The government’s failure to enable local politicians to meet virtually is hampering councils, worrying older councillors and shutting out new participants, according to Jackie Weaver, who shot to fame thanks to a video clip of an ill-tempered council meeting 10 months ago.
Alexandra Topping www.theguardian.com
Weaver, who became one of the most unlikely breakout stars of 2021 after footage from the Handforth parish council meeting she was attending went viral, has issued the rallying cry amid fears that current high infection rates could hit participation in local politics hard.
In April the high court ruled that from May council meetings in England must take place in person – after coronavirus restrictions which allowed virtual meetings lapsed.
“It is completely unreasonable that we are having to cancel council meetings or hold them only in emergencies for goodness knows how long. Where is democracy?” said Weaver in an interview conducted, inevitably, over Zoom.
This week Lawyers in Local Governmentthe Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO) launched a petition calling for councils to be allowed to meet remotely because “they know best” what type of meetings work in their area.
After a tumultuous 10 months in which Weaver, the chief officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, has played herself in the Archers, opened the Brit awards as “Weaver the Cleaver” and featured on Celebrity Mastermind, she is also calling for legislation that will, once again, allow council meetings to be held online.
The public can only hope that it will lead to more filmed exchanges like the Handforth meeting that gripped the nation in the dark days of last February’s lockdown, when Weaver was commanded by Aled’s iPad to: “Read the standing orders, read them and understand them!”
Weaver said: “Despite everyone and their cat and dog saying it should be local councils that are able to determine how they hold meetings, that legislation has lapsed and the impact is quite profound.
“Because of the demographics of many of our parish councils, we have a lot of parish councillors still very reluctant to attend. And should we even be encouraging attendance?”
She said the lack of virtual meetings was a blow to the government’s “levelling up” agenda, making democratic participation more difficult for those with caring responsibilities and disabilities. A recent Local Government Association (LGA) survey of councils, conducted before the emergence of Omicron, found that 72% had recorded a drop in councillor attendance at statutory council meetings and 73% had reported a fall in public attendance.
The LGA has called on the government to urgently bring forward emergency legislation, saying the gathering of up to 200 people in one room is an “unnecessary public health risk”.
James Jamieson, the chair of the LGA, said emergency legislation would help curb the spread of the virus and make sure “councils can continue to make democratic decisions, even during times of emergency”.
A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said it was considering a call for evidence on the matter, which closed on 17 June, and would be responding shortly.
Reflecting on the year that made her a particularly British type of hero, Weaver said that while she relished being given the “opportunity on a plate” to spread the word about the importance of local government, the line between Jackie the local government champion and Jackie Weaver the viral star had become blurred in recent months.
“I can’t say it annoys me, that just would be ungrateful,” she said. “But at the same time, it costs.”
But with the no-nonsense good humour that saw her booting several Handforth parish councillors out of the meeting during the infamous fracas – two have since stepped down – she brushed off any suggestion she was indulging in a “pity party”, expressing her dislike of moaners and admiration for people who get stuck in.
“People feel like the only way you effect change is from the top, and I don’t subscribe to that at all,” she said. “I think often we end up doing nothing, because we can’t change the world.”
As for her own future, after writing a book, You Do Have the Authority Here, based on her own wisdom, she “doesn’t have a plan as such” for this year beyond calmly carrying out her day job and continuing to bang the drum for local government.
“I hope that every time we’re coming up to elections, there is something that helps us capture ordinary people’s imaginations and makes them feel that they actually can make a difference,” she said. “For me, that is always the most important thing.”