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Hybrid Council meetings u-turn broadly welcomed but scepticism remains

Craigavon Council Chamber

A move by Communities Minister, Gordon Lyons, to introduce legislation enshrining the principle of flexibility around council meetings – giving local authorities the freedom to opt for in-person, remote or hybrid meetings – has been broadly welcomed by ABC councillors.

And while some elected representatives view remote attendance at meetings as being on a par with physical attendance, others see it as a ‘better than nothing’ option.

The matter was discussed at a Governance, Resources & Strategy Committee meeting of Armagh City, Banbridge & Craigavon (ABC) Borough Council on March 13.

Correspondence received from the Department for Communities outlined the rationale behind the new legislation as follows: “Minister Lyons is committed to giving councils the flexibility to hold meetings by remote / hybrid means, and will be bringing forward regulations, as soon as possible, using the powers in the Local Government (Meetings and Performance) Act (NI) 2021.

“The Minister considers this to be more appropriate than continuing to use powers under the Coronavirus Act 2020, which was intended as emergency legislation, and will ensure that councils will have powers for remote / hybrid meetings but based upon more regularised legislation.”

Councillor Peter Lavery (Alliance, Lurgan DEA) commented: “I was going to propose that we respond positively about the need to bring in hybrid meetings.”

Referring to correspondence from the Minister received in early March, in which local authorities were asked to revert to in-person meetings only – Coronavirus laws on remote/hybrid meetings having come to an end on March 6 – the Alliance representative said he was relieved to hear that the minister was now working on introducing permanent legislation giving local authorities flexibility when it comes to council attendance.

Cllr Lavery said: “I know when the first letter came round on March 1, it took a lot of us by surprise.

“Was it two or three working days’ notice? To find childcare or care arrangement for some members was very difficult.

“The Department for Communities (DfC) need to act pretty urgently to get that legislation in place.”

Committee chair, Councillor Liam Mackle (Sinn Féin, Lurgan DEA) remarked: “Yes indeed, a very welcome letter from the Department.”

Alderman Mark Baxter (DUP, Lagan River) was more torn on the issue: “I suppose it depends on what way you look at it.

“There’s a wide range of views, even within parties. But if you looked at the comments on Armagh I last week, you would say it’s not too positive in the public eye.

“The public were more than delighted that councillors were actually getting back to work. Maybe people just don’t understand how the hybrid meetings work, and how people can work from home and all that, but I think it’s about setting an example.

“I certainly have no issue with hybrid meetings in certain circumstances where people are sick and all that type of thing.

“And we’ve seen with the technology issues – and that’s what my issue is – when you’ve members coming in 50% of the time you can’t even hear them, their internet connection is bad, you go to have a vote you nearly have to ring them to try and get somebody to vote.

“This voting system that was spent tens of thousands of pounds on in this chamber is now obsolete.

“Everything has its pros and cons, so while some members might think it’s positive there will be members right across Northern Ireland who think it’s a negative step.

“On a personal level, I think if you’re paid to do a job you should be in your seat doing your job, but I’ve used the hybrid meeting in the past when I’ve been sick and when things have happened.

“I’m able to come in for a vote and whatever, so there’s pros and cons to all these things.

“But I think just to have a blanket thing to say that it’s very positive, I don’t think it is, because the public certainly don’t, if you look at Armagh I and the Lurgan Mail and the comments on there.

“They would rather see councillors here in the chamber doing the job that they’re paid to do.”

Councillor Mackle remarked: “To be fair, there has been a good turnout of members at meetings recently – in this term anyway – so that’s all positive.”

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