deemed Covid-safe, the duration of the meeting was irrelevant.
“What difference would it have made whether the meeting lasted half an hour or an hour?
“We were all already there – and if there was a problem, then we shouldn’t have a meeting in that room until Covid is done with.
“For us, it seemed like a way of avoiding questions to the cabinet – but they are a really important part of scrutinising the council, which we only have on [a few] occasions each year,” said Cllr Potter, who had planned to ask a question about visa fees charged to veterans and whether the council had made representations to government on the matter.
Also speaking after the meeting, Labour council leader Matthew Brown branded the Lib Dems’ actions “childish”.
“We were Covid-compliant, but it was not possible to be two metres apart, so we had screens and masks – and I just thought we should take a safety-first approach.
“We are telling people to work from home and yet there were 48 councillors all gathered together indoors. We also have a couple of members who had concerns about their own wellbeing and I didn’t want to put their health at risk – I just wouldn’t do it.
“The Lib Dems will get a written answer to their question – and it may well be a more detailed one than we would have been able to give in the chamber,” Cllr Brown said.
Conservative group leader Sue Whittam agreed with the decision to suspend questions to cabinet, describing it as “a one-off”.
“Cases are rising in Preston and the government has made Lancashire an area of enhanced support
“The chamber in the town hall is quite small and although we were complying with the rules, we weren’t a massive distance apart.
“Hopefully, we can be back to something closer to normal by August’s meeting,” Cllr Whittam added.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Preston City Council said: “The decision to suspend Questions to Cabinet, a standing item on the council agenda, was taken to minimise the health risk to councillors and officers who are required to be in the chamber for council, motivated by the current rates in Preston, which are now above 300 per 100,000.
“This decision was made in line with the constitution in order to shorten the length of the meeting to decrease the period of time councillors were gathered within the council chamber. All councillors have been invited to submit any questions in writing for a written response to be provided.”
Committee meetings of the authority such as planning – which involve far smaller groups of councillors – are also taking place, socially distanced, in the town hall.