Rules that pre-dated modern computers and which required councillors to attend meetings in person made no sense, according to the Green leader of Brighton and Hove City Council.
Councillor Phélim Mac Cafferty spoke out as a decision was reached to go back to business as normal from the start of next month.
The move follows a number of changes brought in as part of the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
When the first lockdown started more than a year ago, the government brought in a temporary change in the law to allow councillors to meet and vote electronically. Previously they were required to be physically present.
The temporary law lapsed in May but, with various covid-related restrictions still in place, the council agreed to hold most town hall meetings with the minimum number of councillors required.
This was intended to allow social distancing to be maintained until all councillors had had a chance to have their covid vaccinations, and with some decision-making still entrusted to officials.
But Conservative councillor Robert Nemeth said: “The agreed system is becoming a tool to escape scrutiny.”
Councillor Mac Cafferty said: “There are the massive contradictions of a national Conservative Party in government that refuses to allow us to have virtual safe meetings while we have their local Conservative counterparts, having agreed ‘reduced attendance’, spending every opportunity calling it undemocratic.
“The idea that, in 2021, we are shackled by 50-year-old legislation before we had computers is wrong.”
He told the full council meeting which was attended by 14 out of the 54 councillors last Thursday (15 July) that people might wonder why two senior councillors were absent.
It was because the mayor, Councillor Alan Robins, and Councillor Amy Heley, who chairs the council’s Environment, Transport and Sustainability Committee, were both self-isolating as covid continues to spread.
The council is one of several to support calls for the law to change to allow virtual meetings or to permit a mix of members attending either in person or remotely.
Councillor Mac Cafferty said that it would be necessary to keep the situation under review because the world was still in the middle of the covid-19 pandemic.
The number of new cases was increasing in Brighton and Hove, particularly among the 18 to 25 age group.
Every two weeks, the council’s chief executive Geoff Raw would review the latest measures in consultation with the three political group leaders.
Councillor Nemeth said that other councils had been imaginative, citing Weymouth Town Council which held a meeting of 29 councillors on the beach.
He also criticised a decision to call a special meeting at which three councillors would make a number of big decisions affecting local roads and cycle lanes, including the future of the temporary Old Shoreham Road cycle lane.
Councillor Nemeth said: “How anybody thought it would be acceptable to decide the cycle lane issue, a set of far-reaching proposals that will affect the city for decades, with just three councillors present is mind-boggling.
“It should have been diarised after the end of the month or in a different or much more imaginative format such as in a large hall.”
The Conservatives had called for an emergency council meeting to decide matters, including the future of the controversial cycle lane along Old Shoreham Road.
A compromise was brokered – and now all 10 members of the council’s Environment, Transport and Sustainability Committee, rather than just three, will make the key decisions on Wednesday (21 July).
The Labour joint opposition leader John Allcock said that, with limited numbers, the council had maintained democracy while staying safe and following advice from the city’s director of public health.
But, Councillor Allcock said: “I believe democracy’s happened. Sometimes it feels a little bit clumsy, but it’s happening – and people can engage in that.
“I think we’ve had more website views than we’ve ever had during this process and I think that’s really important.”
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