The failure to permit councils to continue holding online meetings is difficult to understand and impossible to excuse.
While the transition to online wasn’t without hiccups, it has had many benefits overall.
For example, online meetings are good for transparency. In Herefordshire, meetings that previously attracted a handful of people have had hundreds of views on YouTube.
Moving online has generated a significant increase in public engagement with council business – and this can only be a good thing for democracy.
Online meetings are good for public health. Most councillors are over 60, and a significant proportion have serious health conditions and may have been advised to avoid indoor interaction.
We all know there’s a real need to diversify council make-up so that we are more representative of our communities. Online meetings make it easier for those with caring responsibilities, ‘day jobs’, and disabilities to participate. It’s certainly made it much easier to juggle my political role with my part-time job and parenting.
Councillors themselves are overwhelmingly in favour of continuing online meetings. One of the reasons (especially important in rural areas) is that they save travel time – reducing greenhouse gas emissions and freeing up time that can be better spent serving our local communities.
Of course, there are still reasons to meet face to face. Online meetings don’t offer much opportunity for the informal mingling and conversations over the coffee pot that can help build relationships.
Debate can flow more easily, face to face. And in-person meetings are important for the public to make their views heard – not just through questions, but through noisy applause from the public gallery or protests outside.
All these are key aspects of a vibrant democracy that we need to retain. But the last year has shown us that ultimately, the future is hybrid.
Councils need the freedom to decide the best format for each meeting, taking into account its nature and the level of public interest.
If the Government is serious about democracy, public health and inclusion, it should legislate immediately to give councils these freedoms.