After more than a year, face to face meetings of Bedford borough’s councillors are set to begin again next week at the Corn Exchange.
As of 7 May, remote meetings are no longer permitted, and councillors right across the political spectrum have expressed their dismay, calling the Government’s decision “utterly absurd”.
The Victorian age Corn Exchange, in St Paul’s Square – more used to hosting music and comedy events – is set to witness all the drama of a socially distanced planning committee on Monday 17 May.
With 13 planning and five other items on the agenda when the meeting starts at 6.30pm it looks set to see the return of members of the public for the more contentious items.
Plans being considered include a council plan to provide short term accommodation for homeless people in Kingsway, and applications for 50 homes in Roxton and 48 in Great Barford.
The council has asked members of the public wishing to attend and speak to email RighttoSpeak@bedford.gov.uk so officers can make arrangements.
The council says a recording of the meeting will be available publicly “normally the next working day” for anyone interested in following the debates and voting results.
The Government had allowed councils across the country to meet virtually since the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020.
But since Friday, May 7 this year councils in England have had to stop holding most remote meetings, a decision which met with fury across the country, including the borough.
A case was taken through the courts but judges said it was up to the government, which said it didn’t have the time to pass a law to allow it. Whitehall is however consulting on allowing hybrid meetings to restart later in the year.
Councillors are concerned that social distancing measures won’t be lifted until possibly the end of June under Prime Minister Borris Johnson’s coronavirus roadmap.
With no borough elections in Bedford this year, the council managed to bring forward the date of its annual meeting from May 12 to April 29.
Speaker Cllr Jane Walker (Cons, Clapham) was elected speaker for a second year with the hope that she will be able to represent the borough at events this year.
The leader of Bedford Council’s Lib dem group, Cllr Christine McHugh (Goldington) said the situation was “utterly absurd”.
What Bedford’s councillors say…
Cllr McHugh said: “It is utterly absurd that even at a time while indoor gatherings are still banned on public health grounds, councils can now no longer hold remote meetings.
“Remote meetings have enabled safe participation in and access to meetings for residents, officers and elected representatives during the pandemic, which the government itself knows very well is not over.”
At the same time, councillors have pointed out that MPs have the right to participate in remote House of Commons proceedings remotely until at least June 21.
You’re on mute
“‘You’re on mute’ must be the expression of remote meetings, but despite the problems of ‘being muted’ during meetings, virtual council meetings have actually given a voice to many who would previously struggle to engage in local democracy – a positive from the past year,” said Cllr Philippa Martin-Moran-Bryant, Conservative councillor for Great Barford.
“Virtual meetings are not a panacea, and there is very much a place for in-person engagement, but the past year has demonstrated that virtual council meetings are possible, and it can engage with those previously excluded.
“Hybrid meetings are a good answer to enable virtual and in-person attendance.”
Bedford Green councillors were incredulous at the Government’s determination to force councillors and officers back to face-to-face council meetings.
Cllr Lucy Bywater said: “One positive outcome from the last year has been reduced emissions from travel for work. Whilst I’m lucky to be able to cycle in easily to meetings, some councillors in villages have quite a distance to come, and often at rush hour.
“Hybrid meetings at the very least would be a really sensible option.”
“Democracy has been well-served by virtual meetings during the pandemic, making meetings much more easily accessible to those with disabilities and caring responsibilities,” said Green councillor, Ben Foley.
“The Government forcing this change back to in-person meetings is really unhelpful, especially as we know there are unfortunately Covid19 Variants of Concern in Bedford and the pandemic is not over.”
“We were in a virtual Labour Group Meeting when we learned the legal challenge to this stupidity had failed and the dismay of everyone was obvious,” said Labour group leader, Sue Oliver.
“This pandemic is not over yet and for the Government to insist that in-person meetings resume when many people have not yet received one or both doses of the vaccine is putting people at risk unnecessarily.
“Given that Parliament is still holding hybrid meetings, this smacks of double standards and is yet another example of this Tory Government’s total lack of regard for Local Government.“
by David Tooley with additional reporting by Erica Roffe
Local Democracy Reporter