Local government chiefs claim return to hybrid meetings would improve councillor diversity

Written by Alain Tolhurst on 20 May 2022 in News

County Council Network joins a list of bodies calling for reintroduction of legislation allowing remote participation

Credit: Alexandra Koch/Pixabay

Local councillors across England back a return to hybrid meetings saying it will improve diversity in local government as well as save money, a study has found.

The County Councils Network (CCN) is urging the government to once again allow elected members of local authorities to attend meetings remotely. Virtual meetings were permitted during the pandemic, but the emergency legislation put in place to allow this to happen has now lapsed.

The body, which represents England’s largest 36 county councils and unitary authorities, carried out a survey of almost 500 councillors in conjunction with videoconferencing firm Zoom, and found a strong appetite for a choice between online and in-person meetings. Respondents also said allowing virtual meetings could have environmental benefits, pointing out one councillor said he travels 1,000 miles a year to attend council meetings in person.

In total, 87% of respondents agreed that they would like their council to be able to adopt a hybrid set-up going forward, while 72% of those surveyed from the authorities CCN represents said it could attract more younger people, ethnic minorities, and women to stand in local elections.

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Of the councillors who had caring responsibilities, nine in ten said a hybrid model would allow them to better balance their role with local government and the rest of their lives, whilst eight in ten without caring responsibilities said a hybrid model would provide a better councillor-life balance.  

The legislation allowing local authorities to hold virtual meetings was in the Coronavirus Act 2020, but lapsed in May 2021. While government has previously committed to re-introducing it, the bill was absent from last week’s Queen’s Speech, which sets out their agenda for the next year.

Councillor Julian German, CCN’s rural spokesperson, said: “One of the most defining features of first lockdown was the rise of video conferencing, and councils embraced this technology, turning the way they operate upside down almost overnight with meetings going virtual. Whilst councillors will always want the ability to meet, discuss and scrutinise in person, when reflecting on the lessons learned from the last two years, there are clear benefits to councils offering a hybrid model. There is a clear consensus that hybrid meetings could open the door to attracting a younger, more diverse set of councillors, who are able to effectively balance their councillor and caring or employment responsibilities.”

The CCN survey comes several months after five other bodies representing the local government sector published an open letter calling for the urgent reintroduction of laws to allow remote participation in meetings – the lack of which was “wreaking havoc” with democratic processes, they warned.


About the author

Alain Tolhurst is chief reporter for PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared. He tweets as @Alain_Tolhurst.

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