New leader of the council to be elected this month

[Tuesday 25 May, socially distanced at 6.00 pm Westpoint – Owl]

Paul Arnott

Many readers may know that councils have been meeting entirely by Zoom since March 2020, with two great benefits. 

The first of course has been to prevent the spread of infection. The second has been the ability to attend meetings and really get stuck in while not having to drive 15 miles to do so. The final attendance figures for the last civic year are still being looked at – but I suspect that meetings have probably seen a rise of the numbers of councillors attending of about 25%

The reasons for this are clear. Without wishing to play the violin, backbench East Devon councillors are allowed a (taxable) amount of a little over £4,000 per year to cover all their expenses and all their time. Many give two to three whole days a week to their work, and the reward is pitiful. If however they can attend a meeting for a couple of hours without it turning into a whole half day, this enables those with jobs or young families to play a much fuller part.

However, the Conservatives, despite universal pleas from across the political spectrum, have now failed to put in place the legislation needed after emergency Covid-19 powers lapsed on May 7. Therefore, as if in Dr Who’s Tardis, we have all been propelled back to the sideburned days of 1972, when the most recent legislation was passed, insisting that councillors had to be “present” to vote in any meeting.

In 1972, the idea of the internet might pop up in Star Trek or an Isaac Asimov SF novel. And back then, council meetings were mostly old men with brylcreemed hair smoking their way through long afternoons in civic halls. Today that has entirely changed.

One of the problems that my group on the council has is that far from being stale old men with yellow fingers, there is a welcome mixture of younger councillors elected in 2019. It’s not that they have not had two jabs; many have not even had one. The first fruit of the government’s failure was seen at our Cabinet last week where a portfolio holder in their thirties simply did not feel it was safe to attend, and I don’t blame them.

But Cabinet is just 10 councillors. Next week we are being forced to hold our annual meeting – where the Chair and Leader of the council for 2021-22 will be elected by all 59 councillors – in conditions we are still working on at Westpoint. Our own quite sizeable chamber at Blackdown House is not remotely big enough for 59, plus officers, to meet safely.

This will involve a huge amount of wasted public money, councillor and officer anxiety, and the unanswerable question: what do those with one or no jabs do? Sorry to be so blunt, but this government doesn’t give a damn, even though we have been warning about this for a whole year.

It is so obvious that we should meet, as we did last May, to hold this annual meeting by Zoom. But to do so is to break a 50 year old law, and the government has simply washed their hands of the consequences. Closer to home, your parish and town councils are being forced to do this too. Last week, Seaton Town Council held their annual meeting in a car park, praying that the rain would hold off. They will not be alone in this.

However, we will crack on of course, and must continue to make the case to government to legislate as they had promised. I will not hold my breath. Many believe there is a cussed inclination emanating from the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who sets the tone in these matters, that it’s all stuff and nonsense. Tell that to my eldest son in Glasgow, where the Indian strain this week is as virulent as it is in Bolton.