Thursday’s full council meeting will continue to be a hybrid format, despite the government relaxing rules on indoor gatherings.
During the pandemic, Wokingham Borough Council has organised virtual meetings which have allowed people to tune in from home. Councillors have used Microsoft Teams while the sessions have been on broadcast live on YouTube.
Wokingham.Today understands that some councillors had been pushing to allow the Shute End chamber to be opened to all now that social distancing is coming to an end.
A compromise has reached and there will now be 28 councillors in the chamber – more than in previous meetings – with others will be taking part from home using Teams.
This will be 16 Conservatives, nine Liberal Democrats, two Labour and one independent.
All virtual participants are unable to vote and the numbers in the chamber will be run on quorums.
There had been concerns that if a full in-person meeting was held for all 54 councillors plus council staff and social distancing enforced a venue the size of a football pitch would be needed. This could cost around £10,000 to hire, and even then, some councillors would have stayed away due to health concerns.
Cllr John Halsall, leader of Wokingham Conservatives and the council, said there was a duty of care neeeded for officers and councillors.
“Officers have done a really good job in making these arrangements,” he said.
“I wrote to all members, the government has basically said it’s for employers and organisations to make their own arrangements. The borough council will respect that and err on the side of caution.”
He added: “I can’t see the situation changing quickly, but this gives us some certainty about our meetings.”
Cllr Lindsay Ferris, the leader of Wokingham’s Liberal Democrats, said the decision was a difficult one.
“We’ve got to be careful, but there does come a point when councillors who want to be in the council chamber (should be) in a place where they can attend.
“We’re in a situation where (covid) numbers are growing, but we want to be able to do that (hold meetings open to all).
“There’s the issue between what is safe to do so and the democracy issue of being able to get councillors in the chamber. It’s a balancing act.
“Virtual councillors may be able to ask questions but when it comes to a vote, you can’t.”
And Cllr Rachel Burgess, Wokingham Labour’s leader, felt that online meetings have been a “decent, workable alternative”.
“The Conservative govern-ment is behaving in an utterly irresponsible way in forcing councillors to meet in person when case numbers are soaring,” she said. “In its pursuit of a desired ‘normality’, the government would prefer that we adhere to 50-year old laws that state councillors must meet and vote in person, than continue with online meetings.”
She felt that councils should be able chose how to run their meetings in a covid-safe way.
“Instead, our Council officers have been put in a very difficult position by the government, and have spent needless hours working up solutions to this entirely unnecessary problem, by trying to find large (and therefore expensive) venues for meetings or forcing us to restrict the number of voting members in the chamber.
“Reducing numbers is the only workable answer for the July council meeting – but this restricts our local democracy, in an attempt to keep people safe.”