County council suspends democratic process in face of coronavirus outbreak

County Hall in Northallerton.

North Yorkshire County Council has suspended the traditional democratic process of meetings with elected members and handed decision-making powers to its chief officer due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The authority, which is the region’s largest employer with a workforce exceeding 17,000 people, ranging from legal and teaching staff to social workers and engineers, have been told to work from home wherever possible.

All decisions on services in England’s largest county ranging from social care and roads to schools and trading standards for the 604,900 population the council serves will be made for the first time in its history by its chief executive officer, Richard Flinton.

The authority’s leader, Councillor Carl Les, said the authority was following the latest government guidance to avoid all unnecessary contact, but Mr Flinton would consult over decisions with senior council managers and the authority’s executive members.

Cllr Les said dealing with the threat of coronavirus was now paramount for the authority and the authority’s senior managers were concentrating on developing action plans to maintain key services during the outbreak.

The council has today also agreed to inject £1m from its reserves into its Local Assistance Fund to help residents experiencing hardship due to the difficult circumstances. The council said it would work with food banks and charities to distribute the funds.

The authority’s executive members also agreed that the council should dedicate as much resources as needed to helping supporting community groups that have sprung up recently to help elderly and vulnerable people who are isolating themselves and charities involved in helping during the outbreak.

Cllr Les said: “It is all about dealing with the virus. There is an expectation that it is going to get worse before it is over.”

He said the authority would consider redeploying staff from non-essential services to assist with outbreak-related work.

Cllr Les said: “It is important that we have a number of staff who are in offices to do what they need to. We have a very strong team of senior officers and they are very well supported by a lot of very good managers and capable staff.”

It is understood the council’s democratic process of decision-making could resume once the government has passed legislation to suspend the legal need for a certain number of councillors to be present in a room for votes to be valid.

Ministers have told councillors that they hope to pass legislation in the coming days to enable council meetings to be held using methods such as video conferencing systems.

All meetings of the authority have been called off with the exception of a meeting of executive members next Tuesday, which will consider a plan for how the council will operate in the coming months.