Call to change times of South Tyneside Council meetings to help more people to become councillors

Council bosses have agreed a potential overhaul of meeting times to boost public attendance and attract more people to become councillors.

Monday, 2nd March 2020, 4:57 pm
Updated Tuesday, 3rd March 2020, 4:02 pm
South Shields Town Hall

At a recent meeting of South Tyneside Council, opposition councillors secured a debate on the times council committees take place.

Council meetings cover a wide range of topics – from health, finance and planning to regeneration and community issues.

A motion presented to full council on February 27 called for timings to be “fluctuated between standard working hours and non-working hours.”

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The bid aimed to increase attendance for councillors and residents who are in full-time employment or education.

‘Being a councillor should be possible for anyone’

At the meeting, several opposition councillors spoke of their own experiences around attending meetings during standard working hours.

Independent councillor, Keith Roberts, said he finds it difficult due to his work as a HGV driver.

Although legal guidance states employers should support councillors with time off for public duties, fellow independent councillor, John Robertson, said it was not always practical – especially if working for a small firm / self-employed.

Coun Robertson added the motion aimed to “attract more new blood into the chamber.”

Green Party councillor, David Francis, said the motion proposed one step to “make local democracy more accessible to residents and elected members alike.”

He added: “Serving the community as an elected member should not be reserved for people like me whose employer offers generous flexible working arrangements.

“It should not just be for those enjoying retirement, or those who are financially comfortable or whose job is flexible enough to drop days and work part-time, but for any resident who wishes to serve their community and participate fully in local democracy.

“Either as an interested resident or elected member.”

‘Striking a realistic balance’

During debate, lead member for Area Management and Community Safety, Coun Joan Atkinson, proposed an amendment to the motion.

It noted some councillors may have difficulties attending meetings despite legal guidelines that they should have time off for public duties.

The amendment also made reference to council staff availability, the potential financial impact on the council’s budget and how changes may affect the ‘work-life balance’ of employees.

The Labour changes, which were agreed by a vote, also aim to strike a “realistic balance” between standard and non-standard working hours.

The matter will now be referred to the council’s Constitutional Committee for consideration.

The amended motion reads:

The council requests that consideration be given to fluctuate council and committee meetings between standard working hours and non-standard working hours.

Council notes that:

1) Currently the majority of council and committee meetings are held during standard working hours.

2) Whichever time a council or committee meeting is held, members of the public and elected members who are in full time employment or education may have difficulty attending a meeting, despite clear legal guidelines that elected members are entitled to time off from their employment for public service duties.

3) There will be council staff availability issues to take into account and whether arranging meetings outside standard working hours has a financial impact on the council’s budget, in addition we need to consider how any changes may affect the “work-life balance’ of our employees.

4) In seeking to encourage more people to consider serving as councillors it is imperative that a realistic balance is achieved between council and committee meetings being held between standard working hours and non-standard working hours.