DORSET Council has taken the decision to postpone all its committee meetings until central government advice is issued on how to continue democratic services amid the coronavirus outbreak.
In order to keep people safe, all meetings where elected members would make decisions on council business have been suspended in order to comply with Public Health England advice on self-isolation and avoiding office spaces.
As soon as local authorities are provided with further guidance from central government, officers will work to resume vital councillor decision-making functions. This will involve restoring critical groups including (but not limited to) Cabinet, Audit and Governance, Planning and Licensing.
It is anticipated that legislation will be changed so that councils are able to carry out these key functions in a different way than usual.
Currently, elected members are legally required to gather in a room to vote on formal decisions on many aspects of council business. With self-isolation measures in place, this has become difficult without risking the health of councillors but also of officers and members of the public who may wish to attend.
The proposed approach is for both councillors and officers to make use of available technology, such as teleconferencing, in order to virtually conduct the meetings without the need for individuals to all physically be in the same place.
Dorset Council’s ICT team will work closely with councillors in order to ensure everyone has the access they need.
Officers are also working with the leader, Cllr Spencer Flower, to ensure that public scrutiny and participation are maintained in a safe and democratic way.
People will still be able to submit questions at Cabinet for councillors to officially answer, while others can continue to support or object to planning applications, albeit they will not be able to do this verbally in person until isolation measures are lifted.
All committee reports and decisions will still be published online, with detailed minutes available later. The council is also considering publishing full transcripts of the meetings to help preserve the transparency and integrity of democratic processes.
Pending confirmation from central government, it also looks likely that Dorset Council’s annual full council meeting will now take place in September.
Cllr Flower, leader of the council, said: “While democracy is vitally important to local authorities, we have a commitment to the safety of our councillors and officers as well as the general public that we must uphold during this unprecedented time.
“The decision to temporarily postpone these meetings until we receive further guidance is a sensible one that is currently being echoed by councils across the country.
“Changing how we conduct business will enable us to carry out critical functions and adapt to deal with the situation until such time public health guidance measures are relaxed or lifted.
“Dorset Council will work to maintain critical services across Dorset with a focus on ensuring continuity of care, supporting our most vulnerable people and supporting our local economy.
“We will return to business as usual sometime in the future, but for now I have total confidence in our ability to react and cope during this crisis and wish to thank to our councillors, staff, communities and businesses for the way they are responding to COVID 19.”
Lyme Regis Town Council is still expected to go ahead with its Strategy & Finance Committee meeting tonight (Wednesday) when a decision will be made on how to proceed with council business.