‘Informal’ meetings to be held in place of those cancelled ‘will not be broadcast’, reports Simon Allin, Local Democracy Reporter
Opposition councillors have slammed a decision to cancel “non-essential” Enfield Council meetings and hold them “informally” – with members of the press and public apparently unable to attend or watch.
The move, which comes in response to escalating cases of Covid-19, was branded a “disgrace” as Conservatives and an independent councillor raised concerns over scrutiny in the run-up to local elections in May.
Director of law and governance Jeremy Chambers wrote to councillors before Christmas telling them the majority of meetings scheduled for January would be held “informally” and, although they would take place virtually using MS Teams, they would not be broadcast.
His email states that the decision, which was taken in conjunction with chief executive Ian Davis and council leader Nesil Caliskan, comes in response to the “ongoing and increased risk to public health” from rising cases of Covid-19 in the borough. Public meetings of the planning committee and a meeting of the full council are set to go ahead as planned.
Tory leader Joanne Laban, who says she was not consulted over the changes, said she believed that if the planning committee could still be held in person, so could scrutiny panel meetings. She added: “But if they do go online, then the public should have the right to view those meetings.”
Daniel Anderson, an independent councillor and member of the Community First group, branded the move a “disgrace”. He said: “Democracy is dead in Enfield. What gives them the right to make this decision? They have not asked members. We as members […] are deemed to be unessential in our roles.”
Andrew Thorp, a Conservative councillor elected to represent Chase ward last year, posted on Twitter: “Here we are four months before an election and Enfield Council have cancelled TWELVE meetings! All this at a time when scrutiny is more important than ever!”
The email from Jeremy Chambers states that following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the council was left “with little option but to cancel or postpone all non-essential meetings”. From 4th April 2020, local authorities were allowed to hold virtual meetings, but the government legislation that allowed this expired in May last year, and meetings were once again required to be held in person.
The email adds that Enfield Council “has no ability to hold virtual meetings without further primary legislation being passed”. It states that the full council and planning committees will take place in person “insofar as they are required to consider decisions that cannot wait and/or must be taken”. In addition, overview and scrutiny committee meetings will take place “as and when required to consider any call-ins that meet constitutional requirements”.
The number of cancelled meetings, which includes scrutiny panels and cabinet meetings, had risen to 13 by 6th January.
Other councils have taken different approaches to the current situation. On 5th January, neighbouring Barnet Council put out a statement which said: “We are in the process of reviewing the risk assessment, but at present meetings are currently proceeding as planned with Covid controls in place. The press and public will be able to attend as normal but are asked to observe any Covid measures in place at Hendon Town Hall.”
However, Barnet will shortly be undertaking “a review of committee business to determine if any meetings can be cancelled or postponed”.
Enfield Council has been approached for comment and asked why the press and public will apparently be unable to watch live broadcasts of “informal” meetings via MS Teams. It has yet to respond.
A spokesperson for the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “We recognise there will be concerns about the risks of holding face-to-face meetings. It is for councils to apply the Covid-19 guidance and ensure meetings take place safely.
“The government will work closely with councils and representatives to ensure they understand and are aware of the full range of options available to them to minimise risks and concerns.
“We have considered the responses to the call for evidence which closed on 17th June to gather views and inform a longer-term decision about whether to make express provision for councils to meet remotely on a permanent basis and we will be responding shortly.”