Those of us on the front line with local councils have been anxiously awaiting the judgement of the High Court on the challenge to the removal of the ability to hold virtual meetings after 6 May. Unfortunately, although the hearing took place on 21 April, it may be several weeks before we hear the ruling.
For those of you interested in how we got here and what work and evidence there has been gathered in support of the retention of this power then I leave it to those better qualified than me and would suggest reading the House of Commons Library article on the subject.
So why are we getting excited about this? Why does it matter?
Since ‘that video’ went viral we are seeing a greater interest in councils than we have ever seen before. Much of this is driven by the media interest, but on the back of that those of us involved in supporting the sector have reached out and used the opportunity to inform the public of the undiscovered jewel in their back yard – their local authority. A National Association of Local Councils (NALC) survey of local authorities in autumn last year suggested 20% of councils had already seen an increase in attendance at meetings.
Through increased use of social media we have been able to highlight the fabulous work councils have been doing – quietly in the background without any light being shone on them. The Cheshire Association of Local Councils (ChALC) website has some short inspirational videos on their work which conveys better than words what they can accomplish. We saw local authorities organising teams of volunteers to pick up and deliver essential medicine and food to people who were isolated and in some cases providing emergency funding.
NALC also has hundreds more examples of how parish power is supporting communities from responding to the pandemic and tackling climate change, to improving health and wellbeing – and so much more.
It is not just our councils (towns and parishes) that feel so strongly about this. Hertfordshire CC, Lawyers in Local Government and the Association of Democratic Services Officers all got behind it and their call for crowdfunding for the legal fees is being answered with more than £10,000 being given already with a target of £20,000.
We are beginning to see that our communities are engaging more with the scrutiny of council meetings and are gaining a better understanding of what they do. People who did not perhaps have the confidence to walk into a council chamber, town or village hall, now feel able to log on to Zoom to witness and often participate in the decision-making processes. Perhaps as a direct link to that we are seeing more interest being taken in the local elections as it is beginning to dawn on many that these decisions have an important and often immediate effect on our lives – AND we can influence the decisions.
Our drive to increase diversity in the sector is also supported by the ability to hold virtual meetings. No longer is it ‘only women’ who have caring responsibilities but anyone facing the challenge of arranging care cover can now still attend and participate in local council meetings without having to worry about their charge.
And let’s not forget standards in public life. If anything is going to improve standards (at every level of local government) surely it is the ability of the community that councillors serve being able to bear witness to what is being done on their behalf. That has to be a very powerful agent.
Coronavirus has not finished with us yet and many are still choosing to self-isolate or are having to do so on medical grounds – surely we do not intend to force this community to make the choice between their physical safety and their right to engage in democracy.
And finally, as our local councils step up to fill the gaps left by ever-decreasing funding from central Government to local government, do we really want to leave them in the IT dark ages?
Jackie Weaver is chief executive of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils