Cllr George Pender represents Ash and New Ash Green Ward on Sevenoaks District Council.
It is very welcome that all local council meetings will be resuming as in-person meetings, following the local elections this May. It is sad that some who seek to represent local Government as a whole (such as the Local Government Association) have decided to object to this. Both in theory and in practice, the level of influence a backbench councillor is able to exert over council policy, when meetings are online, is far less than when councillors are meeting in person.
This is for a variety of reasons, chiefly the fact that pressure / influence on any issue builds by increments, including in the conversations before and after formal meetings. Additionally, technical issues (internet connections etc) mean that full participation in online meetings is often haphazard.
For example, at a recent meeting of the Community Infrastructure Levy Spending Board I was having to flit between a computer screen and a telephone connection each with their own drawbacks. (On the telephone it was impossible to see visually presented information, as well as being difficult to indicate a desire to speak – on the computer, the connection would, intermittently, simply drop out). It was just about possible to get this meeting done, but it was certainly not a proper way to run meetings to decide millions of pounds of public spending, in the long term.
Furthermore, there were at least two significant misunderstandings during this meeting, neither of which would have occurred if the meeting had been conducted in person; these probably didn’t effect the decisions made, but they did lead to needless rancor. This meeting was, if anything, one of the better examples of an online meeting. In every single online council meeting, committee meeting, or working group which I have attended over the last year, there have been significant technical issues affecting more than one participant.
The other problem with online meetings is that those chairing or controlling such meetings have hugely more power to silence dissent, when they have the mute button (or worse) at their disposal.
Sevenoaks’ District Council has a tenth as many members as Parliament, and every member must either live or work within the district of Sevenoaks. On the other hand, Parliamentarians naturally live all over the country.
Can we be sure that no councillors will face a barrier to participation if in-person meetings return? Answer: no more than we could before the pandemic!
Can we be sure that the numbers facing significant barriers will be less than the numbers rendered intermittently blind, deaf or dumb by internet connection issues under current arrangements? Answer: undoubtedly yes, but, more importantly, a return to in-person meetings means that backbench councillors actually have half a chance of doing the job for which we were elected (i.e. to scrutinise and influence council policy) a job which, if we are brutally honest, we have hardly been able to perform during the last year.
Another person who seems to be opposing the return of in-person meetings is the notorious Jackie Weaver, of Handforth Parish council fame. As you may remember from the national media, a widely reported dispute arose in January, centred on whether Mrs Weaver did, or did not, have the authority to preside over a meeting of this Cheshire Parish council. Online opinion seemed to split between those opposed to Mrs Walker’s disregard for democratic procedures, and those who felt the discourtesy of others meant she was entitled to eject members from the (virtual) meeting. Whatever view one takes on this, it was clear that the only “authority” that really mattered was the fact she was in control of the digital meeting room. If you watched or read about any element of this, I invite you to consider what would have happened if this had been an offline meeting.
Even if we assume the dispute would still have arisen (which itself is doubtful) it’s likely that those who objected would have simply been allowed to say their piece, rulebooks/standing orders would then have been consulted and, after a pause, either the meeting would have continued with all participants (perhaps with a certain amount of bad temper) or it would have ceased as unconstitutional. At the worst, some members might have walked out in protest. Mrs. Weaver would never have done the offline equivalent of what she felt able to do online. She would certainly not have detailed a couple of burly associates to physically eject three relatively elderly members of the parish council (including the council chairman) from a meeting room. And yet, online, she felt perfectly within her rights to do so, without even a prior vote.
In the unlikely event that she HAD taken leave of her senses and instructed some compliant lackeys to physically eject people from the meeting, she would certainly not have been praised by Nick Robinson on the Today programme the next morning, nor would she have received plaudits from left-leaning national newspapers. If such a dispute had made the national press at all it would have been either to draw comparisons with officially sanctioned violence in ejecting people from other political meetings (e.g. the Walter Wolfgang – 2006 Labour Party Conference) or simply to report that a Parish Clark and a number of others had been charged with various offenses against the person, for the violent behaviour which this action would necessarily have required.
In other words, the practice of online meeting allowed Mrs. Weaver to achieve a level of control which would normally only be possible through organised violence, but it allowed her to achieve this without the social, legal, or physical consequences which normally attach to perpetrators of violent acts.
Perhaps that is why Mrs Weaver has lined up with those objecting to the return to in-person working.