Councillors stay away from council chamber

Richmondshire's councillors. Photo: Stuart Minting.

Richmondshire councillors have stayed away from the council chamber after being told they can no-longer hold meetings online.

A sharp divide has opened up over whether North Yorkshire councils should be holding face-to-face meetings amid surging numbers of Covid infections.

As North Yorkshire’s top tier authority agreed to continue measures to enable it to hold all its meetings online, five out of the county’s seven district and borough councils said they would stage all their meetings in council chambers.

Many local authorities have expressed frustration after the government declined to extend the permission it gave during lockdown for decision-making council meetings to be held online, saying meetings should be held in person with appropriate social distancing measures.

However, critics have accused the government of hypocrisy, highlighting how relatively empty the House of Commons continues to be during debates as MPs are allowed to join parliamentary discussions online.

Earlier this year a number of councils in the region, including North Yorkshire and Richmondshire, moved to side-step the rules by empowering senior officers to authorise or decline councillors’ recommendations.

A full meeting of the county council, which was held online, saw Richard Flinton, the authority’s chief executive agree to continue with the extra responsibility whilst the circumstances and transmission rates were uncertain.

The authority’s leader Councillor Carl Les said councillors had agreed a “pragmatic approach to meetings” as protecting staff and elected members from infection was of paramount importance and the meetings policy would be reviewed after the summer.

Councillor Les said: “We have a system of governance, which although not perfect, we know it works and has worked well throughout the pandemic.

“It is open to public scrutiny, safe for both members and staff who may not have been fully inoculated, and removes the risk of members having contacts that would mean we have to self isolate.”

Opposition leader Councillor Stuart Parsons endorsed the approach, as did Upper Dales councillor Yvonne Peacock, who told the meeting how hours earlier she had not attended a full meeting of Richmondshire District Council for the second time in 22 years as it was held in the council chamber.

She said: “It’s not just that you don’t want to get Covid yourself or see anybody get infected, the isolation afterwards can cause a huge problem in  your businesses.”

Meanwhile, Richmondshire District Councillor Leslie Rowe says he has made a formal complaint to the authority following the full council meeting on Tuesday after he attempted to discuss why almost half the councillors stayed away.

He said: “Nearly half of the district council felt unable to attend the full council meeting on Tuesday evening, but when I attempted to discuss the reasons for this, I was immediately shouted down by the chair Cllr World.

“It was the elephant in the room that clearly the Chairman didn’t want discussed. Why is not clear.”

He added: “Democracy is not served by nearly half the elected council being absent. Neither is it served by a biased chair, who shouts a councillor down if he or she makes a statement of which the chairman doesn’t approve.”

Differences between other councils’ approaches are stark.

Scarborough council is continuing with online meetings, except for Friday’s full council which will be held at the Scarborough’s largest venue, Scarborough Spa, to enable social distancing.

Meanwhile Hambleton is scheduled to hold its full authority meeting on Tuesday in its chambers, with members separated by perspex dividers.

Richmondshire’s meeting heard several of the authority’s staff were being given excellence awards for work to stop the spread of Covid and that the seven-day infection rate in Richmondshire had risen to 629 per 100,000 people.