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East Devon council meetings stay on Zoom

Thursday, May 5th, 2022 8:30am

By Joe Ives, local democracy reporter

Zoom continues for East Devon District Council (courtesy: Zoom)

But it has split opinion

East Devon District Council (EDDC) will continue to hold its meetings online following a vote by full council.

It means the current setup, where the council holds virtual meetings over Zoom that reach ‘indicative decisions’ which are then rubber-stamped by the chief executive or senior officers, will continue.

Councillors were divided over whether to carry on with the format or to introduce ‘hybrid’ meetings in which committee members would have to attend in person but the general public and other councillors can watch online.

Implementing this option would have cost around £40,000. Members unable to attend meetings in person would not be able to vote.

But some councillors called for online coverage to be abandoned altogether and to go back to in-person-only meetings.

In the end, the council voted by a majority in favour of the status quo which will see Zoom meetings continue, which are broadcast live over YouTube until at least November.

Speaking before the vote, Councillor Val Ranger (Independent Alliance and Democratic Alliance Group, Newton Poppleford and Harpford) argued that hybrid meetings would mark a return to the rules set up in 1972 and would be “50 years out of date.”

She continued: “It skews the whole voting system and it favours an older demographic of people who are free to attend meetings night and day.”

Cllr Ranger believes the format also favours members who live near the council’s Honiton base. She argued that instead of going hybrid, the council should be lobbying the government to allow councillors to vote remotely, as happened during the pandemic lockdowns.

Councillor Jess Bailey (Independent, West Hill and Aylesbeare) agreed, describing hybrid meetings “as the worst of everything.”

 “I cannot bear the thought of being so restricted,” she said.

“It’s much more difficult for some of us with childcare commitments to go trundling into Blackdown House in a way that we used to.”

Some councillors also pointed to the climate impact and expense, paid for by the council, of members travelling to meetings.

Leader of the Conservative group, Cllr Colin Brown (Dunkeswell and Otterhead) slammed the idea of continuing remote meetings. “The public won’t want their taxpayers’ cash being spent to keep councillors working from home when the vast majority have returned to the office,” he said.

“Local people are starting to think we are somehow superior to them and they increasingly feel distant from their district council.”

Councillor Chris Wright (Independent, Exmouth Littleham) disagreed, saying “We may be on the Jurassic coast but we should not be dinosaurs and we need to move on.”

Councillor Olly Davey (Green Party, Exmouth Town) argued that it was time to embrace virtual meetings, saying: “There is no ‘back to normal.’ It’s the new normal.

“I have absolutely no desire to crowd back into a room with other councillors just because the government couldn’t be bothered to extend the legislation.”

The motion to continue with online meetings passed with 25 councillors in favour and 16 against.

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