Holding meetings, without meeting

Since before the government’s directives about social distancing, washing our hands for twenty seconds and staying at home were introduced, many of us were already cautious.

Routine meetings, like a trip to the pub, were already at an end. I guess many, like me, have resorted to FaceTime, Skype or Zoom for discussion with family and friends. Indeed, my weekly virtual trip to “The Isolation Arms” via Zoom with chums for a drink has been a welcome opportunity to have a beer and a chat.

My Wednesday evening haunt

My Sunday morning breakfast table conversation with my siblings is fast becoming a routine that may outlive the lifting of restrictions in due course.

Meeting from the kitchen

In the wider world, many businesses are closed down at present, and others are adapting fast to new way ways to meet their customers’ needs.

Central Government is subject to the same restrictions as the rest of us and the Parliamentary Digital Service is working hard to ensure that MPs and the Lords can continue with their business once Parliament resumes on 21st April.

In Local Government, urgent business has to continue, and parish and town councils will be considering ways in which they can meet and take decisions following emergency legislation and regulations made by the Secretary of State. Some already have meetings scheduled, having presumably successfully tested the video and audio links. This is a new way way of working for most of us.

Principal Authorities, such as Shropshire Council, are also working hard to ensure that urgent business can take place – or is formally shelved.

The Council’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) was due to be held on 14 May 2020.  Now, any appointments, such as the election of Chairman and Speaker and Constitution of Committees and the Allocation of Seats to Political Groups will continue until the next AGM in 2021 – or earlier if the Council decides thus.

Shropshire Council’s Cabinet meeting will meet remotely on 29 April 2020. Many will be watching closely to see how the technology serves us. The councillors who normally sit around the meeting table and the officers will be able to see and hear each other and also to be heard.  The intention is for all normal aspects of the meeting, including public questions, to be as close to normal as is possible. The press and public will be able to listen live to the meeting. It will be interesting to see how this will be done, and how it will be publicised.

Shropshire Council’s Cabinet meeting in session before the lockdown – no social distancing required

The other pressing meetings are planning committees. The Northern Planning Committee takes place on 28th April.  The Council has the ambition that normal procedures should be followed, as amended by the Secretary of State’s  emergency legislation. I will be watching this keenly because, as Vice-Chairman of the Southern Planning Committee, we’ll be on next!

Finally – the six-month rule. Shropshire Councillors who fail to attend an official meeting for six months or more automatically cease to be Members of the Authority. With the disruption we’re experiencing at present, many would fall into that category, joining the handful of shyster councillors who, from time to time, grace the pages of Private Eye for claiming, for instance, that they can represent their residents from afar. Happily, Shropshire Councillors have tended not to fall into this shameful category, and to avoid them being unfairly tarred with the same brush, a special virtual Council meeting is to be held extending the term of office of any Councillor who would otherwise fall foul of the six month rule and cease to be a Councillor. This recommendation, if passed, will allow Councillors to get on with the vital work of representing their residents in these extraordinary circumstances.

Turning to our local councils, Easthope, Shipton & Stanton Long Parish Council have said that they will probably not meet until July 2020, at the earliest. Barrow Parish Council will almost certainly follow the same pattern. There is no word from Much Wenlock Town Council, or Broseley Town Council, about when and how they will both meet. Watch this (virtual) space!