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What council decisions can take place via remote video meetings?

PUBLISHED: 18:04 06 April 2020 | UPDATED: 18:04 06 April 2020

Council offices and chambers across Suffolk may be closed to the public, but authorities are planning virtual meetings following a change in Government legislation on Saturday.    Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Council offices and chambers across Suffolk may be closed to the public, but authorities are planning virtual meetings following a change in Government legislation on Saturday. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

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Councils across Suffolk are preparing to hold virtual committee meetings to ensure key business can continue during the coronavirus pandemic.

John Griffiths, leader of West Suffolk Council, said tests on video conferencing were already underway. Picture: MARIAM GHAEMIJohn Griffiths, leader of West Suffolk Council, said tests on video conferencing were already underway. Picture: MARIAM GHAEMI

The Government passed emergency legislation on Saturday which enables councils to hold meetings remotely via video calls while social distancing measures are in place.

The chief executives at each of Suffolk’s authorities currently have delegated powers to carry out any urgent decisions, but the latest legislation means that key committees like cabinets and planning committees can meet.

MORE: Follow the latest coronavirus updates at the Suffolk Coronavirus Facebook page

Most of Suffolk’s councils have confirmed they are now in the process of setting up systems which will allow meetings.

A spokeswoman from Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils said: “We are planning to hold virtual planning committee meetings for each council on 28 and 30 April, followed by virtual cabinet meetings in May.

“We are currently working with IT to ensure that we have a suitable platform for this which will enable the public and press to observe the meetings.”

Before Saturday, it was mandatory for council committees to meet in person, and it is understood the legislation will only be in place for as long as needed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Crucially, measures are also being planned to enable the public and press to view the meetings live to ensure that decision making is done in public, although it is not yet clear how this will work.

MORE: Bookmark the Coronavirus topic page here for the latest Suffolk updates

An Ipswich Borough Council spokesman said: “We are working through the new regulations and anticipate holding some virtual council meetings in due course.

“Further details will follow but as we don’t have any meetings scheduled until next month we will not hold any virtual meetings this month.

“Virtual meetings will help us re-start and maintain our core democratic decision-making functions but the chief executive continues to be able to make all significant decisions relating to the response to coronavirus.

“In addition, many day to day decisions have always been made by officers and will continue to be so.”

East Suffolk Council has two planning advisory committees and a cabinet meeting planned via video conference technology, but these are not formal public meetings.

The planning meetings are for the head of planning to obtain information so they can make a decision on applications, while the cabinet meeting contains only items which are exempt from public viewing because of commercial sensitivities.

An East Suffolk spokesman confirmed the authority was looking at the new regulations and how the council could hold virtual meetings publicly.

Councillor John Griffiths, West Suffolk Council leader, added: “We welcome the Government issuing regulations to allow for virtual meetings so that we can continue to meet to make important decisions both democratically and transparently.

“We are finalising our plans in readiness for the next meetings which are not due until the end of the month. We have already run successful trials using both Skype and Microsoft Teams for informal meetings and are confident we can replicate this approach to public meetings. We, of course, will be publicising these meetings and how people can watch.”

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