Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council has today (Friday) announced that a Special Council meeting will take place using solely remote technology, in a historic first for local government in Northern Ireland.
The meeting will be held on Thursday 14 May.
The announcement came after the Department for Communities confirmed that The Local Government (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of District Council Meetings) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 Regulations, which lawfully enables remote meetings to take place will come into effect today Friday 1 May 2020.
Meetings of committees and council have been suspended since the government’s stay at home instructions were introduced in March.
This was because of laws which said meetings at which decisions are made, and votes taken, had to happen face to face with elected members all at the same location.
However, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the governments change to legislation will now allow remote meetings to take place.
Lord Mayor of Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon, Councillor Mealla Campbell announced the decision stating: “Our councillors have been keen to get back to meetings but I believed it was important that the proper framework was in place to allow remote meetings.
Calling a meeting in the absence of regulations may have adversely affected the council and any arising decisions.
“Furthermore, meeting during a period where we had a tension between Local Government regulations and Emergency Regulations would have created difficulties around public access and access for members and staff who may be shielding or self-isolating.
“Therefore on balancing all of those issues and others I made the decision to wait and call a remote meeting when the regulations were issued.
“Earlier this week I had written to the Minister for Communities to see what progress had been made in regard to the new regulations and yesterday confirmation was received by our Chief Executive that these would be in place from 1 May.
“Consequently, I have now set a meeting date for 14 May which allows staff and members time to get accustomed to the new platform for council meetings. Like many others we too have had to adapt and find new ways of working in response to the crisis and, while it will be challenging, I am very much looking forward to chairing a full council meeting remotely.”
The council’s ICT team are currently in the process of testing the IT infrastructure to enable the meeting to take place, with necessary training of members and staff to be implemented, practice meetings to be held and internet connectivity to be tested.
The council meeting will go ahead using a software platform and will be combined with a basic live stream, so the meeting can be followed on-line. It is envisaged the agenda items and livestreaming link will be published on the council’s website in advance of the meeting.
The DUP have welcomed the announcement.
A party spokesperson said: “At the most critical time in generations Local Government is a key agency in the response to Covid-19 and will be vital to the recovery.
“Councillors have a duty to govern our Borough and we want to get back around the table to ensure we are working in the best interests of our ratepayers.
“We know that this pandemic will create significant challenges for the Borough and for the Council as we emerge from it, so it is imperative that elected representatives drive that agenda on behalf of those who elected them.
“The Council is a democratic institution but in recent weeks it has morphed into a bureaucratic body which is a regrettable situation and unfortunately has been aided and abetted by other political parties.
“The announcement of amendments to legislation that will now permit remote meetings is a welcome development however, as an essential service we are still of the view that members should be physically present in meetings where possible.
“We understand there are concerns regarding health and safety but we know this can be done safely.
“As a Council we allow our bin collections to take place with three staff in the lorry with no social distancing. We hope that the Council are not creating a two tier health and safety policy depending on where you work in the organisation.”