“This critical time of a coronavirus pandemic is precisely when the council should be working as a team to pool resources, and propose and discuss ideas.”
There is an awful lot of planning to be done post-coronavirus.
The East Devon District Council is doing a lot to help and provide information during the current crisis:
What the council is not doing is… holding council meetings, though.
When the crisis first erupted, quite understandably, councils closed its doors:
The council has made this announcement on its general news page:
It is expected that the vast majority of meetings will not need to go ahead because they are not dealing with essential matters during this time of crisis. However, as of now, the council will review the need to hold meetings on a rolling basis. Moving forwards, as a matter of priority, and subject to what Government permits local authorities to do, we are looking at ways of conducting urgent/important meetings remotely using Skype and/or conference calling.
And at its ‘Council and Democracy’ page for Committees, Meetings, Minutes and Agendas, its calendar shows this statement:
Calendar of meetings
Under the Coronavirus Act 2020 Section 78, the Government have made regulations to permit virtual / remote meetings. EDDC is currently working with our IT solutions partner Strata, to enable all its Councillors, and for members of the public, to remotely attend meetings. Details on how to join a meeting as a member of the public, and participate in public speaking, will be published on this website as soon as they are available. Non-essential work will be on hold, and therefore a number of scheduled meetings will be cancelled and listed as such below.
However, to take a couple of examples, whilst both the Overview and Scrutiny committees had their April meetings cancelled, there is still nothing on the calendar to indicate whether they will be meeting in May…
And there is nothing about the full council meeting up
Other councils in Devon were busy skyping last week:
And one London borough really got down to business on-line:
In fact, very early on, at the beginning of April, the government was issuing advice on how to hold meetings via Zoom or Skype:
And the Local Government Association has got a really handy guide for councils – including several case studies, one of which is on the admirable efforts of Devon County Council:
So, why are some councils in Devon not meeting up?
The Times has a suggestion:
Councils are using this emergency to shut out democracy
The return of Parliament is undoubtedly a welcome development. At a time of national crisis, we know just how vital proper democratic scrutiny and debate is.
The decisions being made right now will affect every single one of us and so it is essential that a forum such as Parliament is able to use its experience and knowledge not only to scrutinise the decisions made, but also to offer help, guidance and support to the government so it can make the best decisions for us all.
The same could be said for local authorities up and down the country who are on the front line of this crisis and are responsible for delivering many of our essential services.
Unfortunately, there appears to be an alarming number of cases where democratic scrutiny and accountability in councils is being shut down, with several using this crisis as an excuse for handing over sweeping powers to unelected chief executives and leaders.
We need more democracy, not less in this crisis. Before the coronavirus epidemic hit many local authorities were just beginning to embrace the idea of citizen assemblies as a response to the climate crisis, recognising that we make better decisions when we work together. Now they appear to be going in the opposite direction by excluding residents, councillors and the experts from decision-making right at the time that they need them most.
Those in positions of power are faced with an unprecedented and extremely challenging situation and nobody would blame them for finding it difficult. But this is why we have such a strong democratic system in the first place. Now is not the time to be letting that slip away.
Meanwhile in South Hams, there has been a revolt against proposals by the political leadership:
Council’s proposed rule change branded a shutdown of democracy
South Hams Council has been accused of attempting to gag elected councillors with its proposed new rules designed to protect members during the Covid-19 crisis, in a move hailed an “outrageous abuse of power,” and a “shutdown of democracy.”
The authority is due to propose adopting the new rules for remote meetings until May 7, 2021 when it meets this afternoon (Thursday April 23) via Skype at 2pm. It is also proposed that any meetings that are held shall not include any items for questions or motions from elected councillors.
Cllr Hodgson hailed the move an “outrageous abuse of power” and said this critical time of a coronavirus pandemic is precisely when the council should be working as a team to pool resources and propose and discuss ideas.
Cllr Hodgson, who also sits on Devon County Council and is the mayor of Totnes Town Council, insisted: “Other Local authorities, including Devon County Council are not attempting to shut down scrutiny or avoid holding regular meetings. Parliament will reopen this week, and much has been made in the news of the return to scrutiny and PM question time.
“The virtual meetings that I have experienced at Devon County Council, as well as town and parish meetings in the last couple of weeks have worked very well, and while some arrangements have been made to enable clerks and officers to take some delegated urgent decisions as part of an emergency response, there has not been any proposal to refuse questions and motions at full council meetings.”
So, what about East Devon District Council?
Whilst there have been no such overt moves to limit meetings and debate, it could be said that now is very much the time for the council to be meeting up – as there is an awful lot of planning to be done post-coronavirus.
Devon is largely a ‘tourism-driven economy’, and as such will need to prepare for the collapse in the tourist industry.
The county will be “worst hit by the expected wave of unemployment following the coronavirus pandemic, according to forecasts suggesting the economic burden of Covid-19 is set to be spread unevenly”:
In fact, the prognosis is worse:
As the East Devon Watch blog notes, East Devon is at the very highest end of risk:
Jobs in East Devon are in the top “twenty areas most at risk” in the UK, Exeter is in the twenty least at risk. Has EDDC been putting quantity before quality in job creation? Remember the EDDC local plan is based on a “jobs-led policy on” growth scenario aimed at creating 950 job/year in order to justify the final 17,100 minimum housing target for the 18 year period of the Plan adopted in 2016.
Meanwhile, Devon councils are getting really desperate:
And are asking central government for more help:
Just before the lockdown, power shifted dramatically at East Devon District Council:
An extraordinary council meeting may be called to take place on Tuesday, March 31, ahead of the currently scheduled cabinet meeting, in which the Democratic Alliance would wish to become the official opposition and where the re-allocation of committee places would take place.
If the Democratic Alliance do become the official opposition, then they would be granted the chairman of the scrutiny committee position.
With the official statement of the new grouping here on the East Devon Watch blog:
With the deputy leader of the new grouping promising cooperation:
These are interesting times with challenges ahead, but with a refreshing spirit of co-operation, the signs are encouragingly brighter. The Democratic Alliance is now the largest group at EDDC, and it is growing. For too long we have been told what is best for our communities, by those living outside of them, and now there is an Alliance whose members will listen to the communities which it represents.
Interesting, then, that the District Council has let its meeting schedule slip a little…