A councillor has called for a review to ensure decision-making at Lichfield District Council is not disrupted by technical problems during online meetings.
It comes after a gathering of the planning committee was debating an application for a development at Drayton Bassett yesterday (8th March).
Cllr Steve Norman said technical issues during the online meeting meant parts of it could not be heard by those taking part or listening in.
The Labour group leader – who is not a member of the planning committee but was watching online – said the council could not risk having to delay decisions because of problems with technology.
“While planning applications have been deferred for good planning reasons recently it is hard to see how future virtual meetings can carry on.
“Obviously, it is important that members make decisions based on planning reasons and that they follow the debate fully – but let’s be honest, no one can enforce that.
“Last night, the applicant’s agent had three brief breaks in his presentation but was not asked to repeat what was missed and the council’s environmental and health officer was not given a second chance to try again or offered the opportunity to join by telephone.
“There is no way you can guarantee every member is paying attention at all times even in a real meeting or does not mishear something, let alone in a three hour Zoom meeting.
“I am concerned that more planning meetings could get deferred for ‘technical’ reasons and that there needs to be a review of how to avoid this.”Cllr Steve Norman, Lichfield District Council
The meeting was also not broadcast live on YouTube due to what the local authority described as “technical reasons” – although people were able to watch via the Zoom meeting link.
A recording of the session has not appeared on the council’s YouTube channel at the time of writing.
“Representatives of our community”
The role of online meetings at Lichfield District Council have led to much discussion amongst elected members since they were introduced at the start of the coronavirus crisis.
One councillor stood down after it emerged he could not use the IT equipment needed to participate in the sessions – a decision Cllr Norman said was driven by criticism levelled at the individual by “ignorant people”.
The local authority’s vice chairman, Cllr Derrick Cross, also caused controversy when he emailed Conservative colleagues to suggest a return to in person meetings would mean members being “properly dressed for the occasion of serious business decision-making”.
Cllr Cross added that it was inappropriate for members of the council to be “seen dressed sloppy in the garden or toy strewn room, baby in our arms”.
His comments led to a backlash from members of his own party who said they were “shocked and disappointed” by the contents of his email.
Other members of the council have been more supportive of the proposals for online sessions to continue going forward.
A motion by the Labour group’s deputy leader Cllr Diane Evans had previously called for meetings to continue being streamed after the social distancing restrictions were eased.
Lichfield District Council’s leader, Cllr Doug Pullen, has also previously given his support to future online meetings, suggesting they would encourage a more diverse range of people to consider becoming elected members.
“The real transformative powers of retaining broadcast meetings lies in how this shift could affect the demographic of our next cohort of councillors.
“As a young-ish leader with a family and a full-time job, I’m unusual in local government. This isn’t because community activism isn’t appealing – it’s the almost daily dash across the country to return for a rigidly-fixed 6pm meeting which is distinctly un-alluring.
“So the role of a councillor typically attracts retirees, the self-employed, small business-owners and MP staffers – and typically excludes those with young families, the nine-to-five-ers, the commuters and the night-workers.
“We need a better mix of all of these types to ensure we can live up to the mantra of being ‘representatives of our community’, which trips so easily off our tongues when asked about our work as a councillor.”Cllr Doug Pullen, Lichfield District Council