Can Online Meetings ensure Community Participation?
Our Government relies heavily on individual cooperation to adhere to its rules, avoiding ‘heavy-handed’ policing where possible. Covid-19 has demonstrated that, mostly, this works. Given this Coronavirus’ devastating consequences at all levels of society, the flouters mock rules that are there to keep everyone safe. Regardless of our private views we all need to stick to the rules.
Inevitably Covid-19 has impacted on our Councils’ functioning. The Coronavirus Act 2020 Section 78 (viewable online) and the National Association of Local Councils L01-20 ( search in www.nalc.gov.uk ) Regulations 2020, enable Parish, Town, or any other Councils to hold remote meetings, including by video and telephone conferencing, until May 7th 2021. These Regulations enable Councils to make their own standing orders for methods of: voting; access to documents; how remote access of the press and public by electronic means will take place. How will either our local broadband strength or individual’s signal strength hold up? Do we know how many of the public own/use a mobile device or are comfortable with remote meetings? Remote meetings’ convenience will undoubtedly appeal to many but exclude others - young and old. Will mobiles’ small screens enable suitably full views of Council participants? Questions arise also of Councils’ appropriate advertising of such meetings and their ability to cancel or alter them without the requirement for further notice (Reg. 4). Basically a meeting is ‘open to the public’ if there is provision for remote (online) access.
Regarding planning applications, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s (MHCLG) outgoing Chief Planner encourage authorities to: “prioritise decision-making to ensure the planning system continues to function, especially where this will support the local economy. ... explore every opportunity to use technology to ensure that discussions and consultations can go ahead.... consider delegating committee decisions where appropriate. ... to work proactively with applicants and others, where necessary agreeing extended periods for making decisions.”
How quickly will ‘interested parties’ be notified? Given current visual limitations of on-line video conferencing, will social distancing be effectively achieved to enable participants’ identification during digital meetings? How will technical errors requiring eg suspension or adjournment, be managed? Will any delegation of planning decisions to eg CEOs be permissible without wider public consultation? If, procedurally, third parties are unable to be heard or to make written representations, might this make planning decisions susceptible to judicial review?
Clearly, remote meetings may not meet the statutory requirement for community participation. These new rules will make it harder for communities to share their views and schemes may be ‘nodded through’ without the usual, proper scrutiny. Fourteen of Hayling’s Infrastructure Advisory Group non-aligned resident members have already signed Save Our Island’s formal open letter to Cllr. Wilson, Council Leader, in protest against Cllr. Pike’s dismissal of the Council’s own Scrutiny Board’s Refer-Back for further study of the Hayling Transport Assessment Addendum: this letter was sent to all the Press and is online. As our own Council considers and applies Sec 78 and NALC Regulations, the national charity for civic movement in England, Civic Voice, would like everyone to let them know their experience of their Council’s practices, whether positive, negative or innovative: