A COUNCIL is set to become among the region’s first to relaunch the democratic process by holding ‘virtual meetings’ after emergency coronavirus measures were introduced.

Hambleton District Council in North Yorkshire will hold a meeting by conference call next week.

The meeting follows the Government passing emergency legislation on Saturday which enables councils to hold meetings remotely, such as by video calls while social distancing measures are in place.

While the chief executives of local authorities have been given delegated powers during coronavirus lockdown, the latest legislation means key committees like cabinets and planning committees can hold virtual meetings.

Before Saturday, it was mandatory for council committees to meet in a room, and it is understood the legislation will only be in place for as long as needed during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Most councils have confirmed they are now in the process of setting up systems which will allow members to take part in decision-making meetings.

Helen Lynch, head of legal and democratic services at Durham County Council, said: “We are considering the practical implications and the options available to the council to hold remote meetings.”

North Yorkshire County Council is holding some meetings between members and officers, but is examining ways of allowing public access, which is viewed as crucial for accountability and transparency.

In a report to the Hambleton council meeting, its chief executive Justin Ives states while remote participation is permitted by the regulations, “there are still technical challenges to overcome to make remote meetings work and to make it practical for all members to use”.

He said a remote decision taken by the planning committee could be open to challenge if it came to light that, as a result of a problem with the technology, not all members who voted had followed the full debate at the meeting, thus resulting in a failure to consider all material planning considerations.

Recommendations to meeting include formally granting the chief executive power to make decisions that would normally be made by elected councillors, in consultation with the members such as the leader of the council or planning committee chairman “as far as emergency situations allow”.

The report states: “In order for the council to be flexible enough to make decisions quickly to support the provision of public services, therefore, it is proposed in emergency situations to delegate council and committee functions to the chief executive, and if the chief executive is unavailable to the deputy chief executive.

“These provisions will allow proper decision making to continue, provide public accountability through appropriate member consultation and, just as important, allow the council to react to changing circumstances throughout this emergency, whilst complying as far as possible with Government guidance on self-isolation and household isolation.”