Row over change of meeting times at Northumberland County Council

The return of Northumberland’s local area councils have been welcomed – although the earlier start times have been questioned.

Tuesday, 20th October 2020, 4:13 pm
County Hall in Morpeth

Four of the five local area councils (LACs) – covering the North, Castle Morpeth, Tynedale, and Ashington and Blyth – have now met again for the first time since late February or early March. Cramlington, Bedlington and Seaton Valley is the only one not to have reconvened yet.

Introduced after the May 2017 elections, then council leader Peter Jackson said the LACs were about ‘bridging the gap between an autocratic, centralised county council and communities’.

One of their main responsibilities is planning, but in early May, the authority’s chief executive Daljit Lally suspended the powers of the five LACs to deal with applications for six months, due to the difficulties and resources needed to hold virtual meetings, which were then just getting up and running.

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At the Wednesday, September 2, full council meeting, however, members agreed that the powers to determine applications should be ‘reinstated with immediate effect’.

At the Tuesday, October 13, return meeting of the Tynedale LAC, independent Cllr Derek Kennedy – who had twice raised the issue of a lack of local accountability and democracy at full council meetings – welcomed the restart.

And the deputy leader of the opposition Labour group, Cllr Scott Dickinson, a member of the Castle Morpeth LAC, has given a cautious welcome, saying: “It’s vital in any council that local people have the opportunity to have their say about how the council is run and the decisions it makes on behalf of its residents.”

However, he added: “It’s disappointing that the time has been changed from 4pm to 2pm. This time change will make it difficult for councillors, working people and those who need to collect children from school to attend.

“As far as we can see, there really is no excuse to change the time. We will see what happens when the meetings take place and we will be pressing the leader for a return to evening meetings if the new time makes it difficult for people to attend.”

Before the pandemic, the meeting times did vary from month to month and LAC to LAC, with start times ranging from 3pm to 5.30pm. Three of those to take place so far this month were at 2pm, while Tynedale was at 3.30pm.

The council’s business chairman, Cllr Barry Flux said: “Our officers are putting 110% commitment into helping facilitate council meetings on a virtual basis, they should be commended.

“Of course this is new and requires additional tasks compared to a regular non-virtual meeting and availability of officers is a big consideration.

“Members of the public can view meetings at any time that suits and whether live or not, the outcome is identical. Questions can also be submitted and read out by officers at the meeting.

“It must also be noted that this issue was discussed extensively at the LAC chairs meeting covering cross-party opinion, including opposition Labour councillors.”

Council leader Glen Sanderson added: “While the meeting times have been changed temporarily to accommodate revised ways of working due to Covid-19, they will be kept on the website for two weeks once they have been live-streamed, meaning people can watch proceedings from the comfort of their homes at a time to suit them. The timing of these meetings will also be kept under review.

“We know it’s important for people to be able to see democracy in action and this temporary solution will allow this while current restrictions on face-to-face meetings are in place for everyone’s safety.”

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