Councillors urge Richmondshire District Council to start holding virtual meetings

Richmondshire District Council's offices at Mercury House.

Richmondshire District Council, which has yet to announce when it plans to relaunch meetings with elected members, is facing calls to “get the democratic process started again”.

The Green Party and Independent group on Richmondshire District Council has questioned why no date has been set to the authority’s postponed annual meeting while numerous other local authorities, ranging from Colburn Town Council to the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, had held virtual meetings.

The call comes just days after Richmondshire District Council issued a statement that it was testing an operating system for remote meetings and training councillors on its use, with a view to going live with virtual meetings in June.

A council spokeswoman said: “The full council meeting planned for May will be postponed and take place at a later date – hopefully in June.”

It has called on the council to issue an immediate date for the annual meeting, alongside a timetable for all other council meetings, and in particular the climate change group as it had fallen “way behind target dates”.

The group’s leader, Leslie Rowe, highlighted how councils were given the power to hold public meetings virtually on April 4 and that both the House of Lords and House of Commons had been holding meetings since April 21.

He said: “It is nearly two months since the Government passed emergency legislation to allow councils to hold their meetings online, but Richmondshire have still not run a full meeting. It’s not rocket science; children and old people alike find it easy to use.

“There is a clear democratic deficit in the running of the council at the moment.”

Green councillor Kevin Foster said he was very disappointed the council had “not even started the process” for online meetings.

He said: “I find it odd that Colburn Town Council have had two meetings via Zoom and the leader of Richmondshire District Council Councillor Angie Dale was voted Mayor of Colburn at a Zoom online meeting on Monday, yet the district council have not held a meeting.”

In response, council leader, Councillor Angie Dale, said: “Since March the way Richmondshire District Council operates has been completely transformed with most staff now working from home safely and all our frontline services maintained. That has involved a huge shift in our IT operations and for that I thank the officers involved.

“As far as the democractic process goes we are in the same position as councils across the country in relying on emergency powers to make decisions until member decision making can be re-established.

“We intend to get back to holding member meetings but only once we can be sure that everyone is trained in the system we will use – and more importantly that the technology is safe and secure.

“We are aware that some authorities have come unstuck with security issues when they have held virtual meetings and we do not want to be in that position.

“Testing and training is currently underway with a view to restarting meetings next month – and there will be an annual meeting even though regulations have removed the need to do so for this civic year.”

The council’s chairman, Councillor Stuart Parsons, who leads meetings of the full authority, said everybody at the council wanted to see the democratic process starting as soon as possible.

He added: “The officers are working actively towards holding virtual meetings, but we must not forget their principle duty is to victims of Covid 19.

“Most members of the council and the public would be very disappointed if that council did not prioritise that.”