RBWM 'disappointed' as virtual meetings not allowed to continue

RBWM 'disappointed' as virtual meetings not allowed to continue

The Windsor and Maidenhead council says it is 'disappointed' in a High Court ruling which called for local councils to revert back to face-to-face meetings after May 6. 

Emergency legislation was passed in the House of Commons last year when the pandemic hit, allowing local authorities to meet online.

Hertfordshire County Council, along with Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) and the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO), applied to extend these measures, but this was dismissed by the court in a judgement released yesterday (Thursday).

Judges Dame Victoria Sharp and Mr Justice Chamberlain said that primary legislation would be needed to extend the use of online meetings.

The Government says that regulations which have allowed councils to meet remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic do not apply to meetings after Thursday, May 6.

A spokeswoman added: "Government has previously confirmed that it is not possible to secure primary legislation to extend the regulations to meetings beyond this date."

This means that councillors are expected to return to face-to-face meetings a day after the local elections, having completed more than a years worth of meetings virtually.

It is not clear whether the Royal Borough council will be continuing to livestream meetings when they return in-person. Before the pandemic, the council used a system called 'Periscope' to cast meetings live into people's living rooms. 

A Windsor and Maidenhead council spokesman said: “We are disappointed at the ruling.

“An extension to allow the flexibility to meet virtually is important for the effective and open conduct of council meetings, particularly while social distancing rules remain in place.

“The council will respond to the Government’s call for evidence on remote meetings to highlight the benefits of allowing the option of remote meetings where appropriate.”

In a move to prioritise councillor safety, officers at the Windsor and Maidenhead council have moved the meeting of the annual council forward to Tuesday next week, in order to allow members to meet over Zoom.

According to the council's meeting calendar, the first in-person meeting scheduled after May 6 is a Grants Panel, at 10am on Tuesday, May 11.

Coronavirus restrictions will ease again on Monday, May 17 to allow six people, or two households, to meet indoors. The borough only has two in-person meetings before this date; as well as the Grants Panel, a flood liaison group will be held at 6:15pm later that day. 

The next full council meeting will not take place until later in June, when restrictions on social contact could have ended. 

But the return of physical meetings has raised questions over councillor welfare and democracy, with some of an older age and other younger members who have not received any dose of a vaccine yet.

Councillor Lynne Jones, leader of the local independents (OWRA, Old Windsor), was baffled as to how people are not allowed inside a pub, but councillors are expected to meet up indoors in potentially large numbers, although she did express how she preferred physical meetings over Zoom. 

She added that she would be prepared to go back to smaller meetings in-person, but thinks it is too early to go back 'en masse' and praised council officers for their work in moving the annual council meeting forward. 

It has not been made clear whether councillors would be expected to wear masks while in physical meetings, but Cllr Jones said she would be prepared to wear one. 

"I would have been happy if meetings didn't have to go back face-to-face until social distancing has reduced," she said.

"I actually prefer face-to-face meetings, I really do not like Zoom. It has taken over my life and my family's life. But for some people with offices, it is easier to go on that than to travel.

"If the recommendation coming out of central Government was that as of May 4 or May 5, restrictions were being dropped, then I think I would feel a lot better going back face-to-face, and my colleagues would as well - because that is the message.

"It just does not go with what we are hearing coming out of central Government. 

"Hopefully we will be back to face-to-face for maybe smaller meetings. But other than that I think officers have done a really good job to ensure that we have got the longest amount of time before we have to go back into the council chamber en masse."

Conservative councillor Phil Haseler (Con, Cox Green) said it would be nice to see people again at meetings but did have obvious concerns about the return of physical meet-ups. 

"There will be other councillors who are older and more vulnerable," he said. "It is concerning, and it would have been good if they had left us to carry on remote meetings for the time being.

"I think it is just a tad too early, probably another couple of months may have been more appropriate in my view."

He added: "I have no idea what buildings we are going to use. Certainly the [Maidenhead] town hall chamber won't allow for social distancing and I do not want to sit in a meeting with a facemask on, really. It is hard enough hearing people a lot of the time. 

"It is safety and I get that, but I just think we could continue on Zoom where we can speak freely, and be seen, be heard. 

"I am guessing council officers will be looking into this."

Cllr Haseler is chair of the Development Management Panel - which meets on Wednesday, May 19 - and he said that he is unsure about the logistics of this meeting. Public speakers dialling in over Zoom could be a possibility, he said. 

"With development management panels you have got speakers, normally. That means that you have got to incorporate people from outside [the council]," he said.

Liberal Democrat councillor Amy Tisi (Clewer East), who is also a teacher, added that she was concerned she would pass the virus on to other, older councillors if she picked anything up from the school children at work. 

"I am not old enough to have had my first vaccine yet, and it does make you feel quite nervous about it [returning face-to-face]," she said.

"It seems like a really short-sighted decision."

A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokeswoman said: "We are grateful for the efforts of councils to ensure meetings could continue remotely over the past year.

“Councils will need to return to face-to-face meetings after May 6 and should continue to prepare accordingly.”

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