While the authority’s staff and cabinet members have grown used to the demands of remote communication during the coronavirus crisis, next week’s cabinet meeting will be the first formal gathering of the authority since mid-March.
As the smallest of County Hall’s committees – comprising eight members of the ruling administration – cabinet is the simplest arena in which to test the technology on which all council meetings might have to rely for the foreseeable future.
Democratic and member services manager Josh Mynott says that it is important to get back to business – if not as usual, then at least in recognisable form.
“It’s fine to put things on the backburner for a while when you’re in the middle of a crisis. But we are a political organisation, we’re accountable to the people and we need to get meetings restarted,” explained Josh, who is under no illusions that this will be a different kind of democracy to the usual cut and thrust of council discussions.
“When everybody is in the room together, you can see people’s hands go up when they want to speak, you can interrupt and even have an argument – but we have had to put a protocol in place to explain how members should operate during the meeting.
“To show that they want to speak, members will have to type [a standard abbreviation] into a text system. The chairman will see that they have put their virtual hand up and invite them in.”
For the cabinet meeting, that chairman will be Conservative county council leader Geoff Driver.
“There are always teething troubles with these things, but we’ve got to keep the democratic process going as well as we can and be as transparent as possible,” County Cllr Driver said.
“At the moment, a lot of the decision-making has been delegated to the officers so that they can respond immediately – sometimes they have to make a decision there and then.”
The two most senior Labour opposition members are also permitted to speak at cabinet and so will also take part in the virtual meeting. But deputy Labour group leader John Fillis says he hopes that the new arrangements bring a change of tone to all council proceedings.
“A lot of the time, we’re not really allowed to scrutinise properly – and we need scrutiny at a time like this, to ask the questions that people want the answers to.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but we’ve got a long way to go before we can call this democracy,” County Cllr Fillis said.
Any virtual meetings held by the authority will be accessible to the public via the county council’s usual webcast facility.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service understands that the frequency of virtual meetings will increase during the early summer, with the development control committee – which makes major planning decisions – the next one scheduled to take place in June. The authority also operates a number of cross-party scrutiny committees, examining different aspects of the council’s work.
The next meeting of the full council – which involves all 84 members and often lasts over four hours – is pencilled in for 16th July and Josh Mynott says he is “hopeful” that it can go ahead.
“We have a real range of IT skills [amongst county councillors] – some people need a bit more support and reassurance and we have already offered one-to-one help to make sure they would be able to see and hear everything that is going on.
“The situation moves so quickly that we don’t know by then whether we may still be in full lockdown or have partial restrictions which mean some councillors of a certain age may not be able to leave home.
“Hopefully by the autumn, we’ll be able to hold meetings comfortably whether we are in the same room or not.
“But as somebody said to me recently, we have had 130 years of holding local authority meetings in one way – and within three weeks, we have completely changed everything.
“It won’t be easy, but it’s the way it is going to be for some time to come.”