Councils are changing with the times – so why isn’t the Government?

“Councils could be offered so much better than this raw deal; and we deserve to be able to continue to meet virtually.” Leader of Brighton and Hove City Council Phélim Mac Cafferty explains why councils should not be forced to revert to in-person meetings, despite lockdown restrictions easing.

Phelim Mac Cafferty
Phélim Mac Cafferty

Taking a truly backwards step for local democracy, councils have been told they must go back to in-person meetings, despite adapting to a virtual model for the last year. Exposing how low down council decisions are on the Government’s priority list, this retrograde move was handed down by ministers in in the exact same week the Conservative Government published guidance pushing councils to fly the Union flag from town halls.

Removing the option for virtual meetings has untold consequences too for the fairer and more accountable democracy we have in Brighton and Hove. One of the key commitments of the Greens when we were last running the city council was that we would adopt the committee system. This is a fairer form of decision-making which can only work through multi party buy-in. The committee system stands in stark contrast to the cabinet system, which hands senior councillors the power to make most decisions, away from public meetings. In councils like Liverpool or Croydon, which have been rocked by financial and political scandal, often only one person or a handful of people make the vast majority of the decisions without any public scrutiny or discussion. Cabinet decisions are rubber stamped at brief meetings where there often isn’t even any debate and where opposition councillors – no matter their number – have no say. Through committees, all councillors have a place in decision making – not just a select few – and elected councillors scrutinise decisions as they are made, so it’s healthier for decision-making.

A year ago, under pressure from councils, the express need for local authorities to continue our business through the storms of the pandemic was agreed by ministers. Fast forward to today, and similar to the failure of Whitehall to come good on their promise to ‘do whatever it takes’ for councils and their communities, once again we have risen to the challenge, only to be thrown under the nearest passing bus.

A debate is raging in councils about the meaning of the 1972 Local Government Act, which talks about ‘attendance at meetings’ without stipulating what attendance means. This is legislation from a period when computers as we know them didn’t even exist, never mind operating Teams or Zoom. But as the legislation has never been updated, attendance has never been stipulated. Although our legal advice – like countless other councils – has been that we can’t press on this point.

But there’s something sinister too: that the same Government pressing ahead with plans to centralise more control of the NHS is also seeking to push for such centralised control over councils. The Government made plain its desire about the role it wants local councils to provide in the white paper on NHS reforms. It’s a relationship of subservience that sees councils not able to draw their own decisions on what happens next. It certainly shouldn’t be the whim of ministers. It also reveals that local government legislation rapidly needs updating and that, like countless countries, councils need greater powers over their own decision-making and budgets.

When they are safe to do so, I want meetings in-person once again, mainly because it will represent some welcome return to normality. For me, the atmosphere is flat through screens – and atmosphere is key to democracy and good decision-making. Being called into back-to-back online meetings from 8am to 7pm day after day is probably the fantasy of a programmer, but it won’t make for good decision-making.

This said, assisted virtual meetings have seen people involved in democracy who otherwise would have found travel, meeting times and locations, as well as the pressure of care, a barrier. Many now talk about how even in a world where we return to meetings in person, there is a defined and welcome place in the world for virtual attendance. This will enhance a diversity of ways in which people can engage with, and participate in, decisions made at councils.

My colleagues with reduced hearing praise MS Teams for its captions. We are a council renowned (and long may it stay so) for public involvement in our meetings. Lockdown has seen many more people get involved in decision-making and we even conducted our climate assembly – an exercise wholly reliant on participatory democracy – entirely through Zoom.

The presumption from ministers is clearly that as most councils only elect councillors above a certain age, or have a cabinet system, that this won’t affect their day to day running. Yet councils and councillors have changed with the times. Councillors now often come from communities that don’t resemble the stereotype represented by this government ruling. Today our council chamber looks a hundred miles away from the photographs with tri-corner hats, Elgar moustaches and severe stares that used to haunt the walls of Hove Town Hall. But we’ve also locally adopted bold reports such as that co-produced by the Fawcett Society and Local Government Association which pushes for greater equality for women’s representation and carers through things like the wide adoption of job-share roles.

We continue to celebrate the legal challenge from the Association Of Democratic Services Officers and Lawyers in Local Government, which are rightly concerned about their members: council staff. All eyes are on 21 April: provided the challenge is successful we won’t be in the position of being forced to put our communities, council officials or councillors at needless risk. In a bizarre turn of events, council leaders have been informed that Robert Jenrick, the local government Secretary of State, is supporting the legal action being taken against his own Government. But why are we even in this position?

Only two weeks ago, the Government found time to ensure the punitive, Kafkaesque and dreadful Policing Bill was read. It also made the legislative time to extend Covid-19 laws while at the same time arguing it couldn’t bolt onto this legislation the simple asks councillors have requested with the continuation of virtual meetings.

GDPR training budgets have clearly been pared back at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The same week the guidance was issued, a Ministry mandarin emailed all council leaders in England, placing all of our email addresses in the CC rather than BCC. What followed was an avalanche of emails to the minister. Sometimes sharp, but mostly factual, council leaders argued that councils deserved the laws extended, and the chance to use technology to its best advantage, while also safeguarding public health.  

Even in spite of their treatment, councils have continued to show bold leadership through the pandemic. We have stood up for communities in a way that the bunch of charlatans in Whitehall have long forgotten or never understood. Whether it’s pressing for rapid mobilisation on PPE, designing – from scratch – the reward of grants, planning local economic recovery, distributing food, dealing with outbreaks in care homes, scrambling public health teams to provide analysis – and all while continuing to do the 700 others things or so councils do every day, from sweeping the streets to stacking library shelves. And all after an entire decade of relentless Conservative government cuts.

Drunk and disorderly on the repeated failures of Brexit, the Conservative Government’s approach to councils sadly has put the flying of flags ahead of progress on democracy or the necessary community inclusion and diversity that bring democracy to life. It also masks the absence of any long-term, meaningful funding for councils year on year.

Councils could be offered so much better than this raw deal; and we deserve to be able to continue to meet virtually. It says far too much about the values of this Government that after a year of showing how this can work, we won’t be allowed it.