North Yorkshire County Council is to consider making elected representatives return to face-to-face meetings, despite online meetings leading to councillors claiming 131,338 miles fewer miles a year in expenses.
The authority is among a small number of local authorities which is continuing to hold its public decision-making meetings and debates online following the easing of pandemic restrictions, with its chief executive using emergency powers to approve councillors’ recommendations.
With the regulations which allowed virtual committee meetings to make decisions is no longer in force, the council’s leadership has repeatedly stated it wants flexibility to hold some meetings online and others in person.
However, the government has given no indication whether it would support fresh legislation to enable local authorities to decide how they hold their meetings.
A meeting of the authority’s executive on Tuesday will hear 141 meetings of the council’s committees were staged online and broadcast to the public in the 15 months to August.
While few non-committee members attended the vast majority of the council’s meetings before the pandemic, each online meeting has attracted an average of 60 views on the authority’s Youtube channel.
The council has calculated the pandemic measure led to 131,338 miles less mileage being claimed by councillors, saving £55,221, and an estimated 668 fewer working days being spent travelling to meetings.
The authority, which is working towards becoming carbon neutral by 2030, has concluded resulting annual carbon dioxide emissions savings of online meetings add up to nearly 37 tonnes – the equivalent of taking about 70 cars off the road.
Nevertheless, it is understood some leading councillors are unhappy with continuing to burden the authority’s chief executive, Richard Flinton, with the responsibility for all decisions, particularly ones that are politically sensitive.
An officer’s report to the executive states it will be up to the executive to make a recommendation to a meeting of the full council in November.
It states: “The county council has a leadership role to play.
“As such, there is a question as to whether, as part of a return to more normal, pre-pandemic ways of living and working, the council should be leading by example and hold committee meetings in person once again.”
The report concludes committee meetings could be held in a Covid-safe way and accommodated in the council chamber at County Hall, with the exception of full authority meetings to which 72 elected members are obliged to attend, and the health scrutiny and planning committees, which can attract significant public interest.
Nevertheless, the issue has come under the spotlight just two weeks after the Government’s Covid-19 Response: Autumn and Winter Plan 2021 was published, which stated if the NHS comes under sustained pressure the government would advise people to work from home.
Upper Dales councillor Yvonne Peacock, who faces a two-hour return trip to attend meetings at County Hall in Northallerton, said online broadcasting of remote meetings had benefited residents in her area.
She said: “It saves taxpayers’ money and has kept everybody safe because we aren’t mixing.
“We know many people are double vaccinated, but the infection rates are still quite high in places, so at this stage I think we would do right to continue as we are.”