What is democracy supposed to be?

EDDC has taken, what in Owl’s opinion is a retrograde step, by agreeing to a motion inspired by the Tory group to return to physical meetings immediately.

The issue is not entirely straightforward as was reflected in the subsequent vote.

By not amending fifty-year-old legislation the virtual meetings held during lockdown are not considered “legal”. They are deemed to be only “consultative”, resulting in councillors not making “decisions” but only “recommendations” for officers to act upon. These temporary arrangements have had to be extended, then extended again, though in practice they worked very well especially in increasing public engagement.

So, our Tory friends (seeking a distraction maybe), argued virtual council meetings couldn’t be properly “democratic”. Council Officers are working to introduce a hybrid system, and will make proposals in December, but the Tories can’t wait.

Yes, physical meetings for certain purposes and occasions are important and will be occasionally necessary but virtual meetings have overwhelming advantages in terms of transparency and public engagement. They also make being a councillor accessible to a much wider section of the community eg those with family commitments or those with mobility problems.

How are you meant to get to Blackdown House by public transport these days?

To stop all virtual meetings before hearing about what hybrid meetings might offer is to throw out the baby with the bath water.

At heart, this decision is discriminatory. Hopefully, more sensible decisions will be made when the subject is revisited.

Making more use of virtual meetings in all walks of life is essential if we are to increase productivity and economic growth, whilst cutting our carbon footprint. Why are Tories so set against the idea?

Here is what Green Cllr Olly Davey, Exmouth, has written in the Exmouth Journal:

WHILE I would have thought that our MP. Simon Jupp, might have had other things on his mind than attacking EDDC over its decision to continue with virtual meetings, I suppose we must expect such attacks to continue as we approach Council elections next May.

A week after his column was printed, a virtual meeting of Full Council rejected advice from the Monitoring Officer to continue with virtual meetings for a few more months until a reliable hybrid system could be adopted, and voted instead to resume in-person meetings for all committees with statutory powers, so that delegation of decisions to relevant officers would no longer be required. This was done on the basis that delegation was “undemocratic”, and it was even suggested that councillors were not doing the job they were elected to do, which even a casual glance at any of the recorded meetings will show is not the case. The Council has continued to function in almost exactly the same way

Had the Government amended the 1972 Local Government Act, as it had the opportunity to do when the emergency legislation enabling virtual meetings came to an end in May 2021, delegation to officers would not have been necessary. A law drafted 50 years ago, not surprisingly, did not anticipate the advances in technology that we now benefit from. This was despite lobbying by the Local Government Association and many councils who could see the savings in carbon emissions, officer and councillor time, increased public access, and greater transparency of decision making. We might not all have wanted to continue with virtual meetings, but it would have been good to have had the choice.

So now that “democracy” has been restored, what does this mean? Well, firstly, if you enjoyed watching Council and committee meetings being live streamed on YouTube, you now will only be able to see certain committees, while the heavy hitters like Planning and Cabinet will no longer be available, except in audio (possibly). If you want to attend meetings to protest about or support certain proposals or just to observe, you will have to come to Blackdown House. That doesn’t sound much like “democracy” to me.

For a number of the committees of which I am a member, I shall have a 35 mile round trip each time I attend. As I did before. I shall attempt to carshare with other Exmouth members, but as a Green Councillor who tries to minimise his car usage, it’s not a good outcome. If I want to drop into a Cabinet meeting because there’s an item of interest to me, I shall have to travel to Blackdown House.

I am coming round to a view that democracy is about choice – who to be governed by, what sort of society I want to live in, how I wish to live. The inability to hold legally valid virtual Council meetings may not seem very important, but it’s yet another way in which my freedom, that of the Council on which I serve, and of the general public to be able to scrutinise how we operate, has been eroded. Perhaps I can count on the support of our MP to amend the 1972 Act to enable virtual meetings but I’m not holding my breath.