COVID-19 has forced councils to hold key meetings remotely – but there would be environmental and other benefits to continuing the practice.
Councillors are, on the whole, sociable beings so we like face-to-face meetings.
However, the COVID-19 crisis has forced us all to work very differently to support our communities and keep up with essential council work and democratic processes. Virtual council and planning meetings, and even online surgeries with residents have become the ‘new norm’.
There are, of course, many benefits to working in this way – not least in that it reduces our collective impact on the environment.
A recent Royal Society of Arts, poll found that 85 per cent of people want to see some of the changes they have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic continue – including cleaner air and seeing more wildlife.
An ever-increasing number of councils have declared a climate emergency, often with greenhouse gas emission reduction targets at the core of their response. In areas where councillors – and council staff – would usually drive or use public transport to attend their often very busy schedule of meetings, we are currently saving on those emissions.
We are also reducing waste by greater use of online documents rather than physical papers.
Flexible and virtual working for councillors could also benefit those who have childcare and social care responsibilities, allowing them to continue their caring roles while attending council meetings from home. This could make the role more attractive to a more diverse range of people, helping ensure councillors better reflect the communities they represent.
Virtual working could also revolutionise surgeries, with councillors able to reach residents they would not normally encounter. There are, sadly, risks to face-to-face meetings, and virtual surgeries might also help reduce threats of physical violence.
We have proven, in the past few months, that local democracy can happen from the home and that there are significant benefits to our carbon reduction goals in doing so.
For remote working to carry on, and to continue to have a positive impact, we need to look to a ‘mixed’ future. Some meetings should be held remotely, some in person, and some with a mix of councillors and officers working remotely and in the room.
To do this, we need government to extend the permission to work this way. Then we need each council to decide for itself how best it can work – taking into account councillor wellbeing, individual circumstances, climate change and other considerations.
As always, the solution is local and will be different for different councils.
Reducing emissions with e-meetings
We began doing them as a necessity but once the COVID-19 crisis is over they will be recognised as a valid option, and often the preferable one.
Remote council meetings reduce the need to travel and that has a big impact on carbon emissions. In the UK, 28 per cent of our emissions come from transport, so anything that reduces travel while maintaining a functioning democracy must be a positive.
There is a lot of time wasted on travelling, particularly for car drivers who have little opportunity to work on their journey. So much as virtual meetings help save carbon, they are also often time efficient.
The ability to continue to play our part in representing the interests of local people through virtual meetings fills a real need. We must ensure more residents can meaningfully engage and ask questions at cabinet and full council meetings. There is a danger that fear of using technology will exclude people who are unfamiliar with it.
Councillor Andrew Cooper (Green), Chair of Kirklees Council’s Corporate Scrutiny Panel and member of the LGA’s Climate Change Improvement Working Group, says there is a change of culture in the air about virtual meetings