Call for face-to-face council meetings to start up soon

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A return to face-to-face meetings for planning and licensing matters is needed as soon as possible, according to councillors in Argyll and Bute.

Concerns were aired at a meeting of the Argyll and Bute Council on Thursday September 24 about such hearings taking place without being able to see the people involved.

But plans to continue virtual meetings of all the council’s committees until at least April 2021 were voted through by councillors at the meeting.

All council and committee meetings held since strict lockdown limits were imposed across the UK on March 23 have taken place on the Skype meeting platform, with participants using only audio links, not video technology.

A council director admitted that the arrangement was ‘nowhere near’ what would be ideal, but that even once the Covid-19 pandemic was clear, a return to full operations was unlikely.

Councillor Jean Moffat said: ‘I am uncomfortable with doing the licence court on a virtual basis, because we either grant or take away somebody’s livelihood.

‘They have legal representation usually, we have the licensing standards officer and police and there are a number of other people concerned.

‘The council chamber being the size that it is, I personally want to see the licensing court being continued as an actual meeting rather than a virtual one. Some people simply are not comfortable with the phone link.’

However, Councillor Andrew Vennard, who is a practising solicitor, responded: ‘The court system are using virtual meetings. This is becoming the norm for judicial proceedings and with the nature of licensing it can be done.

‘It is a legal process and this is how other legal processes are being run.’

Councillor David Kinniburgh, who chairs the council’s planning, protective services and licensing committee, and the area’s licensing board, said: ‘I do share the concerns of Councillor Moffat and others when it comes to civic government hearings and licensing matters.

‘But what we have to bear in mind is that when it comes to these, the applicant has a choice of whether to have a written representation or in person. That is down to them.

‘That is where the difficulty arises, and we are following the guidance of the Scottish Government.’

Council executive director Douglas Hendry then said: ‘I have every sympathy with every comment that is being raised. It is an essential feature of local democracy that actions of councillors, when they are deliberating, should be as widely available and open to the public as possible.

‘What we have now is not anywhere near that. Against that background, I would say that even when we get on a more permanent basis to the other side of Covid-19 we will not, in my view, see a return to previous operations in their entirety.

‘So I believe we will be looking at long-term arrangements for the future, holding meetings and allowing greater virtual attendance.’

Councillor George Freeman said: “At other meetings I have highlighted the problems of having telephone conversations. We cannot see the whites of people’s eyes, cannot read their body language and cannot assess whether they are being truthful or otherwise.

“Community councils are holding video meetings with as many people as possible taking part, no problem. I find it amazing that the council system is not up to it.”

But Councillor Kinniburgh replied: “I go back to what I said originally. I appreciate what Councillor Freeman says – in civic government hearings, it would be good to see the whites of people’s eyes.

‘But we are following Government guidance and it is up to the individual appearing how they are represented.’

And Councillor Graham Hardie spoke up for the virtual arrangements, saying: ‘I find using video conferencing and audio quite good, and I have also noticed that attendance at meetings is better than at face to face ones.

‘Most, if not all, of the councillors are there like they should be, which is great, and if you have a meeting you would usually go to in Glasgow, you can also get to a council one in the afternoon. There is a lot to be said for using it in the future.’