It should go without saying that the worldwide CoronaVirus epidemic is awful, tragic and we all wish it could have been avoided and we all pray it is over soon.
However, like many crises we have faced, there are some useful learnings and positive outcomes that we should be grateful for when, God-willing, we get through the current turmoil and back to a new normal. These will hopefully include closer families, stronger communities and a greater sense of gratitude for our safety net of NHS, social infrastructure and all the people who work at the hitherto thankless tasks of emptying bins, stacking shelves and keeping us alive.
Another positive is the reduction in carbon emissions which proves that despite the previous protestations of politicians, Greta Thunberg has been making a valid point i.e. we could get by without a lot of the carbon-filthy activities that we used to think were essential.
Today, Friday 3rd April, South Kesteven Council held its first ever official ‘virtual’ meeting of a committee.
In local government, the importance of attending meetings in person has often been over-rated. At councils with strong one-party majorities (like SKDC at the moment) many of the decisions have already been made before the meetings start. Independents and other opposition councillors can present compelling arguments until the cows come home but if decision has been made at the Conservative group meeting then the same decision will be made at Full Council.
Aside from reading the agendas and other preparation before the meetings, it takes the best part of an hour to drive from the Deepings to Grantham and the same coming home again. The 52-mile round trip costs the taxpayer £23.40 each time although the Deepings Independent councillors car share whenever practical. The meetings seldom take less than a couple of hours and so we usually end up ‘wasting’ at least half a day and often a full working day.
Until the very recent craze for tele-conferencing, I was one of the very few, possibly the only, councillor that had participated in any SKDC meeting remotely. The first time was aptly a special ‘Climate Change’ workshop organised for members of the Environment Committee. It was last summer and I was actually on holiday in Norfolk so the meeting was held in one of the very few rooms at St Peter’s Hill equipped for video-conferencing and I dialled via Skype from the salubrious location of the Tesco’s cafe in Hunstanton in order to take advantage of the free wifi (not exactly free as I felt obliged to buy myself two cups of coffee).
The second occasion was a meeting of the Independent Group which was also attended by some senior officers of the council. The first had made his presentation available online so that I could see what was happening but the second person didn’t know how to connect and so I had to guess what everyone else was looking at. Since then, I have asked to attend some meetings via remote access but generally the committee rooms don’t have the technology available and so, if I want to participate, I have to go to Grantham. Hopefully that situation will change quite soon.
Let’s hope the arrangements for teleconferencing are implemented more quickly than the long-awaited livestreaming of council meetings which would enable residents to see the council debates take place without having to drive to Grantham. Cllr Kelham Cooke (Con) was supposedly pushing for this back in May 2018. This preceded a major overhaul of the council buildings which would have been an ideal opportunity to install the appropriate technology. Sadly, after many months of meeetings held ‘in exile’ in a nearby church, councillors arrived back to the council chambers in Sept 2019 to discover the meeting rooms had barely changed at all. The promises had also not changed with Cllr Cooke, newly promoted to the position of ‘Leader of the Council’ expressing “a commitment to ensure openness and transparency which would include filming, recording and streaming meetings of the Council and its committees”. Another six months later and there is still no tangible evidence that this dream will ever become a reality. Until now, when we are backed into a corner by a global crisis and the Council has been forced to ‘think outside the box’ and come up with ways for councillors (and members of the public) to attend public meetings while staying at home.
This is a situation that the council could have been properly prepared for but instead we are making up the protocols as we go along. Today’s meeting of the Alcohol and Licensing Committee lasted only ten minutes and is unlikely to change the course of human history but, by the end of the month, it is intended that the statutory functions of the Planning Committee will also be conducted by a virtual meeting. The Planning Committee is responsible for decisions which affect people’s homes, jobs, businesses, livelihoods and mental health, not to mention the local and global environment. The decisions made by the Committee can be subject to a legal appeal process which could potentially cost the council hundreds of thousands of pounds. Traditionally, the planning committee has the highest level of participation by members of the public including developers and objectors. It is attended by various officers from the planning and legal departments of the council as well as the 13 members of the committee. Some of these councillors are octagenarians and some of these councillors have previously shown themselves to be technophobic (not necessarily the same ones).
At the last SKDC Cabinet meeting on 17 March, which was the last SKDC meeting to take place ‘in real life’, I asked the Leader and the CEO when support would be offered to councillors who were finding it difficult to use the ‘new’ remote working technology. The minutes of that meeting haven’t been published yet but in the interests of openness and transparency, here is a transcript of that conversation:
Cllr Baxter: “You will remember that I sent you an e-mail about a week or so ago when we first started talking about how meetings would work asking, or recommending, that we have training for Members and possibly Officers in the use of this equipment that we’ve got. We can use Skype and Teams and so on, i.e. it is possible to use it, but a lot of us don’t know how. When will be offered training?“
Karen Bradford (CEO): Thank you Cllr Baxter, I think you copied me into the e-mail as well so thank you for raising it. It is clear that we want Members to be fully trained on Modern.Gov and in the use of the i-pads and the Surfaces. We were planning it but I’m afraid that’s going to have to be put on hold now until we come out of the other end of Covid19… but it will not be lost and it will be on the training plan.
Cllr Baxter: “Chairman, can I come back on that?.. In the e-mail I said that it would be useful to do [the training] online. If ever we needed training in how to work remotely then today is the day that we need to learn it. Waiting until the crisis is over is too late… If it is possible to use remote access, Teams, Skype and everything else then now is the time that we should be being trained whether by webinar, or by Skype or by face-to-face if absolutely necessary. It just seems daft to me that we’ve spent all this money on this super equipment to save me from having to drive from Deeping and to save other people from driving from all over the place yet in the time that we’ve had the kit we haven’t had any training and now that we actually need it…”
Cllr Cooke (Chair): “That’s not entirely true Ashley, there has been training on the equipment1. I do understand that there are certain elements of the equipment that Members haven’t had training on2. We will come back to you with a formal response on that3. Obviously, at the moment, statutorily and legally we have to be present at certain meetings. Obviously, re the Government, obviously we are waiting to see what the emergency legislation as to regards to what activities we can do and operate as a council”
Cllr Baxter: “Yes Chairman, I’m not ‘having a go’ [at anyone]. I’m just saying that in this time we’ve already agreed to cancel virtually everything… We are in a time when it is going to be difficult to maintain openness and transparency. We have got the ability to do this stuff. Why on earth aren’t we being encouraged to use it?”
Cllr Cooke: “I don’t think anybody is saying not to use it, Ashley, and I’m happy to do some electronic webinars if that’s possible through our training team and I’ll endeavour to get the Chief Executive to look into that and see what we can do. Obviously we will not be having meetings for the foreseeable future and obviously we are waiting to see from the Government as to what the Planning and Licensing Committees are going to look like. All other meetings are going to be postponed for the interim period… But there will be a full open and transparent record, which will be sent out to Members, on decision-making processes.”
Cllr Baxter: “Yes. I hope I have made my point which is that while all ‘physical’ meetings can be postponed, we don’t need to postpone all communication and really, if we are going to be effective as Members, we need to use this kit effectively. I think I’ve made my point.”
Notes on Cllr Cooke’s comments:
1 – Yes, we have had some basic training on the equipment which are mostly ‘SurfacePro’ devices and most SKDC councillors that I have spoken to, from all parties, find them difficult and frustrating to the point that they don’t even want to turn them on from one week to the next.
2 – ‘Certain elements’ includes Teams, Skype and all other applications which would enable remote working. Some of us have taught ourselves how to use these features through a combination of curiosity and necessity.
3 – At time of writing I still haven’t had a formal response to either the question at Cabinet or the original e-mail of 12 March.
It is very frustrating when, as an opposition councillor, I can see potential problems that could be averted and money that could be saved. I draw people’s attention to these problems but those with the power to take action take no notice or merely offer warm but meaningless words.
On a positive note, it is sometimes possible to win small but significant victories on issues of policy, procedures and even planning and funding. However, to do so usually requires a lot of preparation, even conspiring, and also sweet-talking the Chairman and/or Officers before and during the meetings.
The final remarks in this particular blog have to be a plug for the Partly Political Broadcast podcast which is published almost every week by stand-up comedian and political commentator Tiernan Douieb. This week’s episode includes an interview with an expert about the potential impacts on our mental health of staying indoors with our nearest and hopefully dearest. If you’re the sort of person who made it to the end of this blog post then there is a fair chance that Tiernan’s will be able to make you smile in these troubled times (And I’m not just saying that because he gave me permission to use the picture of the Cabinet meeting above!)