Sheffield councillors say return to Town Hall meetings is “unnecessary risk” and damages democracy

Sheffield councillors from all political parties have criticised the Government after it said Town Hall meetings must resume in May.

Tuesday, 30th March 2021, 11:33 am

Councillors must return to face to face meetings from May 7 – despite the Government’s own roadmap still having restrictions in place until June 21. Members of the public will still be allowed to ask questions via videolink until June.

All three parties say it’s too soon to go back to meetings and it will damage democracy. If a councillor can’t attend a meeting in person – for example, if they are self isolating – they will not be allowed to vote.

Councillors say online meetings have worked well and increased participation from members of the public. They want face to face meetings to be phased in gradually and for future meetings to be a mix of the council chamber and virtual.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Lib Dem councillor Joe Otten.

Lib Dem councillor Joe Otten said many councillors would not be fully vaccinated and may have just finished shielding or live with vulnerable people.

“I think the government is being bloodyminded here about sending a back to normal message at the cost of gratuitous in person meetings.

“With social distancing rules still applying we can only get 14 people in the council chamber. That’s not enough for a scrutiny or planning committee meeting, never mind full council. Shall we decamp to the English Institute for Sport, or perhaps the amphitheatre above the railway station?

“Virtual meetings have been a great success, and a sensible way forward would be to move to hybrid meetings with some members connecting remotely like Parliament. As it is we won’t even be able to webcast if we can’t use the council chamber.”

Sheffield Town Hall.

Labour councillor Jayne Dunn said she feared whole committees could be quarantined if contact tracing kicked in.

“This is an ill thought out and unnecessary risk. It’s putting not just councillors but also Town Hall staff at risk. How can you make a building like the Town Hall Covid-secure, it’s a rabbit warren.

“We have hundreds of people viewing planning meetings online as they don’t have to give up several hours of their time to come into the Town Hall and I was really excited about having a hybrid system, which would be the way forward.

“Meetings should have been reviewed over summer. I really worry councillors won’t be able to represent their constituents if they can’t attend and the democratic process will actually break down.”

Green councillor Martin Phipps accused Whitehall of “trying to sabotage local government.”

He said: “In the same piece of guidance, the Government tells everyone to work from home but then literally bans them from doing so.

“The future of working from home is going to be critical in the fight against climate change so this is a step backwards from what we have learnt over the pandemic.”

The Government says councils should consider delegating decision making to key individuals, such as senior officers or the Leader, to minimise the number of meetings.