Has it taken too long for Leighton-Linslade Town Council to hold online meetings?

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now
Leighton-Linslade Town Council meetings will resume on Monday (July 6), but some councillors have expressed concern at the amount of time it has taken for them to be set up online.

At Full Council on March 20 it was decided to cancel all meetings scheduled until June 30, unless government restrictions were lifted prior to that date.

However, the Liberal Democrats, including leader Russ Goodchild, as well as independent councillor Victoria Harvey, have expressed concern that virtual meetings have not yet been held via Microsoft Teams, given that Dunstable Town Council’s first one was held on May 12, and Central Bedfordshire Council began webcasting on April 28.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In particular, councillors claimed that decisions which affected a large number of residents - such as the pedestrianisation of the high street and the reopening of the market - should have been discussed via Microsoft Teams to allow for “fuller debate” and public access.

Credit: Jane Russell.Credit: Jane Russell.
Credit: Jane Russell.

Councillor Russ Goodchild, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, told the LBO: “It’s a difficult one, because we’d agreed as a council way back in March that we needn’t have meetings until the end of June.

“Any decisions could be made via other means - telephone or emails. However, there were plenty of occasions when we could have had virtual meetings to discuss the market and the pedestrianisation of the high street. The process [using email] is not the same as having a full blown discussion.

“We’ve had reports from officers and have had to make quick decisions on email basis.”  

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

During the pandemic, a number of delegated decisions have been made by the town clerk (proper officer) in consultation with a number of councillors equal to or greater than the quorum of the relevant committee/body (normally three or four for committees and seven for Council).

On April 23, it was agreed to endorse that decision-making arrangements, as  agreed by Council on March 20, continued until further review on June 29.

However, Cllr Harvey noted that both she and the Liberal Democrats have expressed their frustrations about the lack of online meetings, while concerns about the “lack of transparency” in democratic decision-making were also expressed in a cross-party letter printed in the LBO,  signed by Cllrs Goodchild, Harvey, Owen, Morris, Perham, Gray and Snelling.

Indeed, in the minutes for the March 20 meeting, it was stated that: “‘Virtual’ meetings will be given consideration if the government enables this and the appropriate technology can be put in place.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Cllr Victoria Harvey, claimed: “The cross party  letter from Cllrs  to the LBO was  not an attack on the great  work  done by both  volunteers and   agencies who formed the Covid 19 emergency task force but  was about the need to bring back  democratic decision making especially  over the market;   only one short phrase in the long letter expressed frustration that the COVID 19 emergency task force   was being used  as an excuse not to have democratic  meetings.

“As elected councillors we should  have been  be discussing  in a public forum – a Teams meeting that the public can join and watch - the plans for town centre and  the response to COVID, especially as the  Community  Action Bedfordshire still have many volunteers  whose  generous offers of help  for the community have not been taken up.

“There is obviously a real need to invest in IT in the town council.”

Liberal Democrat Cllr Steve Owen added: “I think we’ve been pretty slow compared with surrounding councils and I’m not really sure why. Right at the start of the lockdown we all downloaded the Teams app and in the last 15 weeks there have been some important issues that should have been discussed [rather than via email exhange] as they affect a large number of people in the town.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“In a way we have been letting the townspeople down but it’s not for a lack of trying.

“I’ve explained that with the weather this summer we could assemble in Parson’s Close Recreation Ground and stand two metres apart from one another.

“When people [residents] have raised issues with me they have been surprised that I have not been in possession of the full facts and I have had to explain that we have not been holding meetings.”

The three councillors also wished to stress that they felt the town council officers had been working extremely hard during the pandemic, juggling the needs of their own families with council matters.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Speaking about the importance of allowing the public to take part in meetings, Cllr Harvey added: “There is a real need for the town council to be seen fighting for and representing the community.”

The councillors also claimed that they had not been given any answer about why Microsoft Teams had not been set up earlier during the pandemic.

In response, Cllr Steve Jones, Conservative council leader, said: “At the start of the pandemic crisis and with lockdown imminent, the Town Council held an extraordinary meeting at which emergency measures were agreed unanimously by all present. This included a mechanism for decision making in the short term – a necessary step until such time as Government amended legislation to permit remote (digital) meetings to be held by local councils.

“Regulations permitting remote meetings came into force on 4 April and a report was circulated to all Council members on 23 April. By majority decision, it was agreed to continue with existing decision making arrangements until such time as the necessary background work could be done to facilitate remote meetings.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“A further report was issued to all Council members on 9 June and was again agreed by majority. This will see remote meetings commencing on Monday, 6 July and will enable all Members of the Council as well as the press and the public to join meetings via internet or telephone.

“One additional Council meeting has been scheduled to replace that which did not take place in June. Beyond that, the Council will resume its normal scheduled Calendar of Meetings

“As democratically elected representatives of the local community, Members have and continue to be involved in making decisions on behalf of the communities they represent. In the past three months, the majority of decisions which elected Members have made have been directly related to the pandemic – firstly the closing of facilities and latterly the gradual re-opening of facilities in accordance with Government guidelines.

“All decisions made by the Standing Committees and Council during this period can be found by visiting the Town Council’s website. Unfortunately, Council activities and projects which had been scheduled for 2020-21 have necessarily had to be put on hold whilst Town Council staff deal with the operational demands caused by the pandemic.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“It remains that as elected representatives of the local community, Members are there to serve. Issues that a resident has should be taken up with their elected representatives in the usual way. All decisions continue to be made by the elected Members only. At no time has the Town Clerk made a decision outside of delegated powers conferred on the post.

“The pandemic has forced everyone to have to work in a new and different way and this is likely to continue for some time to come. Public health and safety must be at the forefront of all decisions and operations.

“The Town Council is fortunate in that it had decided previously that all Councillors should use official Town Council email addresses during their work.

“This meant that all Councillors had existing O365 accounts before the pandemic started and have therefore been able to access emails from any internet enabled device throughout the lockdown period. The Council will be using Microsoft Teams as its platform for remote meetings and there is no additional cost implication to this.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“As a small parish council in the heart of the community – with a building open to the public throughout the week – the need to work remotely has not been something which has ever previously been necessary. The challenge for staff and councillors has been significant. As a small staff group of 40 (only half office based), the council sadly lacks the resources available to large local authorities.

“It has taken some time to do the necessary work to prepare everyone for remote meetings. This has included reviewing Standing Orders for temporary amendments, creating a Remote meeting protocol and creating guidance notes for the public, as well as providing both 1-1- and group training sessions for everyone involved.

“The Council issues a weekly internal newsletter to both staff and councillors and in 8 of the past 12 newsletters, the subject to remote meetings and Microsoft Teams has been included. Everyone has also had access to user guidelines and online training.

“With only a week to go, the Council is confident that its Members and officers are now ready to begin remote meetings and we look forward to this. Any members of the press or public wishing to attend a meeting are invited to view the guidance on our website and to contact us in advance for meeting joining details.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“The community is fortunate in having many public spirited individuals keen to volunteer. Indeed, it was well-meaning residents who spearheaded the community response to the pandemic in the setting up of the Leighton-Linslade Helping Hands. This in turn developed into the Covid-19 Task Force who lead the communities response to the crisis. The Task Force is in contact with Community Action Bedfordshire and through them is sourcing volunteer help as and when needed.

“The past three months have been hugely stressful for all with saving and maintaining lives becoming a Town Council priority for the first two months at least. Since then, the focus has been in support of local business as we try and return to a semblance of normality.

“Despite the challenges, the realisation that virtual meetings will start shortly is positive news.”