Posted: 06.04.21 at 13:18 by Daniel Mumby - Local Democracy Reporter
Council meetings in Somerset will continue to be streamed live over the internet even after the current coronavirus restrictions end.
Somerset County Council and the four district councils have been conducting their business via virtual meetings since the first national lockdown was implemented in late-March 2020 at the start of the pandemic.
The government revealed in a letter to civic leaders on March 25 that councillors and officers will have to begin attending public meetings in person again from May 7 – despite Boris Johnson’s roadmap banning large indoor gatherings until May 17 at the earliest.
But all five councils have confirmed that they will continue the live-streaming or webcasting arrangements which are currently in place – meaning the public and press will still be able to attend meetings without having to risk attending in person.
Somerset County Council and Sedgemoor District Council have used Microsoft Teams for the majority of their meetings since the coronavirus hit – with the latter uploading recordings to its official YouTube channel after the broadcast has concluded.
A county spokesman said: “Virtual council meetings have allowed us to safely continue vital business throughout the pandemic.
"It has also enabled greater participation from residents by allowing many more people to attend council meetings.
“We are currently finalising plans to be able to hold meetings with councillors safely and looking at the options to ensure participants can attend virtually.”
A Sedgemoor spokesman said: “We are disappointed and we will continue, with the rest of the sector, to lobby for changes that would allow us to conduct safe meetings and retain the benefits of remote meetings – most importantly, holding them in a Covid-safe manner.
“We shall be holding our AGM remotely before May 6 and will be looking at how best to conduct face-to-face meetings in as safe a way as we possibly can to mitigate the increased risk.
“Depending on the government rules in place at any one time, we may have to look at holding large meetings somewhere other than Bridgwater House, as our chamber may not be suitable for socially distancing the number of attendees.”
Mendip District Council and Somerset West & Taunton Council (SWAT) both webcast their meetings through their official website, with past meetings being archived online.
A Mendip spokesman said: “We are currently upgrading audio visual systems in our council chamber to facilitate the continuation of live streaming meetings and/or a hybrid solution.
“We are continuing to explore ways to improve access and ensure our meetings are both Covid-safe for those that need to be physically present, and are compliant with the government’s roadmap restrictions as we ease out of lockdown.
“We intend to continue to live-stream our public meetings. They have proved extremely popular with our members, staff and the public. They have offered increased flexibility, improved participation – and democracy.
“They have saved on travel costs and carbon emissions and so support Mendip’s corporate climate and ecological emergency goals.”
A SWAT spokesman said: “We will be feeding into the Local Government Association evidence base, which will be used in the legal action being brought by the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO), Lawyers in Local Government and Hertfordshire County Council.
“As it is not possible to safely hold full council meetings in the chamber at Deane House, we are moving our AGM to April 27, so that it is held before the virtual meetings regulations end.
“We had always planned to live-stream meetings so this will continue irrespective of the regulations that are in place.”
South Somerset District Council currently holds meetings via Zoom and streams the Zoom meeting live over YouTube.
Despite some early teething problems – which saw adult content shared during an area south committee meeting – the council has said it will continue with its current system.
A spokesman said: “Virtual council meetings have not only allowed us to continue vital business in a Covid-safe way, but have been good for democracy enabling much greater participation from residents and allowing many more people to attend council meetings than ever was possible with in person meetings.
“We are currently finalising plans to be able to hold meetings with councillors in a Covid-safe way.
"As part of this we are looking at the options to ensure participants can attend virtually and residents can still view meetings online.”